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Let’s ask for the Lord’s help one more time.
Our gracious heavenly Father, we are hard of hearing; give us ears to listen. We are slow to perceive; give us minds to understand. We are reluctant to follow; give us wills to obey. We need Your help. We ask for it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to Acts chapter 28. We come to the end of this series we’ve been in for several months, skipping around various parts in the book of Acts, and now we come to the end of the book. You may notice that I am not reading the last two verses; I preached on those two verses back in, I guess, February at our missions conference and sort of tied together, gave a summary of the book of Acts, and so we will be looking at simply verses 1 through 28 this morning. And it is one of those passages you may think, “Well, Pastor, you, you didn’t pick all of the passages. Why did you pick this one, which is sort of a confusing travelogue?”
Well, there’s more than meets the eye here, which we’ll see in just a moment. Now I know that when you get to these places where you see lots of names and places, you’re wanting to go maybe to the map in the back of your Bible, if you have one, that can be helpful, or you just sort of glaze over, but there really is a method to the madness here. And not really related to this sermon, but I was noticing in our call to worship, the glory of Lebanon, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon, three major roads in Charlotte, right there in Isaiah, so I can’t say it’s a prophetic word, but go look it up later, and we live off of Lebanon, so there’s something holy about it, I’m sure.
But we are out of that area and we are into the sea when we follow Paul’s journey here to Rome, beginning at verse 1.
“After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.”
“Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.”
“After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. And when he came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him.”
“After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, ‘Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.’ And they said to him, ‘We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you. But we desire to hear from you what your views are, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.'”
“When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:
‘Go to this people, and say, “You will indeed hear but never understand, you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
“‘Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.'”
There are many ways God uses to get us where he wants us to be, but there is only one message He gives to save us from sin. There are many ways God uses to get us where He wants us to be, but there is only one message He gives us to save us from sin. I wonder if some of us have confused the many and the one in that sentence. There are many ways God uses to get us where He wants us to be. Well, some of us feel as if there is only one way that God can direct our lives, only one possible path that we can be on for things to turn out and so we fear that perhaps I’ve married the wrong person, taken the wrong job, moved into the wrong house, what if I’m not in the absolute center of God’s will?
Perhaps you’re here this morning and you realize your life is not at all what you were expecting, and perhaps you think that you made a wrong turn at Albuquerque somewhere like Bugs Bunny and now you are lost, forever at sea, God has forgotten you, there is no happy ending for you. We think there’s just one little path that I must find and divine for myself and if I get off of it, I am adrift for the rest of life. And so we replace the many with one.
And the other half of the equation is we replace one with many. There is only one message He gives to save us from sin. But too often we think that is the many, there are many ways to be saved. Surely if you are a good person… And what’s the definition of good? Well, not as bad as other people you know. Surely if you’re good, or you’re sincere, if you really have good things at heart.
I may have mentioned before one of my cousins used to say that the seal upon our family crest was “They mean well.” Well, you know, that’s not going to get you into heaven.
Where we are going in this life worries us, where we are going after death doesn’t seem to bother many of us at all. If you were to ask people out in the world what are they more concerned about, what’s coming up in the next month or what’s coming up after they die, if they’re honest it’s the stresses of the month, not the fate of eternity.
There are many ways God uses to get us where He wants us to be, but there is only one message He gives to save us from sin. Those are the two big ideas we see in this passage.
First with Paul’s journey on his way to Rome, we see there are many ways that God used to get Paul exactly where he needed to be, and in the second half of the passage we see there is only one message that can save us from our sins.
So first point, verses 1 through 16: There are many ways God uses to get us where He wants us to be.
Now we skipped from chapter 20 over to chapter 28, and so we missed some important intervening chapters where Paul goes to Jerusalem and then he is attacked there and he appeals all the way up until he can finally make his way to Rome to appeal his charge to Caesar. At the end of chapter 27, there is a shipwreck and he has found his way with the crew to the island of Malta, 58 miles south of Sicily, 180 miles northeast of Africa, the island 18 miles long, 8 miles wide.
We read there the native people in verse 2. These would have been Phoenician people. Luke calls them in the Greek “barbaroi,” which is the Greek word for non-Greek speakers from which we get our word “barbarians.” Sorry for any of you named Barbara, but that’s what the word means.
They spoke Phoenician. They were as a people and so they likely would have spoken the Phoenician dialect called Punic, a Canaanite language spoken in the Carthaginian empire in North Africa and in certain islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps you remember somewhere way back from a Western Civ. class learning about the Punic Wars, a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage in North Africa, so this is that language, Punic. Augustin was the last major writer to have a good knowledge of Punic. It was a Semitic language, that is from the Hebrew people, and so there was some resonance that it would have had with Hebrew and with Aramaic, which is what they would have spoken in Israel, and so perhaps Punic was something like English and Spanish, or maybe it was closer and it was like Italian and Spanish or Dutch and German.
But they come to the island and there is a new language. Perhaps they pieced together a few words, Paul was a smart man. But you notice here, unlike everywhere else that Paul goes on his journeys, we read of him giving some sort of message, some sort of sermon, and there is no record of it here very likely because he did not speak the language, and they didn’t speak his language. The communication that happens must have been pieced together by nonverbal cues, perhaps a few overlapping words, perhaps there was someone on the island who was familiar with Koine Greek, which was the language of the Hellenic world, and even the Roman world now, or someone knew Punic, but whatever it was, they were communicating just barely, which is why Paul does not seem to have given a sermon here.
So there he is on the island, they’re warming themselves, and out of the fire comes a snake, this famous story. It latches onto his hand and they think surely he survived a shipwreck but now Justice, capital J, some sort of divine being, is putting him to death.
I told you before that one of the greatest fears we had in moving to North Carolina were all the snakes. It just, everyone told us it’s the snake capital of the entire cosmos, just crawling. It’s like when Indiana Jones falls there in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s what it is in North Carolina, just snakes all the time. So far, no snake bites in our family. We did have a rabies bite; don’t worry, we got the shots, and now that particular son feels like he’s invincible and he can go out and play with stray animals anywhere. So just give us a call, he can be bit and he’ll be fine. He feels like a superhero.
Well, they thought Paul was some kind of superhero. Immediately they thought he was being punished by Justice, but then when he doesn’t die, they think, “ah, he must be some sort of god.” These were superstitious people. They go on their way and they eventually meet the chief of the island, a man named Publius. Not the man of the grocery store chain we imagine, but a different man. He was the procurator of the island, probably the governor, the man in charge, likely named after the famous Roman aristocrat Publius Valerius Publicola, who helped overthrow the monarchy which marked the beginning of the Roman Republic, and so he was an important figure, this name Publius.
And now, if you remember something from your American history, perhaps you remember learning about the Federalist Papers, look it up later, they’re worth reading. John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, they published these series of articles of the ratification of the Constitution and they often used the pseudonym Publius, not named after this Publius in the Bible, but rather the Publius that he was named after, this famous Roman aristocrat.
Well, this man here, the chief of the island, he shows them great hospitality. Paul in turn heals the father of Publius, he ends up healing many from the island.
And so verse 11, after three months, they set sail in a ship, they’re loaded up with everything they need by the kindness of these new friends, and they are on their way, three months after Malta, probably we are around the time of February A.D. 60. It’s a 210 mile journey from there to Rome. They set sail on another vessel from Alexandria, we read in verse 11. The ship has the twin gods as a figurehead. Who were these gods? Castor and Pollux were their names. They were reputed to be the sons of Zeus. The twin gods were especially popular in Egypt and so this is a ship from Alexandria, that is from Egypt, and so it makes sense that they would have these two popular gods on the head of the ship.
So they set sail and they make their way to Syracuse, not New York, but on the coast of Sicily and there for three days, and then up to Rhegium, which is, if you’re picturing Italy there is sort of on the tip of the boot, and then farther up the coast to Puteoli where he stays with fellow Christians, brothers and sisters for a week, and there he travels, likely by foot, to Rome. He is met by some of the Christians from Rome at these two towns along the way that are outside of Rome, Forum of Appius and Three Taverns, those are the names of the towns.
And so finally, after being delayed by a shipwreck there on the island through the winter, making his way up to Sicily and then to mainland Italy and then all the way up, we finally see him in verse 16, he came into Rome. The journey should have taken five weeks, but it took more than four months, and he finally made it just like he vowed and just like God had promised. This has been the driving narrative really in the last third of the book.
Turn back a few chapters to chapter 19, verse 21: “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.'”
So already in chapter 19 he has in his mind and heart he’s going to go to Jerusalem and his goal is finally to make it to the heart of the empire, to Rome itself.
Look at chapter 23, verse 11: “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about Me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.'”
And then one other passage, chapter 27, verse 24: “He said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul;” this is a vision, “You must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.'”
So even in the midst of the storm at sea, he is reminded again it is fixed. You will make it to Caesar. You will make it to Rome. That has been the driving ambition in Paul’s heart, first constrained to go to Jerusalem, and then ultimately he wants to go and he wants to make it to Rome. 28 chapters, and from chapter 19 to 28, it’s about a lot of things, but it’s about Paul making his way to Rome.
Why was it so critical that Paul went to Rome? Well, a number of reasons. One, that he could have his own trial there. Two, that not only he might be vindicated, but that he might see the vindication of the Christian faith. It’s often hard in the Bible and also in church history. When do God’s people, when should they turn the other cheek? Well, Jesus said that, that’s always good, but when then do we insist on our rights? ‘Cause sometimes in Paul’s journey he seems willing to just take beatings and go on, and other times he’s ready to pound the pavement and say, “Wait a minute, I’m a Roman citizen.”
Well, what’s the difference? Well, the difference is when Paul knows that his vindication is not just for himself, “I want to get out of this jam,” but rather is a vindication of the faith that he professes. Remember, he’s writing this book, Luke is, just like the Gospel of Luke, to a high ranking official, Most Excellent Theophilus, and one of the things Luke wants to show to Theophilus is that the Christian religion, which he’s just embraced or is about to embrace, is one, not some sort of insurrectionist rebellious movement trying to overthrow Rome, and two, it is logical, and three, it has been vindicated.
So Paul wants to make it to Rome not only for his own sake, but much more importantly to show that he is not, that this chief spokesman of the Gospel, is not a criminal, but rather he is testifying what is true.
And then ultimately, most importantly, he wants to go to Rome because he wants to testify to Christ. And he knows that yes, I may be imprisoned, yes, I may have a chain, yes, I don’t know what this appeal will do, but I know that if I can make it there, I can speak at the very heart of the Empire and I can preach this message of Jesus, perhaps even to Caesar himself. That’s why Paul wants to get to Rome.
And think of all, all of the circuitous paths that God used to get Paul to Rome. He was determine to go to Jerusalem, we read in chapter 20. And there in Jerusalem he’s in harm’s way and he’s arrested on trumped up charges against him. He’s almost brutally flogged. He’s later berated by the Sanhedrin. He’s then put in barracks, and then a nephew gets word of the plot to kill him and so then he gets out and is transported to Caesarea in the middle of the night. And then he is able to meet the governor Felix and his scandalous wife Drusilla. And then he’s kept in prison for another two years and then he meets Festus, who tries to get the trial moved back to Jerusalem, but he’s so stubborn, he refuses, which is a good thing because they’re all waiting to kill him back in Jerusalem. Festus doesn’t want to deal with this problem and so he sends him up the chain of command to Herod, who will send you all the way to the top, to Caesar in Rome. And then Paul gets on a boat with a personal prison guard, he runs into storms, he’s blown off course, he’s adrift at sea for two weeks, the boat breaks up, all of them swim, every last one of them, none of them are lost, swim safely to the island of Malta, and there at the island of Malta you’ll meet some very nice people but you’ll get bit by a snake, mistaken for a god, you’ll heal some diseases, you’ll get on board another ship, you’ll meet some new Christians, and finally you make your way to Rome.
God had many ways to get Paul where he needed to be. He used justice and injustice, Jews and Gentiles, Christians and non-Christians. He used the Roman law, He used Paul’s citizenship, He used his nephew, He used a dream, He used a kind centurion, He used some kind native peoples, He used new friends, old friends, and he used his own two little paws to doggy paddle to shore. All of that, God used to get Paul where he needed to be.
Now, we can rehearse all of those facts in about 90 seconds. It didn’t feel like that for Paul when he was in the midst of it. Just like someday people may rehearse the facts of your life, you know, it’ll just go by like that. We’ll all be buried and we’ll have a tombstone and our life will be separated and summarized with a dash. The date that you were born, the date that you died, and a dash.
Of course, it doesn’t feel like a dash when we’re, we’re living it. Maybe you’ll even now, around the holidays, reminisce about some sad or silly or scary times that you were in and you can reminisce about them now because they’re long past and you see how they all turned out, but when you’re in the middle of them, you don’t know. That’s the thing about history: It’s history to us, but when you’re in your own history, you don’t know what the future will hold.
Paul wanted to go to Rome. God had promised you’ll get to Rome and God did not tell him how he was going to get him there. Why didn’t he just get to Rome the easy way? Why did God do it the hard way?
Well, maybe so that people could pray for him. Maybe so Paul could feel weak. Maybe so that 275 other persons on the ship would be saved because Paul had to be saved from storm. Maybe God did it that way because he wanted to save Publius’ family. Ultimately, He did it so that Paul, on every step of that circuitous journey, could bear witness to Christ. That’s the thing you see about Paul, everywhere he goes. The crowd in Jerusalem, I’m going to speak of Christ. Before the Sanhedrin, Christ. Before the tribune, Christ. Before Felix, before Drusilla, before Festus, before Agrippa, before Bernice, before all of the hoi polloi of Judea, before the jailers, before the people on the ship, now in Rome itself and soon before Nero, perhaps… He speaks of Christ.
You ever wonder why God has you where you are. I didn’t think I’d live here, I didn’t think I’d have this job, I didn’t think this… I had all these great plans, I thought this would be… Wherever He has you now, He has people around you who need to know of Christ.
I love this about Paul. No matter where he is, what goes wrong, God’s got a missionary. I wish I were more like this. I wish we were all more like this. “Well, I didn’t want to end up in the hospital, I didn’t want to end up with a flat tire, I didn’t want to end up in this job, but I guess there’s some more people that need to hear about Jesus here.”
And for Paul, he can tell the story, he can tell the adventure, but he’s not so interested in a great story or a great adventure, he’s interested in a great God. That’s what he wants to speak of.
God has many ways to get us exactly where we need to be. He may not reveal to us, He doesn’t usually, like He did to Paul, “you’re going to get to Rome,” but if you’re a Christian you know the destination is better than Rome, you know you’re getting to heaven, He’s told you you’re going to get there, and there’s a whole lot of steps along the way, steps that you would not have planned, steps that you think are way off course, that have nothing with getting you to your final destination, but God knows exactly what He’s doing.
Most of us at some point, when we’re younger, we have a very simple plan and we hope that all those steps work out. Maybe the plan is to go to college, meet someone, get married, and find a job, and start a family, get a better job, and get a better job, and get a better house, and have some grandkids, and maybe a final job, save up some money, retire, see the grandkids, travel around, volunteer at church, get to heaven. Watch football, eat turkey.
Yes, we have our steps, and yet we could tell a thousand stories just in this room of those plans not coming to fruition. You didn’t get married when you wanted to get married or you’re not married at all and you wish you were, or that marriage didn’t work out. Or you though it would be so easy to have kids. Isn’t that what everyone does? But it didn’t work out that way. Those kids that you thought would be so easy to raise ended up being on a different path entirely. Or now your kids and grandkids are somewhere far off, or worse yet, they’re far from the Lord. Or you became a widow or a widower at a much earlier age than you would have liked. Or the job that you dreamed of never panned out, or the house that you wanted never materialized.
And yet, do you believe that God has a plan to get you to Rome? Better than Rome. To get you to your final destination?
Now that could make you fearful, unless you remember that the God who is in charge of your life is not a capricious tyrant, but He is your heavenly Father. And then it should make us confident. God has so many ways to get you where He wants you to be, and none of them are by accident. And along the way, whether it’s like Paul’s shipwreck and prison, or whether you feel like right now your life is going from strength to strength, God has you here for a reason. He has you in this spot for a reason. He has you in a shipwreck for a reason. And He has many ways. He’s not lost track of you, even if you have lost track of Him. There are many ways God has to get us where we need to be.
And then in the second half of this passage, we see the other side of the equation. There’s only one message He gives to save us from sin. Many ways to get us where we need to be in this life, only one message that gets us saved in the next.
So in verse 17, “After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews.” Things start out well enough. This is his usual pattern when he’s in a place and he can speak the language, he’ll start with the Jews. It’s a good strategy contextually as they’re an open door, it’s also theologically the Gospel for the Jews, then for the Gentiles. One ancient source says there were at least 11 synagogues there in Rome, there might have been quite a Jewish population.
He calls them together, “Brothers,” brothers here not in a spiritual theological sense perhaps, but because he still considers himself, he is a part of the Jewish family, they are his brothers in the flesh, and he begins to make his defense. He says, “I was delivered up without evidence. It’s been determined that I was innocent numerous times, but many of the Jews objected and I was forced to appeal to Caesar, even though there is no real legitimate charge against me.”
And he makes his central defense with this language. He says, “I am here because of my hope.”
Now what does he mean by that? He says, “It is my hope.”
Now elsewhere in chapter 26 he speaks of the hope of the resurrection, surely that’s part of it. It’s also the hope of the restoration of Israel. His hope in the raising up of Jesus Christ. He says, “That’s ultimately why I’m here. The charges have been trumped up. I’ve been vindicated numerous times, but ultimately I am here because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead and in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And they say, “Well, we don’t have any letters against you. We’ve not been warned about you. We don’t know quite what to think about you, but this sect, this Way, this Christos person, we’ve heard of this group, they’re hated by everyone around here, and so we’d love to hear you speak more about the topic.”
And so Paul did what he always does. He’s ready to speak. He’s ready to persuade, to try to convince. He says come over.
And so they do. Verse 23: “They had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God, trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law and from the Prophets.”
Now notice, when he comes together with this crowd, he doesn’t talk about his situation. Maybe he makes personal reference, we don’t have any indication of it here. He could have regaled them with amazing stories. “So glad you’re here. Let me tell you what God has done. He’s saved me from the storm, and from the snakebite, and I was beaten and I was stoned and I was shipwrecked.”
But Paul’s not there to tell of his great missionary travels. He’s not there to amaze them with the story of his life. He has no problem talking about his life, he does that elsewhere, about his conversion on the road to Damascus, but only in so far as it points to Christ.
And so he gives this sermon which he’s probably given a hundred times. He retraces history, he looks at promises, the prophets to come, the resurrection, forgiveness of sins, faith and repentance. He speaks to them of Jesus. That’s what he does.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Is this the basic gist of our mission? If nothing else, let’s be very simple, when we think of what are we sending out with our missionaries, what are we spending our missionary dollars on, surely I hope it is sending people out who are telling other people about Jesus. If that’s ultimately what the missionaries are not doing, they may be doing very good things, but that’s the work we’re engaged in, to mobilize, to send, that people may go and tell others about Jesus.
And really, it’s that simple and that scary with all of us, with family, friends, coworkers, fellow students. You’re telling them, not ultimately about church, though you may invite them to church, that’s good. You’re not trying to ultimately convince them that your church is the best church. You’re not trying to start off by convincing them about marriage or sex. You’re not evangelizing the sin, you’re evangelizing people. Evangelizing sinners. So you don’t have to start with marriage, you don’t have to start with church, you don’t have to start with Fox News, you don’t have to start with Chick-fil-A. You start with Jesus.
Now it may take a while for your conversation to get there and to build up trust, but as Paul does when he finally gets an opportunity to speak, what is he going to speak of? Not his great story or his travails or his travels, but his Savior.
And what’s the worst that can happen? Well, Paul’s getting about the worst that can happen.
What’s the worst that most of us will face? “That’s stupid, that’s silly, don’t shove your religion down my throat, why are you so intolerant.”
Paul had the same sort of responses. You see verse 24: “Some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.”
You can almost guarantee that wherever the Gospel goes, that’s going to be the result. Some people are going to say, “Good news.” Whole bunch of other people, “That’s crazy.”
Some believed, some didn’t.
Don’t be discouraged. I’m tempted to be discouraged as a pastor. Why aren’t more people coming? Why aren’t more people being saved? Why isn’t this bigger or better?
You can be tempted to discouragement in sharing your faith. The great Apostle Paul had, wherever he went, all sorts of people disbelieve in the Gospel he preached.
I remember one time in my last church we were planning a conference and invited a famous speaker in, famous pastor/scholar, D. A. Carson, you’ve read his books. I was so excited to have him come in and do our conference. We made a big deal and we advertised on campus and we tried to get all sorts of people to come. It was the first year we were starting this conference. It grew a little bit after that, but at first we had about 125 people. I was so embarrassed. I’ve read your books, you’re brilliant, you’re going to come, this is going to be amazing, and I’ll never forget what he said, when I was apologizing over myself and he said very humbly, he said, “You know what, Kevin? Wherever I go to speak in the world, there are close to 7 billion people who never show up. [laughter] It’s fine.” I’ll never forget that, great humble remark.
You now what? Whenever you share the Gospel, there are going to be a whole lot of people who say “been there, done that, not interested,” or worse.
But some, some might believe. And for some it might be that little pebble in their shoe. You know, you’re walking down the road and you get that little pebble in your shoe and you try to forget about it and you say, “I’ll just keep walking,” and you try to shake it out and you think, “No, this is going to go away,” and finally after a mile, you know, “this is driving me crazy,” you get down, you take off your shoe, and you find that little pebble. That may be your sharing of the Gospel. That little pebble in the shoe. And they kept walking and you didn’t think they thought anything of it, until some days later, or weeks later, or months or years later, they finally said, “You know what? I can’t stop thinking about that. I’ve got to stop and find out what is this pebble he put in my shoe.”
He spoke of Jesus. Some believed, some didn’t. They depart from him, verse 25, when Paul made this one statement. Paul, why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone? Why did you have to go to this whole bit about the Holy Spirit is right in saying through Isaiah you’re going to see but never see and hear but never understand and you’re dull and you’re cold and you’re eyes are blind. Why go there, Paul? You’re just making people upset.
Well, if you know your New Testament, you know that this quotation from Isaiah is one of the most important texts for the early church. It’s quoted in Matthew 13 and Mark 4 and Luke 8 and John 12, so Jesus thought it was a pretty important text. And Paul had good reason to mention this text yet again. This was the explanation why are people who have every reason to get it, not getting it.
Now for them it was the Jews, perhaps for us it’s Southern churchgoers. Maybe like some of the people in your family. Maybe like some of the people here this morning. They hear it, they hear it, they hear it, they hear it… They never get it. See it, see it, see it… Eyes are blind. They don’t really see it.
Paul provides the bridge, but then he wants to make sure they’re really on the same bridge. And so it’s quite fitting that he would end this message, though they did not like it, that he would say to them with Isaiah, “You will hear but never understand, you will see but you will never perceive.”
And it’s a word that God would have for you, as well. Is it possible, we round the corner from Thanksgiving now firmly into the Christmas season, all of the busyness, all of the rest, but all of the nostalgia and all of the songs. Is it possible that some of you, or some loved ones in your life, are just a little bit too much like these last verses? Oh, they know the hymns, they know the Christmas story, they can recite it just like Linus can. They’re listening, but they’re not hearing. They’re seeing, but they’re not perceiving.
Kids, children, you’re listening… We don’t what this to be you. Grow up in the church, hear all the songs, get all the Sunday school answers, hear all the Bible studies, hearing, hearing, hearing, seeing, seeing, seeing, but you’re never really listening, never really perceiving. It’s just words, it’s just tradition, it’s just nostalgia. God needs to get a hold of your heart. There are, no doubt in a room this size, dozens, scores, hundreds, who knows, people who have heard all the right things, some for years, but they have never really listened, never really perceived.
So what’s the difference between just hearing noises and actually listening to the Spirit? What’s the difference? How do you know if you’re here this morning hearing or listening? Seeing or really perceiving?
Well, I think it’s very simple. It’s really just two things. Do you know that you’re a sinner? I mean, really a sinner. Not a theoretical category – there are people who are sinners, I’m a person, therefore I’m a sinner. No, really, you, me, you are a sinner. Personally, explicitly, specifically, you have sinned against God and against others and God has a right to be angry with you. Do you know that? Do you feel that? Do you really believe that about yourself? Not as just an article of faith that you signed off on, but really, you are a sinner.
And then the second thing: Do you really believe that Jesus is a Savior? Not just a, not just someone to help you get your life in order, get your chores done, get your kids moral, get your job better, help you feel good, but a Savior for sinners like you? Not just a savior, but your Savior, you’re only hope, you’re only comfort, the only way.
John Newton famously said at the end of his life, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
Remember that, know that, see it and perceive it, for that is the difference this Christmas season and every season between just hearing and really listening.
Let’s pray. Gracious heavenly Father, we pray that You would work by Your Word, the Spirit, so that we would not be those are hearers only. Make us doers. Make us those who really get it. Save us, O Lord, we are sinners in need of a Savior. And we pray as we come as Your people to this table that You would feed us, You would nourish us, You would strengthen us, and You would give us the hope of eternal life. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.