Paul’s Faithfulness and Courage
Paul and Luke left Troas and journeyed the short distance south to the port of Assos, on the northern coast of what we call Turkey. They then went on a mini Aegean Cruise, taking in the islands of Mitylene, Kios and Samos before passing Ephesus and reaching Miletus. Paul would be visiting the Christian congregations in these places. He was in a hurry. He wanted to get back to Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. This was the celebration of the passing of fifty days from the beginning of Passover. It marked the completion of the barley harvest. It was a holiday and Jewish males were required to appear at the Temple. There were animal sacrifices of sin offerings and peace offerings. Loaves of bread were waved in the air by the priests. It was a celebration of thanksgiving to God. Paul had been on the road for years as a Christian missionary and apostle and he wanted to see Jerusalem again.
He sent word to the Church at Ephesus asking the elders there to come and see him before he left. Why did he not visit them? Perhaps so as not to stir up another fracas and become delayed in his travels. Perhaps because he did not want to remain in that area in spite of its missionary opportunities. There was another reason he called the elders from Ephesus. He told them solemnly that it was possible that they would not see him again. He was aware enough that by going to Jerusalem he was risking his life. There was no certainty of survival once it was known that the arch turncoat and traitorous Jew turned Christian was back in Jerusalem.
Today we know that if a Muslim becomes a Christian, then that person’s life can be at risk. To choose to become an infidel, a non-believer (that is - in Mohammad) can be a crime punishable by death. Leaving Orthodox Judaism for Christianity carries family and social disapproval and even abandonment but it does not carry the death penalty. Departing Christianity for Islam or Buddhism is not uncommon and though it may cause disappointment for families and friends, it carries no threat to life or limb. We are used to seeing TV pictures of western people becoming Muslims. There is very little evidence of significant Muslim conversions to Christianity. But according to some evangelical societies, there are mass conversions often driven by the very atrocities that are meant to discourage people from changing their faith. There are more than 500 Christian missionaries to Muslims working in dangerous circumstances in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In India the conversion rate to Christianity is above 10,000 per year. In Iraq thousands of Muslims have converted to Christianity since the end of the war there. More than 20 new Churches have opened in Baghdad. One million Bibles have been shipped to Iraq during the last 10 years and dozens of large churches are flourishing in Kurdistan. Thousands of Christian converts can be found in Morocco, Somalia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Maldives. In Egypt, The Bible Society there has seen demand for films about Jesus and for Arabic New Testaments rise from a few thousands to over half a million. In a cave outside Cairo there is a mega Church with 10,000 people attending. In Afghanistan the number of Christians has risen from 17 to over 10,000 in the last 12 years. Dozens of baptisms take place every week. In Iran the number of Christians has risen from 500 in 1979 to over one million today mostly meeting in underground churches. In the Sudan in spite of radical Islamic genocide of more than 200,000 souls, Christians number more than 5 million. One local evangelical leader has said, 'People have seen real Islam and they want Jesus instead'. Even in Saudi Arabia, there are significant numbers of converts from Islam to Christianity. This is happening largely through people being touched by the Holy Spirit and then seeking out help to understand and learn about Christianity. They then form congregations and read the Bible. Most however do this secretly or at least without drawing too much public attention to themselves. The proud Islamic claim of eventual absolute victory is being undermined by the same kind of Christian expansion that occurred in the first three centuries of the Church’s existence in the ancient Roman world.
Paul was a much hated and reviled Jew who had converted to Christianity. Yet, here he was determining to return to Jerusalem, taking his life in his hands. He met the elders from Ephesus and spoke very seriously to them. He reminded them of his authentic ministry among them. He had been a servant not a boss. He had prayed for them and wept for their conversions. Jews had tried to kill him. Paul had preached openly and consistently to Jews and gentiles alike, calling them to turn to God in repentance and to have faith in our Lord Jesus. He told them that he was compelled by the Holy Spirit to go back to Jerusalem, even though the same Holy Spirit warned him of danger and imprisonment. Sooner or later, Paul knew that he would give up his life for Jesus Christ. Not if but when. His desire was to see his calling through to the end, whatever and wherever. He wanted to complete the race of the life of faith, he wanted to emulate Jesus who accomplished his mission, Paul wanted to die testifying to the Gospel of God’s grace.
Paul had nightmares about all the newly converted Christians, the new church congregations and those left in leadership positions within them. Would they remain faithful? He had his doubts. So he reminded these elders from Ephesus that they needed to be watchful, consistent and caring if the Christian Church there was to survive and prosper. He particularly feared the infiltration of Jews into Christian congregations to undermine the Gospel of grace and turn back Jewish converts to Judaism, causing doubt among gentile converts at the same time. He would not be there to defend and protect them and it caused him sleepless nights. False teaching inside the Church was a greater danger than outright hostility from the Romans.
Members of the Church of Scotland today have a wide range of opinions on many subjects. Some of these are contradictory. The Church of Scotland disapproves of gambling but accepts Lottery money for buildings and projects. The Church of Scotland upholds Christian marriage but may allow individual congregations to have ministers in civil partnerships. Groucho Marx said, 'These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others'. Strictly speaking, Christian baptism is for Christians only. But we baptise outside this discipline. Why? Jesus commanded his disciples to baptise and to go all over the world doing so. Baptism is a saving sacrament of the Church with an eternal purpose. Christianity is a missionary movement. It is our calling to share our knowledge of Jesus with others. Baptism is at the heart of Christian evangelism. Baptist and Brethren Churches do not baptise out with the discipline of their Churches. Roman Catholic Churches hold cultural identification as the basis for baptism as well as fully professing and attending faithfulness. We do cultural baptism here also. It is important that people are baptised Protestants if that is what they wish for themselves or their children. That is not bigotry. It is acknowledging a family connection - a lineage with Christianity however feeble or tenuous. It is an affirmation of latent faith and values at the least and something very important to most parents who come here on these occasions. But baptism is into Jesus Christ above all else - an eternal spiritual transaction far above cultural identity.
Paul was a strict Christian leader but he worked in a very fluid situation. We ministers are often surprised and disappointed by the shallow understanding of many who attend churches throughout their lives. I remember a colleague of mine saying he was talking to a faithful member and among that member’s observations on attending Church were, ‘Personally I think it brings you luck’. ‘I like the prayers - I always pray for Rangers to win the league’. My friend wondered what he had been doing preaching there throughout the years.
Paul reminded the elders of Ephesus that he had been a true apostle. There were frauds and charlatans in those days just as there are today. There were lazy and half-committed evangelists then as now. Paul was not in it for the money or the glory. He was a genuine believer. He had worked hard for them and he wanted them to remember that he had always had their best interests at heart. His lecture over, he and they knelt down on the ground together to pray. That would be a Holy Spirit filled time of prayer and it is unlikely that it was just for a few minutes. Then they said their goodbyes. It was an emotional time. Grown men wept. They hugged each other (not being Presbyterians). They were hurting because Paul had told them that they would never see him again. For all his fiesty character, Paul had a heart of gold. They loved him. He had introduced them to Jesus Christ. He had brought them salvation. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were glad and thankful to have become Christians. They walked down to the ship with Paul. Some of his last words were, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’.
What impression do we make on others? Do people identify us with Jesus Christ? Will our last words be those of faith and hope and confidence and confession of Jesus Christ? They will be if he has been within our hearts and souls and lives over the years. He is worth the serving, worth the confessing. He is the Saviour of the world. You just need to fairly compare Jesus with anyone or anything else to see how He stands up. So grasp the Gospel of grace with both hands and hold it always. Consider well moving from the sidelines of Christianity into its heart and soul. Think about making it a life event. Become a Christian. A real one, not a pretend one. The Risen Jesus needs men and women in Scotland today to carry on the flame of faith. Will you be one?