Tell Me the Old, Old Story!

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As Adolph Hitler rose to power in the late 1920’s, he thought to take over the German church and dictate a national religion. It seemed a perfect plan till he hit a major roadblock: Christmas.!

He could make cultural attempts to strip Christmas of its meaning by outlawing traditional observances in the public square, but he could not stop Christmas!

“This is that which is written, the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. Whoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken, but on whoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.” – Luke 20:17-18

The German people had faithfully observed Christmas celebrations for centuries, and the march of tyranny stumbled when it came to the influence of one small Baby who grew to become the Man, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

 

Hitler’s scheme failed as so many others before him and after him for one simple reason: you can’t spell Christmas without Christ.

 

The Christmas story is alive and real

I won’t spend a lot of time and effort demonizing the creeping secularists who want a holiday without the element of religion. But I do feel sorry for them, since the element of religion is the only reason we have the holiday.

Christmas is a unique and opportune time of year because it is a Christian holiday that has also become a major secular holiday (arguably, our culture’s biggest). This results in two different celebrations, each observed by millions of people at the very same time.

As the two coexist, we each feel the intrusion of the one upon the other, a situation which doesn’t promise to be resolved anytime soon. It’s like two parallel universes on a yearly collision course. But during the two weeks or so that these two worlds approach each other so closely, and seem almost in sync, people tend to be more open to receive a supernatural deposit. This gives us the opportunity to engage people with the message of the Gospel and the real meaning of Christmas.

Yes, once again, we can tell the story! And this has been my approach for quite some time.

As I sat on the platform a few years back listening to announcements for Christmas activities, suddenly, the Holy Spirit whispered in my heart: You need to tell the story. There’s power in simply telling the story!

I made some quick notes, adjusting my focus. Since that time, I’ve made it my aim at Christmas not only to preach sermons, but to have a special night to tell the timeless story of Christ’s birth in reading, dramatization, and song.

This year our annual Christmas Reading happens to fall on Christmas Eve.

Joe McKeever gave some sage advice when he wrote, “Just tell the story. Tell the story with faithfulness and respect. Tell it accurately and fully, bringing in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, drawing from the prophecies of old. Tell it with gusto and love. Tell the story of the birth of Jesus with all the excitement of someone hearing it for the first time. Tell the story without detouring into theories and guesses and myths and controversies. Your Christmas sermon is no time for conjecture. Stay on the subject, pastor, don’t waste your time. Your Christmas sermon should not waste everyone’s valuable time on the pagan origins of Christmas or the history of Augustus’ census, unless you’ve found something worthwhile, pastor. Stay on the subject. Tell the story with imagination and appreciation.”

 

Christmas is part of a much larger story

A meta-story is a story about a story. It encompasses and explains other little stories that come together to make the larger scale story into a whole.

The power and fruitfulness of the Christmas story comes from the fact that it plays a crucial part in a much larger narrative of God’s His-tory of rescue and redemption. This is the meta-narrative of the Christian story.

The Bible is not simply a book of religious instruction. It is God’s self-revelation; it gives us God’s meta-story of how, where, and why things fit into a larger whole.

The Bible is the story of reality: How the world began, how it ends, and everything important that happens in between. Not “your truth” or “my truth,” but THE TRUTH, God’s truth.

Children are experts at the question, Why? Why is the sky blue, Mommy? Why does the egg hatch, Daddy? As we get older, our Whys target the deeper heart of things.

Why am I here? Why is anything here? How did things get into such a mess? How can we fix it? What is truly important? And at Christmas time, What Child is This?

Christmas is all about the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

God initiated His rescue plan for man who is horribly broken in a world gone terribly wrong, by sending us the God-man, Jesus. Bible prophecy foretold that the “seed of the woman” – a genuine human being like ourselves – must do battle with the snake (Genesis 3:14,15).

It was essential that our Rescuer share our essential humanity in every way.

Though conceived by a miracle, Jesus entered the world through labor and pain, just like you and me. All that we experience, all that we desire, all that we dream; all that discourages us, all that delights us, all that disappoints us; all our hungers and hopes and distresses – all these were experienced by Jesus. He is like us. He is one of us.

But the companion truth is that Jesus said things that no mere man is able to say.

He said, for example, that He existed before He was born; that He has power to forgive sin; that the honor due the Father is due also to Him; and that the final judgment falls to Him: it is His lot.

He says that He is drink for the thirsty and bread for the hungry, so they will never thirst or hunger again. He says that those who trust in Him will live, even if they die.

The Temple guards were sent to arrest Jesus and they returned empty-handed.

“Why didn’t you bring him in?!” demanded the power brokers of the time.

"We have never heard anyone speak like this!" was all they could say.

Jesus Himself posed the pivotal question to His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” said their spokesman, Peter.

Bingo! Revelation!

Of all the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth, John’s is the most majestic, the most transcendent, the most far-reaching in its scope and theme:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

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He continues in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

“This, I think, is the greatest line in the Story, writes Gregory Koukl. “Making the world from nothing was a stunning work of wonder, to be sure. God becoming one of us, however, walking with us, being near us – knowing human joy, sharing human sorrow – is beyond wonderful. It is sublime. Our God has not remained remote and unapproachable, he has come to us in person. He did not just write us a letter. He did not just send us a representative. He did not just speak his laws from a mountain top. He came to us as one of us. The Infinite became an infant. This great event, God’s arrival on earth, reveals to us the heart of God so that the world and life itself is forever different.”

This, beloved, is what sets Christianity apart from all other world religions.

When Richard Nixon was president he said that the greatest moment in human history was when man walked on the moon. Evangelist Billy Graham said, “No, the greatest moment in history was not when man walked on the moon, but when God walked on the earth.”

The greatest moment in history was not when man walked on the moon, but when God walked on the earth.

This was Jesus, our Emmanuel, God with us.

I encourage you this Christmas season to engage in a very edifying and mind-expanding exercise: the attempt to grasp a bit of what I like to call the dimensions of the Christmas story.

The breadth, the length, the height, and the depth of God’s love and His grand plan, as explained in The Message rendition of Ephesians 3:14-20:

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My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth.  I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit — not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength —  that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.  God can do anything, you know — far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working     within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”

I love the starting-place of this passage, which explains the position of true understanding: “My response is to get down on my knees before the Father.”

We love to think that we human beings can figure things out logically, but real comprehension comes from that place of humility and worship before God. Paul’s prayer for us is specific: “that you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love.”


1) “Reach out and experience the breadth!”

A phrase frequently found in the Bible is, “the ends of the earth.” Whether in reference to people’s needs, their worship, or God’s dominion, His salvation carries this breadth. “He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Psalm 98:3). This is why it’s perfectly fitting to hear this song before the throne of God: "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Oh, there’s such a breadth here! Christmas did not initiate some exclusionary “holy club,” but the Good News that reaches out to all men everywhere!


2) “Test its length!”

I love the old worship song by Andrae Crouch that says of Jesus’ Blood that It reaches to the highest mountain; and it flows to the lowest valley. There’s an incredible length or reach here. If we want to examine this length in a timeline, we can go back to eternity past (1 Peter 1:20) when “God chose Him as your ransom long before the world began.” Then, go and attempt to measure the immeasurable, as it says in Isaiah 9:7: “Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”  Can you see? There’s a length here that goes on and on and on.


3) “Plumb the depths!” 

Now you’re getting to the heart of Christ’s amazing condescension, as He lowered Himself, down and down. Gregory Koukl again summed up Christ’s great condescension in Philippians 2:5-8: “The Story is saying this: Even though the Son never ceased being God, still he surrendered his divine rights. He laid them aside. He let them go. Like a king who – out of love – removed his crown, set aside his scepter, took off his royal robes, donned the garb of a common beggar, and lived among the poorest of his subjects. Never ceasing to be king, he got low – so low he willingly died the death of a despised criminal–all to serve his own.” Here is the answer to the questions posed by the Christmas carol, What Child Is This? It powerfully reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas. On June 5, 1978, a seven-year old boy named Martin Turgeon slipped off a wharf and fell into the Prairie River in Canada. At least a dozen adults saw him struggle for a few moments before he sank and drowned. Why didn’t anyone dive in to save him? As it turns out, just upstream, a plant used to dump raw sewage into the river. The water was dirty – dangerous to your health. So, nobody jumped in to save Martin Turgeon. I am so glad that our God did not take this attitude! Our radical, righteous and amazing God personally jumped into the putrid waters: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel - God with us."  It’s crazy, over-the-top love! The God of the Bible - the God of Christmas - is much better than we could ever imagine! It is this “with us” God that makes Christmas so astonishing! The living God was funneled into the womb of a virgin named Mary, in order to plunge into the mess and shame of our lives to bring us forgiveness of sins, and the promise of a new and rescued (saved) life!


4) “Rise to the heights!”

Here is the very thing that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds on Bethlehem’s starry night. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased" (Luke 2:13,14). The glory of Christ’s love is that it can reach down and touch us in the lowest hell, and it can lift us up to “the highest heaven.”

It’s only as we take in these remarkable and extravagant dimensions that we can “live full lives, full in the fullness of God.” This is not a God throwing His weight around, pushing us against our will. It is, rather, the work of God’s Holy Spirit, like the wind, moving in and through our hearts.

 

Falling in love

Now you see why my strategy at Christmas time is to tell the Story! As Mark Buchanan says, “There’s no story like it: God among us, but not in any way anyone could ever guess. There is more drama here than in the entire corpus of Shakespeare. Every word of it is charged with power, crackling with drama, brimming with portent. A virgin with child. Travail in a stable. Smelly, grubby shepherds running through the night just to catch a glimpse. And then later, pagan seekers and a treacherous ruler. Could this old, old story ever get stale? To tell it again and again – with thoughtfulness, with care, with attentiveness, with fresh conviction – is not a burden. That you get to do it at all is sheer grace.”

We don’t have to come up with some new twist, some modern gimmick. All I need to do is to fall in love, again and again, with the old, old story. “It turns out, I don’t need to make the story, any of it, snazzier, sexier, funkier, Buchanan says. “I just need to recapture its aliveness and realness. I don’t need to make it more relevant or interesting. I just have to let it dwell richly within me, and to dwell richly in it, and then bear witness to what I have seen and heard and touched.”

The words of the old hymn by Kate Hankey resonate:
 

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above;

Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story simply, as to a little child;

For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

Tell me the old, old story. Tell me the old, old story,

Tell me the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
 

One of the longest-standing and successful TV shows is 60 Minutes. When creator-producer Don Hewett was asked the secret of its success with viewers, his answer was both simple and direct: “Tell them a story!” That’s what we all get to do at Christmas time.

It was probably my junior year in high school when I sat down with my neighbor’s twin boys to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told. I wasn’t a Christian then. I was not at all well versed in Bible teaching. But I remember to this day how deeply moved I was by the images on the TV screen that depicted the life of Christ. It impacted something deep within me, and, well… here I am. Fifty years later, and I’m still enthralled with The Greatest Story Ever Told. The story of God’s love. The best stories are like that. We simply can’t get enough of them.

So, play it again!

I’VE GOT A WORD FOR YOU!

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I think the time is right to bring this up. I just participated in our two back-to-back summer Bible conferences – the first in our own congregation and the second in our mother church. For me, they were both glad and glorious times, and during each I experienced “manifestations of the Spirit” in the realm of the vocal gifts.

In the wake of this, while an awkward undertaking, it seems unfair not to shine some light on some things, or to ignore them outright.

It’s like dilemma of telling someone his zipper’s down. Do I remain silent, or do I bring it to his attention and bring both of us some relief? I vote for the latter, but in this case, a better directive still is found in 1 Corinthians 14:39,40: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.”

My particular area of interest involves the vocal gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1Cor.12:10). A reading of the Book of Acts reveals these as premier Pentecostal promises and distinctives: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17,18, italics mine).

Paul devotes the entire 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians to delivering a clear, strong, and positive affirmation for the church to operate in these gifts: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (v.1); “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (v.12). He concludes the chapter with verse 39: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”

By now, you may sense that I am not a cessationist; that is, I do not embrace the teaching that all these gifts and manifestations passed away with the apostles or with the canonization of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit doesn’t waste time teasing us with what was on the menu back then that He doesn’t offer to us today. Peter’s Pentecostal parameters in Acts 2:39 clearly spell out that this gift is here to stay: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."

Over the last twenty years or so we’ve seen the trend or resurgence of what’s been called the “Apostolic” or “Prophetic Movement.” One of the distinctive features has been the gift of prophecy, and specifically, personal prophecy – a prophecy or “word” of the Holy Spirit for you as an individual. Many of you reading this have your own personal story about personal prophecy or prophecies you have received. These run the gamut from the helpful to the humorous to the hasty and even the hurtful.

How do we discern between the authentic and the counterfeit?

One itinerant prophet was dubbed “the mailman” because if any questioned the prophecy, his ready response was, “Hey, I’m just delivering the mail, that’s all.” Some of these might have done well to be marked: Return to Sender. Another evangelist who enjoyed the label “prophet” took delight in relating stories of people who had died or suffered various calamities after less than a wholehearted acceptance of his word. Well, after we sent him packing after that service, I am happy to report that we are still alive and well to tell about it!

This brings some legitimate questions to the surface. What are we to do with personal prophecy? What should our response be? How can we know if God is really speaking? How do we discern between the authentic and the counterfeit? I was asked similar questions recently; hence this blog post.

About ten years ago, a sister from our congregation was at McDonald’s, where she fell into conversation with another Christian woman. After a while she told the sister from our church, “I don’t know him, but I want to give your pastor a ‘word.’ Tell him to go ahead and expand, buy more land, etc.” Then she added, “He’ll know what it’s about when you tell him.”

Really?  Well, here I am a decade later, and I’m not sure at all what she was talking about. In light of these things, I think a good place to begin is with a recognition.

 

The Bittersweet Gift

I use the word “bittersweet,” because while this gift carries great potential for blessing, it also has the potential to be misunderstood and mishandled. Pastor Jack Hayford summarized it like this:

“There is nothing more desirable to the pursuit of a life lived in the fullness of the Spirit than ‘prophecies’----and neither is there anything less reliable. The paradox of that statement presses a dual responsibility upon each of us who lead among the Savior’s flock.  It reflects both (1) a New Testament value that is too often denigrated; and (2) a realistic warning that is too seldom applied.”

The simplest definition of prophecy is it is inspired utterance. It is God speaking supernaturally to and through men by the Holy Spirit. When it comes to vocal gifts, we need to recognize that it is a beneficial but limited gift.

There is a powerful text that serves as a biblical backdrop for the operation of this gift, and we find it in Acts 21:7-14. Here we find Paul as a guest at Philip’s house in Caesarea, and we see that Philip had “four virgin (unmarried) daughters who prophesied.” We are also introduced to “a prophet named Agabus” whose illustrated sermon was introduced with the words, “thus says the Holy Ghost” (v. 10-11). So, in the same setting, side-by-side, is the distinction between the designated “office” of a prophet found in Ephesians 4:11, and the operation of the “gift of prophecy” which is open to all.

I’ve always been impressed by 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, which is part of a series of rapid-fire exhortations about the Christian life. It simply says, “despise not prophesyings.” Why would the Apostle Paul have to issue this encouraging warning? He wouldn’t say “don’t despise the operation of this gift” if there weren’t things associated with it that could provoke that response. The truth is that the operation of this gift can be flavored or tainted by either the flesh or the devil, or by our own imagination (can you say Y2K prophecies of unfulfilled chaos?) Then there’s what I call “dueling prophecies” where 2-3 people at once try to bring a message in tongues, and the battle goes to the one with the greatest lung power and strongest will. Many “interpretations of tongues” are a vague repackaging of the preacher’s message.

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Scripturally, you will find three sources of the prophetic word: 1st, the Holy Spirit; 2nd, an evil or lying spirit; and 3rd, the human spirit. In Ezekiel 13:2,3, the prophet is told: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: 'Hear the word of the Lord!' Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”

So we must “despise not prophesyings” because we are told to be aware of the possible dangers, abuses, and excesses associated with this gift.

Consider, for example, the outright manipulation of his gift that the “old prophet” in 1 Kings 13 practiced upon the eager young prophet. Here we see the “witchcraft-ing” of people’s minds of the “thus saith the Lord” variety. We also discover the error of putting more weight and excitement on “a” word from God rather than “the” Word of God. In this context, the subjectivity of personal prophecy is elevated above the objectivity of the written Word of God.

Yet, in 1 Thessalonians 5 right alongside “despise not prophesyings,” we find another much needed admonition: “quench not the Spirit.” Somehow, God has left us to wrestle through the value and need of a Holy Spirit atmosphere despite any potential misuse or abuse.

If the potential for abuses exists, then why does God open the door for its expression?

If the potential for abuses exists, then why does God open the door for its expression? It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is because of the real benefits found in this gift. Personal prophecy builds faith, especially due to the accompanying realization, “God knows me!” It ministers great comfort to people’s hearts and inspires hearty praise to God. It brings conviction and confession of sin and adds to the miraculous dimension of the assembly, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 14:24,25: “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”

There are numerous other examples that I could cite, but the most powerful is that, armed with a prophetic word from God, Timothy’s ministry was given definition and he himself was aided and armed (1 Timothy 1:18): “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.”

 

THE CLEAR PURPOSE

Before you begin the operation of prophecy and vocal gifts, read the label: Don’t Forget to Read the Instructions. The Bible is the instructional manual for the Person of the Holy Spirit, His workings, and the operation of the His spiritual gifts. Agabus’s word, “Thus says the Holy Spirit,” tells us that in the life of the early church, the answer was clearly not suppression, where we make no room for the Holy Spirit to move; but neither is it sensationalism, where we go searching everywhere for a “word.”

Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians was so on target. First, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Be careful that we don’t go around extinguishing the Spirit’s fire. Second, “Despise not prophesyings.” We must keep a right attitude towards this gift. Finally, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” Spiritual gifts need the template of the Word of God so that what we’re left with is the genuine article (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).

A similar instruction was given to the Corinthians: “But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men” (1 Corinthians 14:3). Prophecy’s intended purpose is edification (to build up), exhortation (to stir up), and comfort (to lift up). I don’t find here that its purpose was directive. Rather, a prophetic word would confirm what God already had spoken, revealed, or dealt with you about.

Let’s summarize some general truths and guidelines related to this gift and its exercise.

1. It is given as the Spirit wills, not at the whim of man. (“as He wills,” 1 Corinthians 12:11).

2. It is given for the purpose of confirmation and encouragement (1 Corinthians 14:31).

3. Like all gifts, it is given to glorify Jesus and to know Him better (Rev. 19:10; John 16:14).

4. Prophecy never replaces or usurps, or in any way contradict the written Word of God (Isaiah 8:20).

5. The gift of prophecy operates according to the realm of a person’s individual faith (Romans 12:6).

6. A spirit of submission should guide all gifts. In 1 Corinthians Paul states that a true spiritual mind will accept his instruction as a command from God. A teachable spirit, a spirit of submission safeguards this gift. Nowhere does God authorize “freelancers” who carry a self-serving, independent spirit.

The final guideline that is very important is found in 1 Corinthians 14:13: “So anyone who speaks in tongues should pray also for the ability to interpret what has been said.” Notice that the first line of responsibility when it comes to interpreting a message in tongues lies with the person giving it!

Far too often, I’ve seen people give a message in tongues and think, “I’ve done my part; I’ve obeyed the prompting of the Holy Spirit; Now it’s all up to someone else to bail me out and give an interpretation. That may happen, which is all fine and good, but the person giving the message in tongues should at least feel the weight of the same inspiration to bring an interpretation to the message so that all will be edified. If there is no one to interpret, then you are instructed to keep silent in church and speak to yourself and God.

I think it is because of the human element in prophecy that we’re required to examine things in the light of Scripture. 1 Corinthians 14:29 says, “Let others judge.” It is quite within the parameters of biblical accountability to carefully weigh what is being said. While we’re not judging people, we are judging the message and the content and spirit that drives it.

Even the character of the person bringing the word ought to be weighed. It was the credibility of Agabus, and not his claim to have a word, that was paramount. His record as a trustworthy man of God mattered; as well as the character of Philip’s four virgin daughters who prophesied.

 

THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

This is what puts everything into perspective, where the Spirit is not quenched, prophesies are not despised, and people weigh what is being said. The story in our text reveals a brilliant convergence of the Holy Spirit’s gift and our practical obedience to God’s Word. Paul was not some unstable or disgruntled person doing his own thing.  No, he was a man moving in the will and ways of God. Earlier, we learn that Paul was leaving Ephesus with a clear grasp of God’s will for him, and a heart determined to fulfill it. In Acts 20:22-24, he says: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But 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.”

Paul was not some unstable or disgruntled person doing his own thing. No, he was a man moving in the will and ways of God.

It is interesting that as he moves along in this course, Paul receives two “prophetic words” that seem to suggest he should not purse it. First, the saints in Cyprus “told Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem.” Then, the prophet Agabus gives an “illustrated word” that, on the surface, seems to indicate that Paul should not follow this course. It seems contradictory. First the Holy Spirit says Go, and now He says Stop? What’s going on? Several truths are highlighted here that speak to us about finding our way forward.

First, don’t let other people commandeer your choices or move you from the course of God’s Word – even godly or gifted people. Verse 12 says, “We and the people pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.” People – even well-meaning people – can move you out of the will of God, if you let them. Second, all prophecy is part of a much larger script. 1 Corinthians 13:9 says, “For our knowledge is fragmentary [incomplete and imperfect], and our prophecy [our teaching] is fragmentary [incomplete and imperfect)].”

The problem is that we think because we know something of what God is saying, that we know everything He’s saying. The prophetic words at Cyprus and from Agabus were true, but it was not all that God had to say or all that He was doing in Paul’s life. 

Third, there is a higher realm of unwavering commitment to do what God has put in our hearts. Paul did not change his plans because of Agabus’s prophecy or the urging of others. He received the word graciously, but continued ahead with his plans, nonetheless. “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."

This is not Paul being stubborn or missing God. Rather, he knew what God had for him and was committed to it.  The lesson is that the purpose of these prophetic words was to help prepare his heart for what lay ahead. Verse 14 sums it up: “And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, "Let the will of the Lord be done."

Paul’s conclusion on this subject is in 1 Corinthians 14:39,40: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don't forbid speaking in tongues. But be sure that everything is done properly and in order.”

This is to be our overarching approach to God’s gracious gift of prophecy. I think a great model for us is Mary’s response to all the incredible things spoken and shown to her: “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).