Global Mission Conference 2021: The Gospel Unhindered

Sermon by Ed Hartman on February 14

Acts 28:28-31

From our Old Testament reading we turn to the New Testament, Acts 28, and you’ll recognize this as the theme verse or theme passage from our Mission Conference, which we’ve titled, “The Gospel Unhindered.” Incidentally, if you didn’t receive one of these at home or you’re visiting, there are lots of these around the building; please help yourself to them.

We’re going to read just those three verses, Acts 28:28-31, printed there in your bulletin. Before we do, let’s pray.

Father, we come to You this morning asking for the work of the Holy Spirit to be active and effective in our minds, in our hearts, in our affections, in our wills. Would You shape us into the people You have called us to be, that You are equipping us to be – people whom You will welcome home with joy. We ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

Acts 28, verse 28:

“‘Therefore let it be known to you,’” – this is Paul speaking – “‘let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.’

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”

This is God’s Word.

It seems like a rather abrupt ending, doesn’t it? I mean you’re left asking the question, “And then what?” After that two years of imprisonment, then what? It’s a really abrupt ending to a historical account that spanned over thirty years. That’s the time span covered by these chapters, twenty-eight chapters, in the book of Acts. The question stands, “Did Paul ultimately appear before the emperor Nero to make his seventh defense?” You realize he’s made six defenses against charges leveled against him throughout his ministry recorded in the book of Acts. The sixth one is in verses 23 through 28 of this chapter. Was he condemned when he appeared before Nero and executed? Or was he acquitted and set free? And did he make it to Spain as he says in Romans chapter 15, that that’s his goal – “to preach the Gospel where Jesus is not yet known”? Did he make it there? What happened? It really reads as an unfinished story. When you think about it here at the very end of the book of Acts, he’s in Rome, he’s a prisoner, he’s chained to a Roman guard – a rotating duty of Roman guards, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – for two whole years; all the time! He’s never alone. There’s no privacy when he bathes; he’s chained to a Roman soldier. When he goes to the bathroom, he’s chained to a Roman soldier. When he has someone come to visit him for a private conversation, there’s another set of ears listening in because he’s chained to a Roman soldier. He’s limited. He’s isolated. He’s restricted. He’s misunderstood. He is facing charges against him that are of a capital offense. He’s under a death threat every day of his life. And yet the very last word in the book of Acts is, in the original, “unhindered.” It’s really an adjective, “unhinderedly.” So that the last sentence reads, “Proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things of the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, unhinderedly.”

The Gospel unhindered. I’d like us to take some time to think about what that means. And to understand and to think rightly about that word, we need to think about three other “un” words. Unfinished, unlimited, and unafraid. And that’s our outline for this morning.

Unfinished

Unfinished. The book of Acts, as we’ve just said, reads as a glaringly unfinished story. And it appears that this was Luke’s intention. You know, of course, that Luke wrote the book of Acts as he wrote the gospel according to Luke. And he addressed both of those books to the same man; a man by the name of Theophilus. And both the gospel according to Luke and the book of Acts begin and end the same way. The gospel according to Luke ends with Jesus restating the great commission, and then there’s the ascension. And the book of Acts begins with Jesus restating the great commission and the ascension. They’re designed to be read together, but the book of Acts begins by saying, “This is all that Jesus began to do.” The book of Acts is just a beginning. It is the setting of the trajectory, not just for the life of the apostles, but also for our own lives. The book of Acts doesn’t end with Paul in Rome. The mission doesn’t end with Paul in Rome. It’s a beginning. The mission actually ends with a wedding – “a multiethnic wedding,” as Mike Winebrenner, for whom David Strain has prayed, has said.

Actually you’re going to hear from Mike Winebrenner as one of the reports. During the Sunday School hour, you’ll hear a variety of exhilarating reports of what God is doing in cities and countries all around the world. But the story, the mission, ends with a multiethnic wedding, the wedding supper of the Lamb, where the Father gathers in the bride of Christ perfected from all the nations and presents that bride as a love gift to His Son. And that end point isn’t an end only. It’s a new beginning of what remains for us, unbroken and unending, the new heavens and the new earth. And all that we were created in our being redeemed to experience will be perfected, unending. What a celebration that will be. The book of Acts is an introduction to that and it sets a trajectory telling us what to expect as we pursue the mission that Christ has set before us. Not just in these countries where we send campus ministers, church planters, and missionaries, but even in our own neighborhoods. Of course you’ve seen even in the Mission Conference book the vision, the mission of our church is to “glorify God by making disciples on the North State Street corridor, the greater Jackson area, and around the world.” That’s your calling and mine today. It’s not just theirs who have gone to these places; it’s our calling. Or as Rosaria Butterfield has written about it in her book, The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, it’s learning to live a life where we’re looking for strangers so that we can treat them as neighbors, so that neighbors will become family in Jesus. Looking for people in whose hearts the Holy Spirit is at work and asking the Spirit to put us on an intercept course with them so that we can engage with them to bring the reality of the Gospel to bear upon the sin, the brokenness, the failure of their own lives. It’s an unfinished mission, and you and I have a specific part to play in it. That’s the first word. Unfinished.

Unlimited

The second word is unlimited. The mission set before us is unfinished and the mission is unlimited. Here’s what I mean by that. The book of Acts serves as a surprising transition, one actually that was shocking to the first readers of this book. Just before Jesus’ ascension you get a clear picture of what the disciples were thinking and what they were expecting as they were wondering what comes next. And they ask Him in Acts 1:6 – here’s what Luke writes – “So when they had come together, they,” – the disciples – “asked Jesus, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” They were still thinking that it was just about God’s people Israel. Even after the resurrection, after all that Jesus had taught, they still thought it was just about them. And it took the next thirty years – the time span that the book of Acts covers – for the people of God to understand, “No, it’s not just about Israel. It’s about the whole world.”

And when you come to the end of the book of Acts, verse 28 of chapter 28, Paul says, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” You get a sense of how shocking this was by the fact that there is a missing verse. Did you notice that? Verse 29 is missing both in the print out of the text in the bulletin and most of the versions of the Bible. There’s a footnote at the end of verse 28 that says, “Some manuscripts add verse 29:  ‘When he had said these words to them, the Jews departed, having much dispute among themselves.’” This caused an explosion. It’s a repeat of verses 24 and 25. You see how disruptive it was for that first audience to be told, “It’s not just about you. It’s about the whole world. The whole world has to hear about this message of forgiveness and rescue and redemption and recreation.” But it took a while for that message to be embraced.

The Mission is Unlimited Geographically

The mission is unlimited in two primary ways. It’s unlimited both geographically and generationally. Geographically, you see back in chapter 1 verse 8 where Jesus says – actually this is verse 7 – “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Jesus gives four clear geographical markers and says, “This is the range of the Gospel.” And those geographical markers become, then, the outline for the rest of the book. If you read the book of Acts you will realize that the first seven chapters are focused on Jerusalem. The disciples are a witness to the Lord Jesus Christ primarily in Jerusalem. Then chapters 8 through 12, the persecution begins and they’re pressed out of Jerusalem and there’s an emphasis on the disciples’ witnessing in Judea and Samaria. And then starting in chapter 13, the first missionary journey, the witness goes to all the nations around the world. That’s how Acts is broken down.

And that’s why we hang these flags in the sanctuary. It’s a visible reminder that the Gospel is not just about us. It’s not just for us Americans or Mississippians or we who have it all figured out at First Presbyterian Church, as if that were true. The Gospel is for all the nations. And as you look at those flags, I want to make sure you understand that there are two new flags this year. One, just behind the American flag, that’s the flag of Afghanistan. And to your right, the green and white flag with the crescent and the star, that’s the flag of Pakistan. In this book, “The World Watch List,” it will list those two countries among the most dangerous countries in the world to live in as a Christian, and certainly to live in as someone who is witnessing to the presence and the power and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet today, because of your faithfulness in giving and in praying, we are supporting church planters, men and women doing evangelism and church planting in those two countries. Not just giving money, but we’ve met personally the men doing work in those countries. Last year, exactly at this time, I was in Dubai meeting with those men with one other partner of ours with whom we have been working with for years, and investing in their training and equipping to send them back into countries to which we could not get access. And right in the very place where the Taliban has been historically most active, they are sharing the love and the glory and the beauty of the Lord Jesus in those places, now, because we’ve taken seriously the call that the Gospel is geographically unlimited. It is to go to the uttermost parts of the earth, even to the end of the earth.

The Mission is Unlimited Generationally  

But it’s not just geographically unlimited. It’s also generationally unlimited. Early in the book of Acts, Peter preaches this message in Acts 2:39. He says, “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.” His point is, that no matter how many generations come in the ingathering of God’s people, the promise stands. It’s not just about the individual, but it’s also to their children and to their children after them, and to the generations that follow.

Here’s the point. Do you love your kids? Do you love your grandkids? Are you committed to seeing your kids follow Jesus and trust Him and treasure Him with their whole heart? Is that your passion for your grandchildren? Well then you have promises where God says, “The promise is to you and to your children and to all those who are far off, everyone whom the Lord God calls to Himself.” I want you to think about this. I don’t know any Christ loving follower of Jesus whose heart would not be broken if their children walked away from the Gospel, who would not be heartbroken if their children did not treasure Jesus? Wouldn’t that be true of you? The promise doesn’t just go to your children, but the promise is to the whole world. Are you heartbroken at men and women boys and girls in each of these countries, and countries whose flags do not yet hang on these balcony walls, who do not yet know Jesus? You cannot be passionate only for the Gospel to go to your children, your grandchildren, and your own tribe. As a matter of fact, in Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah says, “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel. I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” It’s too small a thing for you to think that the Gospel is just about you and about your children and your grandchildren and the people in your own tribe. It’s too small a thing. The Gospel, the call to mission, is to the uttermost ends of the world. The Gospel, the mission, is unlimited geographically and generationally. Both have to be a passion in our hearts.

Unafraid

The mission is unfinished, it’s unlimited, and third, on mission, we like Paul, are unafraid. That’s where the verse ends. “He welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Again, remember he’s a prisoner. He’s chained. He’s limited, restricted, misunderstood, accused, under a daily threat of death. And yet here he is living a life of openness, welcoming everyone who comes to him, “proclaiming and teaching the Gospel, the truth of Jesus, boldly, unhinderedly.” Or another translation would be, “freely.” He’s proclaiming this truth freely as a prisoner.

How? Not just how did he do that, but how do we do that? That’s the question, right? How do we make this practical? I believe Paul explained how in a letter he wrote from this Roman incarceration, a letter he wrote to the church in Philippi – Philippians 3:14 – where he says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward, in Christ Jesus.” Paul would say what we must say today, “I know where this story ends. I know the end of this story. This story ends with Jesus’ victory and it is an absolutely certain end point. There will be upheaval. There will be crisis. There will be suffering, loss, even death between this point and that point, but the end is unchallenged. It is certain.”

We know how this ends. The last letter that Paul wrote from prison, at least the last letter that we have record of in the Bible – 2 Timothy, in chapter 4, listen to what he says. “I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day. And not only to me” – listen – “but to all those who have longed for his appearing.” Is that you? Because of your certainty of how this story ends, of where this mission finishes, are you longing for His appearing?

Think about the last week or the last year, think about how you’ve spent your money. Think about the things you have stressed over or have been passionate about. Does any of it recognize and reflect that you long for the appearing of Jesus, that you can’t wait until the day about which we have sung arrives? The trump resounds, the clouds rolled back as a scroll, and the Lord descends to gather up His bride. Does your heart pound within your chest when you think about the certainty of that coming? See, this is how Paul, a prisoner, could live freely and boldly and generously, welcoming all that God sent – both the circumstances and the people, with joy, freely and with boldness. He knew where it ends and he could say, “Therefore there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearing.” We know how this ends, and that changes everything.

Howard Marshall, in his commentary on the book of Acts, makes this one statement. It’s brief. He says, “Nothing that man does can stop the progress and the ultimate victory of the Gospel. Nothing. No government, no crisis, no tragedy, no terrorists, no extremists, no pandemic, no election, no stock market correction, no economic downturn, no racial conflict. Not even death can stop the ultimate triumph of this Gospel.” I should add one more thing, and this is counterintuitive. Not even failure, your failure or mine, will stop the ultimate triumph of this Gospel and this mission.

How do we know? The book of Acts puts it plainly and repeatedly. Think about the first missionary journey that Paul and Barnabas left on in Acts 13. They took Mark along with them and part way through that journey Mark bails and says, “That’s it. I’m out. Can’t do it.” And at the protest of Paul and Barnabas, he turns around and goes back to Jerusalem, shamed, tail tucked. Then when the second missionary journey comes around, Paul and Barnabas are about to take off again, and Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement,” he wants to encourage this guy who has failed and he wants to take him along. And Paul says, “No way we’re taking him along! I’m not giving him a second chance to blow it.” And Acts chapter 13 tells us that such a sharp conflict erupted between Paul and Barnabas. That sharp conflict literally is translated, “an emotionally charged, hostile disagreement that cuts deeply, even to rage.” The apostle Paul and Barnabas, two men who shared in Gospel ministry together, they’re in blows, they’re in conflict, and they can’t minister together anymore and they go in two different directions – Barnabas taking Mark with him and Paul taking Silas. Talk about failure!

And yet at the end of Paul’s life, at the end of 2 Timothy as he’s writing to his protégé, he says this in verse 11 of chapter 4. He says, “Go find Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me in the ministry.” Can you imagine, can you imagine what it must have felt like to be Mark? Shamed, because the great missionary Paul says, “Not you. Never again. I’m not ever taking a chance on you.” And then to have Timothy come around and say, “Hey, Paul’s asking for you. He says he needs you. He wants you. Come on, let’s go.” Not even failure, your failure or mine, derails the mission. In all of it, in some mysterious way, God will use it and overrule it for the spread of His fame and the accomplishment of His mission.

It may very well be that it took a global pandemic to advance the kingdom of God. It’s a mystery, I know, but God wastes nothing. And we’re already seeing glimmers of how Gospel ministry is going forward because of this pandemic in ways that would have never happened had it not been for this pandemic that the world is experiencing even this day. But one thing we can be sure of – this is no time to press “pause” or to put the mission on hold. This is a time to accelerate the mission. This past week I’ve met with several missionaries separately, each of whom has told me the same thing. That for a year they’ve been kind of sitting idly because churches don’t want to talk with them. There’s really not a lot happening. Most churches have pushed “pause.” They put missionary sending on hold. And my question is, “Why would we do that?” There is mission activity accelerating right now if we’ll open our eyes and look for it.

The mission is unfinished, though we know where the story ends. The mission is unlimited, both geographically and generationally. And because Jesus is with us and has promised His authority to us in the fulfilling of this mission, we can go forward unafraid. So lift up your eyes, take the long view, look at where it all finishes, and remember, it’s too small a thing for this mission and this Gospel to be just about you and your own tribe. Let’s lift up your eyes and expect our King to accomplish His mission and fulfill His promises and envelope us in the process.

Let’s pray together.

Father, as we think about this mission, we are reminded of the Author and the Champion of our faith, the one who sent us on mission, who also said that, “Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains only a single seed, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Would You please forgive us for our unwillingness to embrace the places that feel like death? Few of us have faced death for the mission, but many, if not all of us, are facing places that feel like death. We ask that You would forgive us for our self-reliance and our self-preservation that prevents us from enthusiastically embracing this mission. Would You please propel us forward with joy and with expectancy, willing to embrace the mystery, the uncertainty, all with the confidence of knowing where this story ends. And with joy in the privilege of being invited to co-labor with You in the roles to which You have called each one of us as individuals and us together as a congregation. Would You do so for Your great glory, for the ingathering and the perfecting of the bride of Christ, toward the end that we see Jesus with our family from every tribe, tongue, people and nation gathered around us, tears streaming down our cheeks, tears of joy and delight, at what will finally be ours, that we have only tasted in this life. We long for that day, and pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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