The street in Jerusalem had been swept with silence, settling firmly on the thick layer of hatred. Paul was preparing to speak. Like any good speaker, Paul included the three essentials: 1) an opening, which included details of his background to grab their attention and make a personal connection, 2) the main body of his message, the account of his conversion, and the reason behind his life’s work, and 3) a conclusion, God’s ultimate purpose to pursue the entire world outside of Israel.
At first I didn’t know what to write this week. This passage seems pretty straightforward. After I prayed, I felt compelled to look back at the life of Jesus because I kept being drawn back to the moment when Jesus was presented to the Sanhedrin after his arrest. I can almost smell the air now, heavy with the exact same brand of hatred that surrounded Paul. I began to see a theme developing as stories from Jesus’ life were virtually dropped in my lap over the past few days, bringing depth and texture to this passage. It’s a theme of working until the very end.
THE WORK WILL NOT BE STOPPED
One of the first things we see Jesus do as he begins his official ministry was to return home to Nazareth. Up to now things were going pretty well for Jesus.
“Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region. He taught regularly in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Luke 4:14b-15 NLT)
Then he enters Nazareth and attends synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and tells the congregation the scripture they just heard has been fulfilled that very day!
Everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips, “How can this be?” they asked. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”
Then he said, “You will undoubtedly quote me this proverb; Physician, heal yourself’ – meaning do miracles here in your hometown like those you did in Capernaum. But I tell you the truth; no prophet is accepted in his own hometown.
“Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner – a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.”
When they heard this, the people in the synagogue were furious. Jumping up, they mobbed him and forced him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built. They intended to push him over the cliff, but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:22-30 NLT)
Can you see the parallels between this speech and Paul’s? He includes an opening that grabs their attention and attempts to make a personal connection, a hometown boy, reading scriptures with authority. The main body of his message is the passage of Isaiah itself. Like the body of Paul’s message, it contains the reason behind his life’s work, “…the captives will be released…the blind will see…the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4:18) And finally he concludes with God’s plan to pursue the entire world outside of Israel by resurrecting the examples of Elijah and Elisha. He compares the people of Nazareth to the hard heartedness of ancient Israel. And they knew it! Although still veiled in a modicum of mystery, Jesus was telling them of his plan to save the Gentiles even as Israel rejects him.
Like Paul’s enemies, they wanted to kill him, to push him off a cliff no less. I love this part of the story, “but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30) Did the crowd part like the Red Sea to let him pass? Did he pull some invisible-miracle-thing where he just walked right through them like a ghost? All we know for sure is that it wasn’t his time to die. He still had work to do.
And it wasn’t Paul’s time to die in Jerusalem. He appealed to a higher authority, and with the basis of his Roman citizenship, he was spared for another day. Paul still had work to do. We all still have work to do!
THE WORK WILL BE COMPLETED
I brought glory to you here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began. -Jesus (John 17:4-5 NLT)
But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God. -Apostle Paul (Acts 20:24 NLT)
In hindsight, we can make easy sense of determining the completed purpose of Jesus and Paul. It’s not difficult to see that Jesus’ purpose was to fulfill every single prophecy and picture of himself. And then to see that Paul’s purpose was to take those pictures and explain them to the world. And because we see it so easily now, we might be tempted to think that it was super easy for them to see and do the work while in the middle of it. Okay, so Jesus had the advantage of a sinless nature that Paul and the rest of us cannot claim; however I’m not so sure he would say that it was easy.
Jesus and Paul completed their work beautifully not because they found it easy, but because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was born human, he did so by leaving the glory of heaven. He left behind many of his heavenly attributes like omnipresence, and omniscience, to name a few. He depended on the Holy Spirit to maintain a solid connection with his father to access his power and strength and insight. Because he was sinless, his Holy Spirit connection never faltered like it does with us, but nevertheless it was as vital for him as it is for us.
In his own words, recorded in the Book of John, Jesus articulates our purpose as he prays to the Father shortly before his arrest,
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me, and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began! (John 17:20-24)
Our purpose is to remain in Christ, to see his glory, and to show the whole world so that they might know him too. If you are muddled in the haze of what this work tangibly looks like for you, go back to your primary purpose, which is to remain in Him. It is while we are in Him, in the Spirit, abiding in Christ, connected to the vine that we are positioned to see his glory and understand the work.
THE WORK IS ENHANCED BY OUR PAST
In Steven Furtick’s message, in his series The Genius of Jesus, he referenced the story of Jesus healing the lame man by the pool in John 5. This man had been paralyzed for 38 years. I’ve been struggling with a chronic illness myself for just a couple of years, and I’m amazed at how it has overwhelmed my thoughts. I just can’t imagine 38 years. No doubt his illness spoke doom over his heart and mind constantly. So much so, that when Jesus asked him, “Would you like to get well?” (John 5:6) he didn’t say yes. He had doomed himself to the point where he couldn’t really hear Jesus. Don’t we all do that? The man responds by saying, “I can’t sir…I have no one to put me into the pool…”
Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” (John 5:8 NLT)
Jesus told him to pick up his mat, knowing full well it exceeded the weight one could legally carry on a Sabbath. And of course the man was immediately called out for breaking the law. There are a litany of reasons why Jesus would instruct him in this way, but let’s consider that the mat was purposed as a symbol of this man’s past. We so often speak of putting our past behind us, and moving on, because God has redeemed our painful past. We are all too eager to forget it and name it irrelevant.
It is indeed true that God has redeemed our past, however our past is an intimate part of our story. It’s something we carry with us, albeit unburdened. We are to work our past, not let our past work us.
In this passage of Acts we see Paul’s “mat” when he tells the Jewish audience in the streets that he formerly hunted and killed Christians. We see his “mat” when he recounts that he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen. Paul didn’t let that mat keep him stranded by the pool, but he rolled it up and worked it.
After Jesus told this man to get up, take his mat and walk, he later found him in the Temple and advised him to turn from sinning lest anything worse happen. (John 5:14) Jesus had healed him physically, but he’s essentially saying, “Man, if you don’t allow me to heal you emotionally too and carry the burden of the mat, that mat is going to become too heavy for you to carry and it will work you all the way back to the pool.”
ARE YOU ABOUT THE WORK OF YOUR FATHER?
If you are lying on a mat, stranded, thinking you are indefinitely stuck, so stuck that you can’t even hear God ask you if you want to be healed, so focused on your circumstance that you can’t hear God speaking into your life right now, in the quiet of your heart, surrender your will into his and simply seek to be with him. The man on the mat was so focused on the pool, his will was to get into that pool. So focused and distracted on his own will he didn’t see God’s will to heal him right there on the mat.
“Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began.” (John 17:24 NLT)
If you’re hungry for that kind of intimacy with God, pray for it and keep on praying for it. Seek it and keep on seeking it. Then, when the time is right, he’ll ask you to take up your mat and start working it.