Resolutions and fresh starts mark every new year. Have you chosen a word for the year? I only learned about this word trend this year. Instead of committing to a New Year’s resolution, you simply choose a word to represent what you hope to accomplish. If you follow my blog, you’ll know from my last post that I have a love-hate relationship with resolutions, so after seeing many of my friends choosing words, reading news articles on the subject, and hearing about it during a New Year’s Eve sermon, I figured I might as well choose one in 2015. The word fulfillment was uttered only a half second in a sermon before I was convinced this was my word.
FULFILLMENT IN PURPOSE
I had already completed my study of this passage in Acts before New Year’s Eve rolled around, and fulfillment was lurking in the back of my mind in obscurity. And because Acts 13 is dripping with purpose, I realized I couldn’t really explore the meaning of fulfillment until I look at it in light of my purpose. Right? We all have one, whether we’re living it out or not; and sometimes we’re living it out whether we realize it or not. In our passage today we see the Apostle Paul’s purpose taking shape and manifesting, and of course we can clearly see it now because we have the benefit of a couple thousand years of hindsight. The dilemma we face today though, is discerning our purpose when we’re smack dab in the middle of the muck and mire of our complicated lives. And there’s a very distinct possibility that we might miss our fulfillment, at least in part, absent an understanding of our purpose.
Our passage today begins with the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas, and a small crew of people, for the first recorded missionary journey. The spread of the gospel prior to this was incidental, as folks shared the gospel while fleeing persecution and seeking safe harbor. However, in this passage it was different because they were intentional about the spread of the gospel. They were filled with purpose, a purpose that was handed down from God.
…the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2 NLT)
I find this significant, because there could have been at least one hundred thousand great and noble things to which Paul and Barnabas could have dedicated their lives, but unless they were empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. Now don’t get me wrong, I truly believe God works all things together for his purpose (Romans 8:28), but if Paul and Barnabas were not moving in step with the Spirit, they would have missed out on the fulfillment. I’ll get back to this in a minute.
Do you think this directive from God surprised Paul and Barnabas? It’s not real clear how they reacted, but I’m going to guess no. Think back to Acts Chapter 9, in the city of Damascus, God spoke to Ananias.
Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and the kings, as well as to the people of Israel. (Acts 9:15)
Although it’s not recorded as such, my guess is that there were a great many conversations between these two about his destiny, and later in Paul’s testimony before the Jews he shares that Jesus told him to run from his persecutors in Jerusalem because he was being sent far away to the Gentiles. (Acts 22:17-21) In fact, when Barnabas arrived in Antioch of Syria to investigate the stories of Gentile conversions, what was one of the first things he did? He traveled to Tarsus to bring Paul back to Antioch. Is it possible this may have entered their conversations too when they first met in Damascus?
Scripture says Barnabas was filled with joy when he saw what the Holy Spirit was doing in Antioch, but he may have also felt ill equipped at that point to minister to Gentiles and wanted Paul’s support. So if they were surprised at all, it may have only been because it took years from when God shared his purpose with Paul, to when he began to see the fulfillment. All we know for sure is that God brought clarification and confirmation to his calling when the time was right in Antioch.
If fulfillment was going to be my word for the year, then I needed define it. First there’s fulfillment used in the context of contentment. When you feel fulfilled, you feel full of joy, peace, and happiness. And second, there’s fulfillment in the context of completion. When you have an order or a request and you are waiting for that request to be completed or fulfilled. The Amazon fulfillment center worked hard for my family this Christmas. The trouble I have had over the last year with my purpose, and I dare say I am not alone here, is that I have overlooked contentment in a consuming search for completion. And this is not what God intends.
Consider for a moment Abraham. God provided Abraham with his purpose. He said he would use him to be the father of many nations. That he would provide him a holy lineage, through which the world will be infinitely blessed. It would be years and years and years before that purpose would be fulfilled with the birth of Isaac. And Sarah, annoyed with waiting and her ever-aging body, she wanted to see the completion before she received contentment. She scoffed, not unlike each one of us.
God also told Abraham that he would give him a land that would remain with his descendents. Did Abraham ever actually see that completed?
And Abraham lived as a foreigner in the land of the Philistines for many days. (Gen 21:34 HCSB emphasis added)
He made it to the Promised Land, but he never actually saw this purpose completed. Move on down to his son, Isaac, and we see that he didn’t see it completed either.
Do not go down to Egypt. Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land, as a foreigner, and I will be with you and bless you. (Gen 26:2-3 HCSB)
THE PROMISED LAND
God had multiple objectives for this land of Canaan, but the promise of land as a blessing of prosperity for his chosen people was but a secondary objective. His primary objective was much deeper and more significant. The significance is embedded in the imagery of this land. He didn’t give the land directly to Abraham, Isaac, or even Jacob, because that wasn’t the picture he wanted to portray. He wanted us to first see Israel in captivity in Egypt, then see them wandering in the desert, and finally see their entrance into the Promised Land. The symbolism is significant, because without it, we might miss it when we travel this course for ourselves.
Captivity represents our lives before Christ enters. We are captive to sin, unable to escape. This is not just applicable to the non-believer. It can also represent the Christian if she is still held captive by pride and fear, refusing to allow Jesus sovereign authority over every part of her life. Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to see it clearly. She is held captive, if she believes the lie that she can control her world.
Wandering in the desert comes shortly after we receive our freedom. It doesn’t sound much better than captivity does it? And that’s exactly what Israel thought too. They even asked to return to Egypt. Perspective is everything here. Truly this is the time in our lives where God reveals himself to us. He provides the necessary circumstances and trials to teach us faith. There are a multitude of examples in nature, like the caterpillar, proving that struggle and conflict are absolutely necessary for a glorious outcome, like the butterfly. It’s through the trials where we come to know him intimately and he then bestows wisdom and understanding. It’s a time of preparation that cannot be skipped.
The Promised Land is a time where preparation meets opportunity. I naively thought at one time that the Promised Land was intended to be easy street. You know, the land of milk and honey? But I was wrong. When Israel entered the Promised Land they immediately went into battle. And they battled the enemy for years to claim what God had promised them. Their reign in this area was relatively short-lived, as the battle for this land has continued for millennia. But God’s purpose for the Promised Land wasn’t simply location, location, location. It was to bless the world through Israel, to make his name known among the nations. The Promised Land was a time for Israel to discover and fulfill her purpose. The Promised Land is the time in our lives when we discover and fulfill our purpose.
God wants us to abandon captivity, follow him through the rigorous times of preparation, so that we can live out our purpose fully.
Coming back to Acts, you can see this journey very clearly in Paul’s life. He leaves his life of captivity in the city of Damascus, and then he enters the desert lands during his years in Arabia, Jerusalem, Caesarea and Tarsus. They were obviously very trying years of solid preparation. After ministering in Antioch, God finally dedicated Paul and Barnabas for their calling. They entered the Promised Land when they embarked upon this missionary journey. They were making God’s name known among the nations.
LIVING A LIFE OF FULFILLMENT AND PURPOSE
You probably remember the story of Jonah. God asked him to send his word to the horribly sinful people of Nineveh. Jonah found this deplorable and literally went the opposite direction. He only ended up in Nineveh because he relented after three days in the belly of a whale. Even after Nineveh repented, Jonah continued to sulk and complain. Jonah’s ignorance of God’s full purpose didn’t thwart God’s fulfillment in terms of completion, but Jonah certainly missed much of God’s fulfillment in terms of contentment.
How can we live a life of fulfillment and purpose? I have some advice that God has provided for me through some very bright minds, and I share it with you today.
- When it comes to our purpose, don’t allow that to replace God’s presence. Our life’s goal is ultimately to BE WITH HIM. Prioritize his abiding presence, and everything else flows from it.
- Don’t be consumed with God’s larger purpose in your life or the ultimate outcome.* It can be an overwhelming thing to take in all at once, and let’s face it, God’s purpose for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Paul never fully manifested in their lifetime. Who’s to say it will in ours? So there’s no benefit to worrying, obsessing, and losing sleep over what you cannot control. Know that God will fulfill you in the mean time.
- All you can do is the next best thing.* How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
- And don’t wait!* Don’t be lazy, don’t be afraid, and don’t confuse this when God asks you to wait for Him.