Paul travels through Ptolemais to Caesarea where he meets up with Peter. Different forms of prophecy are mentioned. Fellowship is offered to Paul at every church community - even those he has not planted.
Paul travels through Ptolemais to Caesarea where he meets up with Peter. Different forms of prophecy are mentioned. Fellowship is offered to Paul at every church community - even those he has not planted.
Welcome back to Series 6, as we continue with Paul and his friends on this amazing journey that they are going on, heading towards the city of Jerusalem.
Introduction and Background
They started out in northern Greece, in Macedonia, and wehave seen them go through Asia Minor, to various places along the coast and they’re heading to Jerusalem. This is because in Acts 19: 21, the key verse for this series, Paul expressed his intention, in the latter stages of his ministry, whilst he was in the city of Ephesus to go back into Greece, Macedonia and Achaia, then travel to Jerusalem with a financial gift, and then head to Rome. His mission field for the future he felt was going to be based on the city of Rome, the capital city of the Empire, where as far as we know, he had never been before. That is the bigger picture.
If you were with us in the last episode, you will remember that Paul was at a port, called Miletus, and there he summoned the elders of the nearby church at Ephesus, about 50 km north, and they had a meeting - an amazing discussion between Paul and these elders about the character of Christian leadership, the things that Christian leaders need to do in the local church, the courage they need, the humility they need, the teaching they need to give, the protection they need to bring. He told them, very specifically, that he was never going to see them again. That was based on an expectation that his mission field was moving. He wasn’t going to be working in that area again. He needed to get to Italy, to Rome and perhaps in his mind, even at this stage, he intended to go to Spain, which is referred to in the book of Romans as a possibility. So, he was moving areas. When he left the elders, there was a very emotional scene right at the port of Miletus, as he said goodbye to them for the last time. That is where we left the story. To connect the two episodes together, we are going to read those verses again. Acts 20:36 - 38,
36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.Acts 20:36-38
Paul was travelling with a group of friends. We know that Luke was with him and several other people. We also know that they were carrying a large consignment of coins - money that was going to be a big financial gift to give to the church in Jerusalem. They continue with their journey.
In this episode, we follow the journey as they go from Miletus towards Jerusalem. Acts 21:1 - 6,
1 After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. 2 We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. 3 After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. 4 We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. 6 After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.Acts 21:1-6, NIV
Luke is present in this account, and gives a very vivid account with lots of details of the places they saw and passed by. They were on cargo ships primarily. Most people travelling as passengers in those days on board ships, were a small part of the number of people on board, because mostly they were cargo ships, which had a few passengers on board. This was the situation here. There was a cargo that was heading to the city of Tyre.
There was very deep emotion as Paul said goodbye to the elders at Ephesus; “We tore ourselves away”. This is powerful language, speaking of friendships that were going to be under pressure because they weren’t going to be able to see each other again. They travelled by sea, going from port to port, sometimes changing boats, sometimes continuing on the same boat. This is very similar, in a sense, to how many modern people have to travel when we don’t have our own means of transport - we are usually on buses, sometimes on trains, and you can take quite a number of buses as you move around the city, as many of you will know, or as you move around your area, or move across country. This is what they were doing. They were going by sea, partly for speed and partly for security. It is harder to get robbed when you are carrying all this coinage if you are on board a ship than it is if you’re travelling overland, where bandits frequently attacked and robbed travellers as they passed in remote areas. Paul was very concerned to maintain the security of the coinage and the financial gift that he had taken so much effort to collect, as they travelled on this journey between Patara and Tyre, about a 500-kilometre sea journey, to the south of the island of Cyprus.
The Church in Tyre
When they arrived at Tyre, they had arrived in what we would now call the country of Lebanon. The city of Tyre is still there - a major trading city throughout the years of the ancient world and this ship was one of many hundreds that would be coming in and out of the city of Tyre. Interestingly enough, when they get to the city of Tyre, they find that there are disciples, there are believers there. We have no record that Paul had visited the city of Tyre before. It was north of the land of Israel, but clearly there are some believers there. How did those believers come to be there? We can’t be sure, but there is a clue in the book of Acts. At the very beginning, when the Early Church was based in Jerusalem, as you will recall if you remember the story or if you have been with us in the earlier series, there was a sudden moment of persecution and all thousands of believers were gathered around the city of Jerusalem. The Church was getting bigger and bigger in the months and years after the Day of Pentecost, and then suddenly a persecution started after the martyrdom of Stephen, and the authorities - the religious authorities in Jerusalem - did everything they could to imprison, intimidate and scatter the Christians. So, they got scattered into many different parts of the country and beyond. Acts 11:19 makes an interesting statement,
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch,Acts 11:19, NIV
Phoenicia is the territory of Tyre. Paul comes some years later and he meets a group of believers there. He did not plant this church, there is no evidence of anybody particularly going to Tyre to plant a church, there’s nothing in the book of Acts to suggest that. But what it does tell us is that some of the people who were scattered by that early persecution, went to that district and then they established their own church in Tyre and probably there were many other churches in the area. This is a very interesting reflection on the fact that, in the Early Church, churches were planted by two different methods. One was by a missionary effort when another church or an Apostle sent people out to plant churches. That’s basically the story that Luke is telling concerning Paul, he went to places where no one had been before and he formally planted a church by clear intention and planning. But sometimes, other circumstances lead to churches being planted spontaneously or even accidentally. Here, Tyre is probably an example of that, where these believers from Jerusalem may have had some family connections in the district of Tyre so, when the persecution came, their first thought was, ‘We’ll go there; we’ll go to where we have connections; we’ll go to where we can get jobs; where we can get homes and we’ll settle there’. They formed communities. You may live in a country where this has happened a lot, and you may have wondered about this phenomenon, but it is a phenomenon in the Bible that some churches are planted by accident, or by ordinary people being forced to go from one place to another, deciding they are going to form a community.
You can imagine what the believers in Tyre must have felt when somebody said one day, “You’ll never guess what’s happened. The Apostle Paul has arrived!” The most famous missionary leader in the Early Church, someone they had never met before, had given no notice that he was coming. He just arrived. That was unbelievably exciting for them. They spent some time there. “We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days”, a whole week. This wasn’t an overnight stop. I guess what might have happened is, they said, “Paul, stay with us, tell us some of your stories. Where have you been? You’ve been to Corinth, to Athens, to Berea, to Philippi, and to Thessalonica. We’ve heard about Ephesus. We know about Antioch where you started out, but that’s amazing!” Seven days of dramatic storytelling and rich fellowship. Maybe you have had this experience when somebody comes into your church who has got a tremendous amount of experience of God working in another part of the world, and they start telling you stories and you get terribly excited because you see how much bigger God’s purposes are than you ever thought when, here you are, in your little church, in one place - like they might have felt in Tyre.
The interesting thing is, that they had such a good time, that when it came to part - yet again there was another scene of gathering together and praying, just like we’ve seen at Ephesus - but notice what Luke says here, this time everybody came, the husbands, the wives, the children, the whole church went to the place where they were going to say goodbye, on the beach. What a moving scene that must have been, this whole community. Almost certainly, none of these people had ever met Paul before because he had not been there. They had had no reason to connect with his mission. They are in a different geographical location, with a different reason for the church being formed, and yet they made this connection and they prayed on the beach with the children running around beside them as they knelt to pray. But there was a prophetic concern about going to Jerusalem. They were worried about what it might mean.
The Church in Caesarea
Paul moves from Tyre down to Ptolemais, which is further down the coast and there he meets the church in that area. Let’s read Acts 21:7 - 9:
7 We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for one day. 8 Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.Acts 21:7-9, NIV
Here are some interesting and telling stories. Ptolemais is a city that is in modern-day Israel, the city of Akko in the north of the country. They travelled from there to Caesarea. When we get to Caesarea, we immediately begin to think, ‘Ah yes, this is a very important place for a number of reasons’. The reason it is an important place from the Christian point of view, is this is where Peter came to meet Cornelius, the Roman centurion, his family and his household in his house, after a miraculous series of dreams and visions led Peter and Cornelius to be connected. As Peter was speaking to Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came down all of them, and they believed, and spiritual gifts came forth. Then they were all baptised. We described this in an earlier episode. This is the same city. This is the city that was the capital city for the Roman provincial government, where the procurator or the governor lived, and was the military headquarters. Cornelius is not mentioned here, but Philip is.
When we look back in the book of Acts, we find that Philip the evangelist went from Jerusalem and slightly to the north to Samaria, when the persecution started. Then the Holy Spirit led him to go south on the road going towards Egypt, on the road to Gaza, where he met the Ethiopian eunuch, preached the Gospel to him and he was baptised and went on his way. Then it says in the narrative, that from there he went over to the coastal area and preached in all the cities along the coast, and this is for many kilometres all the way along the coast until he reached Caesarea. There he stopped and he probably became the church leader in Caesarea. We lose sight of Philip because the narrative moves on to Paul’s life and to all sorts of different countries. But now Paul is coming to Caesarea, and Philip reappears in the story. Philip, who was an evangelist, was still there . It says here in the text: he was an evangelist, one of the Seven, the seven men who were chosen to look after the widows and the food distribution in Acts 6 in the Jerusalem church. There is a lot about Philip in the earlier part of the story and you might think, ‘He’s gone out of the story’, but he suddenly reappears again here. He is married, with four young children, at least - four young daughters - all unmarried and Paul stays in his house. What a wonderful moment that must have been, here is Paul the Apostle, one of the greatest evangelists of the Early Church, with Philip the evangelist who would have been very active in that area in ways that aren’t actually described in the book of Acts. What an amazing coming together that was, that these two people could see their ministries connecting together, they could share stories. They have been working in very different cultures in very different situations, but with the same evangelistic gift and calling. Here is another remarkable meeting.
Luke noticed the four unmarried daughters. They only stayed a short time in the house. But why does Luke mention the four unmarried daughters who prophesied? That is interesting. They exercise the spiritual gift which the New Testament calls prophecy. It may have been because they prophesied to Paul in the house, even though they were youngsters. Children got married at a young age in those days so, if they are unmarried they could be young children, early teens, or even younger than that, but spiritually gifted and able perhaps to speak prophetically to Paul. This is such an intriguing story, there are so many details here I would love to know more about, as Luke tells the story. Luke was there, he was an eyewitness, he saw all this going on in front of him.
What do we mean by prophecy? There is a passing reference here, but let us pause on that for a moment and try and work out what we mean. Prophecy is not preaching the Gospel. Prophecy is not teaching the Bible as I am doing now. Prophecy is not about being a church leader. Prophecy is a gift of the Spirit - a supernatural capacity that any believer can be given. We find in 1 Corinthians 12: 7 - 11, a list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which the Spirit gives to individual believers, and it is his will which gifts are given to which individuals. It appears from this example that even youngsters can receive spiritual gifts. That is an important lesson for us. They can receive the gift of prophecy. Prophecy is revealing some specific knowledge from the Holy Spirit to help believers. That is its general function, some specific knowledge about God, knowledge about the present, knowledge about the immediate future, or information that is going to help us follow God in the circumstances that we are in. This is a word for an individual, for a family, for a church, or a particular group of people, in one moment of time. It doesn’t have the authority of Scripture, but it does have the authority of the Holy Spirit as helping and stirring us up into obedience when God begins to speak to us in a personal way.
What is the purpose of prophecy? 1 Corinthians 14: 3 says,
3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.1 Corinthians 14:3, NIV
It is not infallible just because somebody says, “I have a prophetic word” or “I think God is saying…” that doesn’t mean it is infallible. We have to try and evaluate it. 1 Corinthians 14: 29:
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.1 Corinthians 14:29, NIV
There is no infallibility here, there is no superior authority, but we need to listen respectfully when people bring a prophetic word. You may, or may not, be familiar with that experience in your Christian life, but it was a normal part of the experience of the Early Church, and a normal part of Paul’s experience. All the way through this journey, there are people bringing prophetic words to Paul, as we will see more dramatically in a moment. These four unmarried daughters of Philip probably prophesied to Paul.
The Prophet Agabus
In the next passage, something even more significant in terms of prophecy, takes place, Acts 21:10 - 14:
10 After we’d been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”Acts 21:10-14, NIV
We have seen the four unmarried daughters, and now we meet another person from the past, in the book of Acts, Agabus. He is described not as someone who exercises the gift of prophecy on an occasional basis but more as someone with a recognised gift that is regularly used - recognised by the local church. He came from the Jerusalem church. Agabus has appeared once before, some years ago, when the church was established in Antioch by Paul and Barnabas, and they were teaching the church. It says that Agabus came up from Jerusalem with some others and delivered a message to them, Acts 11: 27 onwards, a message warning them about an impending famine and then they took up a special offering as a result of it. Here Agabus appears again. He comes from the church in Jerusalem and he brings a message. What is his message to Paul and why did he come anyway? Had he heard that Paul had arrived in the country? Quite possibly, because news travelled fast and Paul had been in Tyre for a week. He had been into Ptolemais and he was in Caesarea for a number of days. Word had got to Jerusalem, probably, ‘Paul is in the country’. Agabus, being a prayerful man, was probably praying and thinking about this, and then the Lord called him to go to Paul, to find him. He found him in the home of Philip the evangelist, and warned him about suffering to come in Jerusalem. The interesting thing is that some people interpreted this warning as a reason not to go to Jerusalem, but Paul interpreted this warning as a means of encouraging him to have the courage to endure the potential suffering that was coming his way. There was tension in the discussion about this, when some people pleaded with him, “Paul don’t go to Jerusalem. Look what’s going to happen to you! Send somebody else and you go back to Antioch, or to another place.” But Paul was sure that the prophecy was there to strengthen and encourage him, rather than to frighten him from doing what he knew from God he must do. This is an interesting point about prophecy. Prophecy doesn’t always tell us that life is going to be better and God is going to bless us in simple ways that are going to make us feel comfortable. What prophecy does tend to do, is to tell us very clearly that God is with us and that we should be strong in him, whatever the circumstances.
Arrival in Jerusalem
From Caesarea they continue their journey. They are getting close to Jerusalem now. We follow the story in the last couple of verses. Acts 20:15 - 16:
15 After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.Acts 20:15-16, NIV
This was a two-day journey by horseback from Caesarea to Jerusalem. A group of people accompanied Paul and he stayed with one of the disciples, who presumably was chosen because he had a big house because there were quite a few people in Paul’s group. They arrived in, or near Jerusalem, at the home of Mnason. At this point, the story is ready to take us on to what actually happens in the city of Jerusalem.
What can we learn from today’s episode? First of all, we can learn something about prophecy. There are three levels of prophecy recognised in this passage. First of all, the general sense of awareness of a possibility. In verse 4, “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” This was a general sense amongst the disciples in Tyre. Secondly, the specific gift of prophecy to individuals - that is the four unmarried daughters of Philip and thirdly, the recognised church-based prophet - someone who has a track record of accuracy and authority, that is Agabus. Prophecy, prophetic ministry is a gift that did not die out with the New Testament; it is still there today, but we need to understand it biblically.
The second thing we learn is concerning evangelists. We realise that Philip and Paul both had a remarkable gift of evangelism and we notice, therefore, that some people in the Church are gifted by God with particular ability to communicate the Gospel, and they are a precious resource in the Church. Paul was one, Philip was one. They are in our story and we honour them and all people like them.
The final observation I want to make, as we come to a conclusion of this remarkable episode, is to think about healthy fellowship between churches. It is described very well in this passage. As Paul travelled, he received tremendous welcome in all sorts of different places. There was a sincere welcome for him in Ephesus, Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and Mnason’ home, in or near Jerusalem. There was rich hospitality at Tyre, at Ptolemais, at Philip’s home in Caesarea, and at the home of Mnason. And there was heartfelt prayer. Have you noticed the sincere prayer that is described on several occasions and the willingness of people sometimes to travel with the evangelist, or the missionary, or the leader, who is going forward. Verse 16: ;“Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason”. That is at least four days’ journey for them, two there and two back. There are many different beautiful examples of the fellowship between churches in this passage. Our churches are on a common mission and when we can support each other in that common mission, then that mission will be strengthened.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode and I look forward to welcoming you to the next one.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- How did the church you know start?
- Can you identify prophets and evangelists in your church? Are you one of them?
- Pray for those who have the gifts of prophecy and evangelism.
- What exactly is fellowship?