Have you ever wondered what God is doing in your life? Most people do. If you have some sense that you are in relationship with God through what Jesus has done for you, you will likely have those moments when you say to yourself:
I thought God was up to something in my life!
What is happening? This isn’t how I thought it would play out.
Whether it’s how life is unfolding (or, perhaps, unraveling a bit) at home, or persistent and seemingly unresolvable trouble with kids (or parents!), or a work situation that turned around for the worse not for the better, or those pesky and petty church conflicts that don’t seem to be going away (no matter how much you ignore them), you end up puzzling over how God is (or is not) working things out.
Perhaps the current pandemic situation has brought to the surface some of those questions and feelings. With time in quarantine, less chance to get out and clear your mind, it might be that you’ve had more time to think deeply about what is going on in your world, in your life, in your day-to-days. But instead of merely puzzling over what God is up to, there might be a better way to think–and for that help we’ll turn to the book of Acts.
Before we notice what Acts shows us, it will be helpful to keep in mind how we are to read narratives. When we read Biblical narratives, we must be careful to not mis-read them; as if they are sets of instructions for us to follow. That a particular Biblical character did a certain thing isn’t a veiled set of instructions for us; the narrative tells us what happened and how that person lived in that moment. We can learn from their example, without reducing their experience to a dance diagram telling us where to put our steps in walking out life with God. So, with that understanding, let’s notice something found in the book of Acts.
In Acts 23, Paul is presented to the Jewish ruling council. He’s been charged with violating Jewish laws. And it doesn’t go well for him. On the night of that confrontation, Jesus appears to Paul and says, “Take courage; as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also” (Acts 23:11). So, Jesus makes it clear to Paul that he will be heading to Rome. But it’s the way that Paul gets there that is so fascinating!
In Acts 23:12–35, we learn that a band of forty men have taken an oath to not eat or drink until they kill Paul. So, Paul is put in “protective custody” and sent to Caesarea.
In Acts 24, we are told about Paul’s arrival in Caesarea and his hearing before the Roman governor, Felix. But even having heard the less-than-convincing charges brought against Paul, Felix decides to leave him in custody . . . for two years!
In Acts 25–26, another Roman ruler enters the scene–Festus, a new governor. He hears the case against Paul and decides he can’t decide! So he appeals to another Roman official, Agrippa, to help him decide what to do with Paul. Together, they ultimately grant Paul’s request to have his case heard by Caesar.
In Acts 27, Paul is (finally) on his way to Rome on a prison ship–or actually a couple of ships because they have to switch boats on the way to Rome. But even that isn’t easy. The journey from Caesarea becomes complicated. The seas are treacherous; the voyage is life-threatening. The ship carrying Paul and others ends up being ruined in a storm and he ends up ship-wrecked on Malta. Where he just happens to get bitten by a poisonous viper–and survives.
And, finally, in Acts 28, Paul makes it to Rome.
What do we see in this lengthy narrative? A few things are worth noting.
The strategy for getting Paul out of Jerusalem was disturbing; Paul hardly would have welcomed being the object of a murderous party of fanatics.
The timing of the working out of that word is prolonged; Paul probably didn’t initially think it would take years to make that journey.
The means of getting Paul to Rome was incredibly circuitous; no one would have planned the trip the way it played out.
The trouble Paul faced along the way was constant; hardly the way we might think “God should do things.”
But we also need to note that Jesus’ word to Paul was true. Paul was going to Rome; he would testify of Jesus there. And everything between that certain word and Paul’s final arrival would have to be held loosely. Paul was going to take a very indirect route to get there.
That’s where we might find help. Luke doesn’t give us any insight into why the Lord chose this particular route for Paul to get to Rome. It’s just the route He chose. Luke doesn’t explain much at all about how Paul was thinking during this lengthy journey. But he does gives us snapshots of Paul just pressing on, over the years.
That’s where this narrative can help us. We see Jesus at work. We watch Paul living well even in the indirect route . . . while having little clarity about how the journey will go or when he will finally arrive. We just learn that what Jesus told Paul did come to pass.
That might mean that the seeming indirect route to growth in life at home, or finding resolution with kids (or parents), or a hoped-for turnaround at work, or some maturation in life at church is not a puzzle to God at all–it could be the very route you should be on.