God’s Plans Will Not Be Stopped
The week of Thanksgiving, I took some time off and we decided to day trip to San Diego. All our kids enjoy biking and we thought it’d be fun to go around Mission Bay. I was supposed to load up bikes the night before, but time got away from me so I thought–I’ll just do it in the morning.
About 8am, that morning I get out our bike carrier and start wheeling bikes out into the driveway. The kids form an assembly line with bikes, and we inflate tires and adjust seat heights, because they keep growing. After 30-40 minutes, all five bikes are dialed in and ready to load. I walk to the back of the van and realize that four out of the five bikes we now ride don’t fit on the bike rack we own. So I start lifting bikes and experimenting. I call friends to borrow special rack bars. A bit more than two hours later, we are ready to roll.
We’d planned to bike the bay, then grab lunch at Regents Pizza. Now we were pulling into San Diego at 11:30am, just about lunch time. All our planning had failed, the morning was shot–we were all hungry. We hadn’t even ridden a quarter-mile. Do you ever have days like that?
It is easy to complain when things don’t go the way you want. It seems like more often than not, our plans don’t work out the way we like. We chart out exactly what we want to happen, then adapt and adjust to what happens along the way. I’ve read that the military has a saying, “No battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy.”
Reality seems to be that great planning never aligns with what actually happens. The most frustrated (and sometimes the most frustrating) people are those who are inflexible, and can’t adapt to changes that come. The problem is that we all want things to go a certain way. We approach conversations with our spouse with the expectation that they’re going to act and respond in a certain way.
We go to work and aim to win, whether that means saving lives, selling more, teaching in a compelling way, or just getting through a stack of paperwork. We typically judge the success of a day based on whether we accomplished our plans. Did I complete my task list? Did I accomplish my goals for the day? But the problem is that everyone around us has different goals and these are often at odds with one another.
You want to talk through a concern on your heart. Your spouse wants to relax and rest. Conflict happens because someone’s plans are going to be thwarted. You want to ask a quick question. Your mom wants to know how all of life is going for you. One of you is going to find your plans frustrated. There is only one person who’s plans never change–Who is that? God’s plans are unstoppable. What God has planned will always come to pass.
2020 has been a year full of changes. We went from normal life to restricted gathering sizes to sheltering at home. We went from normal interactions to no interactions to masked interactions. As a church, we lost our meeting space. As individuals, a number of you lost jobs. For families, sports and extra-curricular activities ground to a halt. Culturally, we became more dependent on technology to shop, to handle finances, even normal meetings moved to video. But our God was not caught by surprise. He not only expected this to happen, but He planned for it.
He didn’t just know that this would happen, but He allowed the coronavirus to spread from Wuhan to the rest of the world. It’s not that God was just aware of how Governor Newsom would respond, but that He orchestrated all things to guarantee that our governor would respond the way he has.
Think about this strange paradox. All of the world is in bondage to sin, and ruled by Satan. And at the same time, our Heavenly Father is working all things out for good, according to His perfect and wise plan. He will not be stopped from accomplishing everything He has planned.
If you’ve ever seen Avengers: Infinity War, Dr Strange says that he looked into 14,000,605 futures and saw only one where they win. And so he sets in motion a trajectory where a super hero has to die in order for Thanos to be ultimately defeated. It’s a fun plot line, and it reveals a small element of how great our God is. He doesn’t just see all the potential futures and lead us down a path that ultimately results in winning. He actively leads and guides through every good and bad thing that happens.
He is always faithful. He never permits something that is at odds with His perfect plan. And I think that is the major point that Luke wants us to see at the end of Acts. We’re returning to Acts 28 today to start wrapping up the last chapter and we’ll see God is faithful, even when we can’t see how. This was an important message for the early, persecuted Church to hear.
The Lord had promised to build His Church–and He would. Our God has promised to hold tight His children–and He does. Our Father has promised to reach the world with the Gospel–and He is. And He told Paul that He would take him to Rome–and He will. As we read the beginning of Acts 28, we find invaluable truths about how God works.
1. God’s ways are not our ways Acts 28:1-6
You remember that Paul had just been shipwrecked after two horrible weeks at sea, where people were so scared that they couldn’t even eat. Finally, in answer to Paul’s prayers and God’s plan, the ship nears an island, hits a reef, and everyone swims or washes to shore, alive.
Now we know that He intends to keep Paul safe. God could have brought them to Rome in good weather. He could’ve brought them to a safe harbor in bad weather. They could’ve run ashore close to the beach. God’s ways are not our ways. That is not how I would choose to make it to land. They’re on the beach, bedraggled and water-logged. And that’s where Acts 28 starts.
“After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.’ 5He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god” (Acts 28:1–6).
God often works in ways you don’t expect. Have you ever thought that all those changes you’re making to your plans each day are actually necessary to work out the perfect plan of God? Rather than an inconvenience and a challenge to your plans, when your schedule is thrown into turmoil, it is because God has other plans for you that day.
When the friend you were with two days ago calls you and says, “I just found that that I’ve got COVID,” you can feel like your life is wrecked. You have to cancel plans. You have to think about who else you were around. You have to weigh out whether you want to go get tested. From our perspective, the day is shot and the news is bad. But could it be that God is at work? Your plans needed to be cancelled in order for God’s perfect plan to move forward. His ways are perfect all the time.
Isaiah 55:8–9, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. 9‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
In Acts 28 it happens like this—Paul, I’m going to take you to Rome. But first I’m going to put you in prison at Caesarea for a long while. Then I’m going to send you by ship there. Oh, but I will be letting a two-week storm wreck your boat and lead everyone to despair. Oh, and at the end of the storm, I plan to shipwreck your boat–but don’t worry, I will allow everyone to live, so long as no one flees early.
Can you agree with me that this is not the way that Paul thought he’d get to Rome? And you’ll notice in Acts 28, that once all the tired, hungry, wet men were on the beach, what happens? It starts to rain–because it’s winter, and you’re not wet enough. Is God in control of the weather? Yes. Is this rain part of His plan? Yes. Would I be standing there complaining to God? Absolutely. I forget that His ways are not my ways. But this is the means by which the islanders begin to show hospitality.
In biblical times, it was normal for shipwreck victims to either be made slaves or be put to death. Perhaps due to the Roman guard, this doesn’t happen. The islanders don’t speak Greek, but they go out of their way to care for 276 people who washed up on shore. They build a bonfire and the men begin to get warm again.
Now you’d think that things are getting better, but God’s ways are not our ways. Because after a shipwreck and a good rain, the next thing you need is a snake to bite and clamp onto your hand. There are no more snakes on Malta today due to population growth and development, but neighboring islands still have the horned viper, which is the most poisonous snake in Europe. This is probably what bit Paul as the islanders all watch for the toxins to take over and kill the prisoner who escaped the sea.
Paul seems unaware of the danger and just shakes off the snake into a fire. We have no idea the emotions he felt or what happened afterwards. How do you handle adversity? How do you deal with changes to your life and plans? We have all been forced to deal with this question in 2020.
We went from normal life to what’s been called “the new normal”. First large social gatherings are advised against. Then people are advised to stay at home. Then you go out in public or enter a store, you might wear a mask, then you should wear a mask, now you must wear one–except when sleeping.
Once geared up, you walk into a store and find out that they don’t have wet wipes, toilet paper or cleaning products. So you try to be happy with the four single-ply rolls of gas-station quality toilet paper you found–because Amazon Prime means delivery in a month. And school is cancelled, then classes move online. They might go back to meeting together, but no one is sure. Your kids are becoming demotivated to learn, and it seems that nobody else online is taking the class very seriously. In fact, some of them appear to be logged in, but not in front of the computer.
Is what is happening right now in accordance with God’s plans? Can you trust Him when things don’t go how you think they should? When your spouse comes home with bad news. When you get the call that your parents aren’t doing well. When your job is terminated. When you have to wear a mask in order to stand in a line just to shop at Ikea. Can you trust that God’s perfect plan is happening right in front of your eyes? How do you respond? Like Israel, we are prone to complaining. We are prone to taking matters into our hands to force our way. When change is forced upon us, we see evil and conspiracy. God’s ways are not our ways.
Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”
Isaiah 40:28, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable.”
Sometimes you never know why things happen the way they do. Back in the 90’s, before cell phones and email, I spent two weeks in Russia teaching at a Bible Institute there which had been established not long after communism ended. It was one of my first trips overseas and to get to where we were headed, we flew to Germany, then Moscow, then boarded an overnight train that took us to our destination. The plane rides were long and sleepless, the airport in Moscow was stark and bare, with almost no English. My first impression of Russia was that everyone was angry with you. Turns out that is just what Russian sounds like.
The customs officer interrogated westerners, visually inspected your suitcase contents in front of you, and then we met our guide. His job was to get us from the airport to the train station. The car was small and stifling, the heat was on as there was snow on the ground. Finally we made it to the train station and found our train. Our guide got us situated in some seats and then the ticket master came by. It sounded like a shouting match as they talked through details.
As the train began to lumber down the tracks and out of Moscow, I unpacked and realized that I had lost my passport. It was utterly gone and I had no idea where it now was. What followed was a torrent of grumbling and complaining. My friend who I was travelling with kindly stopped me and began to ask me what I was thankful for. He was gently correcting me.
How do you handle changes to your life and plan? Can you accept them with peace and grace as part of God’s plan? I think this is part of the meaning of Proverbs 3:5–6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. 6In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
Matthew 6:31–34, “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 32For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
God has a plan. He had a plan for Paul. He has a plan for you. Our Lord has a plan for our church and for the world at large. We do not need to fear. “God’s ways are not our ways.” You need to be faithful, even if . . .
2. Your labor may not bear visible fruit Acts 28:6-10
Earlier in Acts 14, when people suggested that Paul was a god, he rebuked them and told them about Jesus. Here in Acts 28, there is no evidence that Paul witnessed to them at all. It is possible that Paul didn’t know what they were saying and didn’t feel able to communicate the Gospel in a language he was unfamiliar with. It is also possible that he simply didn’t feel up for preaching after two weeks of little food, then surviving a shipwreck and being drenched in the rain.
But what is strangely absent from the text is any evidence that he preached the Gospel. Nor is there any evidence that anyone believed and was saved. Acts 28:6–10, “They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god. 7Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, healed him. 9And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.”
The governor of the island takes everyone in for a few days until the 276 passengers are distributed to homes for the winter. His dad is suffering from what the grammar of the text describes as a recurring fever. This became known as Malta fever–an intermittent fever that lasts an average of four months and was transmitted in the milk of goats on Malta. It caused fevers, sweats and body aches.
After healing Publius’ father, many in the town visit and are also healed. We know that the purpose of miracles is not simply to make people better, but to authenticate the messenger. Hebrews 2:3–4, “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”
Second Corinthians 12:12, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” I have no doubt that Paul shared the Gospel with Publius and with others there. These healings would’ve clearly demonstrated Paul’s authority from God.
But there is no evidence anyone believed on Malta. There is extraordinary kindness by the islanders. They think–at least for a while, that Paul is a god. He heals people who were perpetually sick. They show great honor and respect to Paul as time goes on. They provide all that’s necessary for the remainder of Paul’s journey. But no one appears to believe.
Luke’s purpose is to chart the birth and growth of the Early Church. He’s telling the story of how the Gospel spread from Jews to Gentiles, from Jerusalem to the uttermost ends of the earth. Here we have what Romans considered barbarians–non-Greek speakers. It would have fit with his purpose to tell how the Gospel came to those people.
Paul survives a shipwreck and a snakebite, but there is no visible fruit. Paul heals the governor’s father, then many on the island, over the span of three months–and there appears to be no visible fruit. No conversion, no church established and only an implied Gospel message. Three months of a long journey to Rome. Three months stuck on an island–most of it filled with mundane moments not worth recording, which is what life mainly is.
Sometimes we read Acts and the gospels–we read biographies of believers from the past and we forget that the vast majority of life is filled with the mundane. Most of what you and I will do in life is not noteworthy. We are called to be faithful in the mundane, to embrace that there may not be visible spiritual fruit from much of what we do.
When you share your faith and someone doesn’t respond, that is normal. When you talk to your kids and it feels like it goes in one ear and out the other, that is normal. When I preach and mass revival doesn’t happen, that is normal. When you work your tail off because you’re serving Jesus, and no one seems to notice or thank you, that is normal. We shouldn’t do those things and expect immediate results. Your labors may not bear visible fruit.
Second Timothy 2:4–7, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. 5An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 6It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. 7Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
Do you notice that none of them receive a reward immediately? The soldier trains and trains so that he’s ready if there’s a battle. The athlete works his tail off with no reward until game day. The farmer perseveres in hope of the harvest. All of them are called to hard faithfulness and mundane practices for the majority of their careers. That is our life.
I think this is why I like the biography of William Carey so much. He labored long and hard for many years with minimal results. His church neglected him and he stayed faithful. His wife went mad and he stayed faithful. He preached without results and he stayed faithful. His Bible translation work was lost in a fire and he stayed faithful. His wife died and he stayed faithful. Then there was a convert, and another and another. And his translation work finally resulted in a Bible. And others came to join him in the work. The modern missions movement traces its origins to him–all because he stayed faithful when life was mundane and results were unseen.
God has a plan that He is accomplishing. You are a small part of that great plan. You are necessary, even critical to it–but the vast majority of your life must be faithful living with unseen, unknown results. Do not get discouraged if you’re slogging along on the paths of righteousness. Do not envy what you see on Instagram and read about in books. That is not reality.
Galatians 6:9–10, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Your witness to your family may not now bear visible fruit. It may never. Your faithfulness at work may not bear any fruit that you see. There is no record in Acts of a church being founded in Malta. But surely a number of people there heard the Gospel. Early Church history says that Publius did eventually believe and was made the first bishop of a church there. He eventually moved to Athens and was martyred there about 60 years later. But Luke records none of it.
Your ministry may not bear visible fruit. Paul’s time in Malta confirms this. You are not responsible for the results. You are just called to be faithful. First Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” You do this because God’s ways are not your ways. His plans will not be stopped.
3. All the world serves the plan of God Acts 28:11-16
Romans 5:6, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” When I hear our Sheriff Chad Bianco saying that his deputies prioritize law and order over the enforcement of ever-changing executive orders, I am thankful. When I see the hypocrisy of many of our governmental leaders between what they publicly advocate and how they actually live, I become cynical. When I read of Tim Challies’ son dying of unknown causes while out for casual exercise, I grieve.
It is easy to be blown about by latest news and forget that all the world serves the plan of God. Our Lord had plans for keeping Paul in Malta through the winter that we probably won’t ever know. But at the right time, God moves Paul out of Malta.
Acts 28:11–16, “After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. 12Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. 16And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him.”
You may wonder why Luke includes this travelog here in Acts. He is, in short form, describing the final journey of Paul to Rome. But he is also highlighting how the weather serves the plan of God. In a very direct and intentional path, this boat makes straight for Rome. Prior to Malta, they fought the weather at every turn. Now the winds take them just where they need to go. The route is perfect. Each leg is as long as a sailor in early spring would be comfortable to go. And they each are wonderfully uneventful.
Luke seems to record this so that we would know that all the world follows the plan of God. Moses has the sea parted before him. Joseph prays and the Nile turns to blood. Jesus prays and the storm on the lake goes quiet. Matthew 8:27, “And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’”
Never doubt that the cold weather you sit in, or the hot mess of September, is in accord with the plan of God. His ways are not our ways, but all creation is following His ultimate plan. Believers do this most naturally. In Puteoli and from Rome, they come to encourage and welcome Paul. After such a long journey, and before the trials ahead of him, Paul surely needed the encouragement. He stated this as his ambition long ago in a letter to them. Romans 1:11–12, “For I long to see you … 12that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
First Thessalonians 5:10–11, “Whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” Every act of yours as a Christian, and particularly acts of encouragement (which are commanded by God), are means of accomplishing the perfect will of God. You know those times when the right words come at the right time? I got a text like that this week. That is part of God’s perfect plan being exercised.
But it’s not just believers who are used by God. Unbelievers serve the plan of God. Remember that it was antagonistic, hate-filled Jews who got Paul started on his journey to Rome. God permitted his imprisonment to provide Him access to various rulers, to Caesar’s soldiers and household. God even led the imperial jailer of Rome to grant Paul liberty to work and live and minister in Rome for two years while awaiting his trial.
Think about this–every act of the unbeliever, however evil in motive or deed, is permitted by God if and only if it forwards His perfect will. Acts 2:23, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Acts 4:27–28, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” There is a lot of evil in the world. Some of you have had great evil done to you. I don’t know how all of it fits into the all-wise plan of God–but I have no doubt that He will use it for His glory.
God uses nature, believer and unbeliever to accomplish His plans. All the world serves the plan of God. Next Saturday night, when you see the forecast for weather in the 30s at 8am, you need to remember that the Lord controls the weather. It serves Him. He may be using it to keep someone with Covid home–who knows? But He knows we’ll be out here worshipping.
He controls the governor and his decrees. In the time of Paul, God’s plan wasn’t to make everything legal and easy for the Christians. But His plan was to grow the Church and lead many to belief in Him. God still desired for rulers, soldiers, servants and citizens to all bow the knee to Him. And He ordained for Christianity to be illegal for a couple hundred years, to jumpstart and deepen the commitment of the Early Church.
We should not be surprised that life is getting harder. Your challenges personally, and our challenges as Christians in America–those are not outside the plan of God or the way that God has worked in times past.
A couple years prior to his arrival in Rome, Paul had written Romans 15:29–32, “I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ. 30I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.”
Little did Paul know at that time, how God would fulfill his ambition. God’s ways are not our ways. His plan is unstoppable. You may not see the fruit visible. But all the world is serving the plan of God. We are simply called to be faithful–to make the most of these evil days. Ephesians 5:15–16, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”
Did you know that almost all believers throughout time are the result of unknown Christians like you and me faithfully sharing the Gospel with others?