What God did through Paul’s imprisonment in Rome was amazing. The Lord did not need fancy methods in order for His gospel to go forth. He needed only a single servant, and this one was hidden away on a backstreet, in a small rented house, under armed guard. Yet for two years, a steady stream of hungry souls from all walks of life came to him in his makeshift jail (see Acts 28:30-31).
In fact, that little rented house served as the Holy Ghost’s Grand Central Headquarters for “Operation Rome.” Inside, God’s Spirit was raising up a devoted body of believers who would come out preaching the gospel with power and anointing. And they would take the good news of Christ to the farthest corners of the empire.
What is God trying to tell us through this account? Could the Lord be telling us here not to look for bigness in ministry, not to focus on numbers or techniques? Simply put, God is telling us that the Holy Spirit can lay hold of any common person, bring him to a place of total dependence, and through him reach communities, cities, even nations, from the most insignificant places.
Why did these people come streaming into Paul’s house? Why did they respond to mere word-of-mouth information to hear a poor, non-celebrity preacher? I say it was because that house was filled with the Spirit of God. Jesus was present there, the Holy Spirit convicted all who entered, and Christ’s presence healed their hungry souls.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not preaching, “Be small.” I’m preaching, “God can use the most humble.” He can use anyone who is willing to be stripped of all confidence in the flesh and be dependent on Him for everything. And the Lord can do that with any Christian, from any walk of life. I know, because I’m an example of it. God found a skinny preacher in the Pennsylvania countryside and sent him to New York City to work with gangs and drug addicts. What could be more unlikely?
“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
The Book of Acts closes on an amazing note. The final two verses find Paul in chains, under house arrest, and guarded by Roman soldiers. Yet, read the joyous note with which Paul’s situation is described: “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (Acts 28:30–31).
The original Greek for forbidding here actually means “hindering.” The New American Standard Version says Paul preached and taught the gospel “with all openness, unhindered.” What an amazing statement, given that Paul was imprisoned. The gospel was “unhindered,” meaning unstopped, unobstructed. The author uses this testimony to close Acts with a powerful declaration: “The gospel cannot be hindered!”
Make no mistake, there were hindrances on all sides to Paul’s message. When he called on the Jewish leaders in Rome to visit him in his chains, they were indignant. They said, “We don’t even know you. Who are you to us?” When Paul finally did preach Christ to them, they ended up squabbling among themselves. At the same time, the Emperor Nero was torturing and killing Christians in the streets of Rome.
Given these mountainous hindrances, how did God plan to impact the godless Roman Empire? What would be His method for building a church in Rome that would influence the world throughout the Empire for ages to come? Could it really be this jailed, Jewish former terrorist, whose speech was said to be contemptible? Was Paul God’s best instrument to evangelize Rome and all its vast territories?
For two years, the apostle was shut up in this nondescript house on a side street. He had no associate evangelist, no Timothy or Barnabas, to work alongside him. He had no microphone to broadcast his messages. He had no consultants or political connections to help him. Paul simply had no planned program or agenda. And even if he had, there was no way to advertise it. He couldn’t go door-to-door evangelizing or hold street meetings.
He declared, in so many words, “Here I am, Lord. Use me as You see fit.”
No, Paul was just there. And yet he was absolutely content with where God had had placed him. He declared, in so many words, “Here I am, Lord. Use me as You see fit. I don’t know Your plan, but I do know You put me here. Your gospel will go forth unhindered.”
Many in the Church today live as if they’ve accepted defeat. Their thoughts are ruled by doubt rather than belief and they live with habitual patterns of sin. They keep their faith to themselves, thinking that if they struggle so badly, how could they possibly help someone else? This is what the Christian life looks like without resurrection power.
Actually, that’s what the disciples’ lives looked like after the crucifixion. So what was the first thing Jesus did after the resurrection? He dealt with His followers’ fear: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19).
The disciples had literally locked themselves in, afraid of the world outside. They feared mockery, derision, persecution, even the possibility of a death such as the one Jesus experienced. But Christ came straight through those walls to meet them in their fear and His first words to them were, “I give you peace.” Even then they were still afraid, so Jesus had to say it to them twice: “Peace be with you” (see 20:19, 21). Christ didn’t berate or judge them for their fear; instead, He met them at their deepest point of need.
The same thing happened about a week later. Again the disciples had locked themselves away in fear, and once more Jesus entered bringing peace: “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (20:26).
Sometimes Jesus has to say things to us more than once. Even so, He didn’t judge the disciples for their fear; instead, He showed them all patience. Earlier that week Thomas had expressed disbelief, but now Jesus invited him to examine His scars to remove any doubts. “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (20:28).
Here in Thomas’s response we see Christ’s remedy for our fears: believe! Jesus proclaims this to His Church, and His Church proclaims it every week to all who enter its doors: “Peace be with you. Don’t be afraid. Believe on Him.”
The Christian church was born through the power of the Holy Spirit. As we read through the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament, we see a picture of the early church the way God intended it to be. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Here was a community of believers who freely loved the Word of God and were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. No one needed to badger or coerce them to love the Word. Instead, the Spirit within them inspired it. The same Spirit who wrote the Bible created an appetite inside of them for what it said. They shared with one another the deep love the Spirit had put in their hearts. They also became bold witnesses for Christ, filled with wisdom beyond their training. Their hearts were full of the Holy Spirit and they experienced surprises as God did things that no one could anticipate.
Not only had the Holy Spirit been sent to earth, but He acted in and through His people—demonstrating His power to glorify Christ. The early church experienced Him moving in their hearts and in their lives. Because of the hostile environment around them, they were repeatedly driven back to God for a fresh supply of the Holy Spirit, and they were wise enough to yield to His direction. Is the Holy Spirit moving like that in our lives? And in our churches?
I sometimes wonder if the early Christians were around today, would they even recognize what we call Christianity? Our version is blander, almost totally intellectual in nature, and devoid of the Holy Spirit power the early church regularly experienced. How much loss do we suffer because we don’t expect the Spirit to show up as promised? Everything we read about the church in the New Testament centered on the power of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of the Christian believers. Sadly, for many of us this has not been our experience.
I believe it’s time to return to the kind of faith we see in the New Testament church. They believed God’s Word, they expected the Spirit to do great things, and He came through as promised.
He will do the same for us today.
Jim Cymbala began the Brooklyn Tabernacle with less than twenty members in a small, rundown building in a difficult part of the city. A native of Brooklyn, he is a longtime friend of both David and Gary Wilkerson.
When Jesus was on earth, He testified, “I am consumed with zeal for my Father’s house” (see John 2:17). Now His message to the Christians in Sardis, and to us, is this: “You enjoyed My favor, with a good reputation all around. You were blessed with powerful worship and preaching. But instead of moving forward, you began to think, ‘We have arrived.’ So you relaxed. You were no longer watchful, and indifference began to set in. Now you’ve settled into a spiritual comfort zone. You didn’t go on to fulfill the mission I gave you.”
God’s Word shows us what happens when we neglect His house and give first place to our own interests. It’s all illustrated in the book of Haggai.
When Haggai prophesied, God had just delivered His people out of Babylon and led them back to Jerusalem to rebuild His house. The Lord desired a “lampstand church,” where He could visibly manifest His presence among His people. He wanted the nations to see the transformed lives of the Israelites and a land filled with His blessing and glory. So He commanded Israel, “Focus on My church—that is your first mission. If you will be faithful to take care of My house, I will take care of yours.”
The people started out doing as the Lord instructed them, beginning to rebuild His temple. But after a while, they said, “The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (Haggai 1:2). The interpretation here is, “We don’t have time to do that work. We’re too busy.” The truth is, they got consumed with building their own fine homes and businesses.
What was the Lord’s response? He said through Haggai, “Mine house [lies in] waste, and ye run every man unto his own house” (1:9). The prophet was saying, in essence, “God delivered you and set you on a mission to build His house. But you’re so busy building your own homes, you’re neglecting His. The Lord’s concerns are no longer your focus. You’re all wrapped up in your own interests.”
Are you guilty of the same defilement? Do you have energy to run everywhere to attend to your own concerns—but have no energy for the Lord’s interests? Do you have time to work on your own house, but only a few hours on Sunday morning for the house of God? Do you make time to shop or watch TV, but find little or no time for prayer? More importantly, do you have the capacity to be stirred by these words from the Lord?