Sermon: Pursue Your Passion - Acts 19

If you'd like to change your world, or make a life-changing impact on those you come in contact with, take a look at the way Paul pursed his passion.

Scriptures: Acts 19

Molly Brown was reading a book in her first-class cabin on the night of April 14, 1912, when the Titanic hit an iceberg. Brown had purchased a ticket on the maiden voyage of the "unsinkable" ship at the last moment, when she'd gotten word that her grandchild was ill. When the engines stopped, Molly put on six pair of wool stockings, a wool suit, fur coat, hat and muff. She put $500 cash in one pocket, and a good luck amulet she had purchased recently on her Egyptian tour in her other pocket. She was busy helping other women load into lifeboats when she, herself, was pushed into Lifeboat No. 6 by two American merchants. She took control of the lifeboat, rowing it away from the sinking ship, keeping her group calm for six terrorizing hours, and then taking a key role in the rescue efforts once she was rescued by the Carpathia.

Though Molly Brown became a famous political activist and war hero (she was named to the French Legion of Honor for her work with wounded soldiers) in World War I, few know that she also survived two more ship disasters, and a hotel fire to boot!

(Source: http://www.mollybrownmuseum.com/)

Visual opportunity

There are a host of photographs available of the ruins of Ephesus, including the two-story library front, the single column from the Temple of Artemis, and the theater where 25,000 once gathered for a near-riot, in protest of Paul's ministry. If you have a way to project or print the photographs for your listeners, your ability to communicate the impact of Paul's work will be greatly increased. At the least, it can help you understand how large the city must have been when Paul arrived. One of the best video teachings done in Ephesus would come from Ray Vander Laan's That the World May Know series.

Background

The stunning collection of the ruins of Ephesus give us a glimpse how important the city must have been in when Paul first came there. Two thousand years ago, Ephesus was the major port of modern-day Turkey, and the Romans called the city the crown jewel of Asia Minor. At its peak, 400,000 lived there, and the international trade that arrived daily made it one of the most famous cities in the world. Only 10 percent of the ruins have been unearthed, and yet the area uncovered today stretches for miles near the coast of Eastern Turkey, southeast of modern-day Izmir. When it was in its prime, the city must have been a fantastic sight.

Into this pagan, metropolitan environment walked Paul, and his traveling companions. He had almost no money, no friends already living in the city, and there had been no advance team preparing the people for his message. He certainly had no guarantee that anyone would listen to his message, or that he would find any measure of success there. He had, after all, struck out in Athens, just across the sea, in Greece. In cities like Thessalonica and Philippi, his stay had been extremely brief. With so many people in Ephesus, it would take a miracle to get the message to the masses.

Acts 19 tells us Paul spent three months in the local synagogue before moving to a market-place ministry, where he spoke passionately for more than two years. The results? Ephesus and Asia Minor were profoundly changed because of one man's passion.

Acts 19 tells us that "all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord," (Acts 19:10) because of Paul's work. Undoubtedly, many of the travelers who passed through Ephesus took Paul's message to their next destination. From Ephesus, Paul had an international ministry.

As they heard Paul speak, the people in Ephesus also had seen or heard about the miracles that came with his message. Paul had been involved in a great number of healing miracles (19:11-12), and even the story of seven sons beaten and stripped naked by an evil spirit had caused the name of Jesus to be "held in high honor." (19:17).

There were open confessions of following Christ, and of the repentance of sin. In one case, former sorcery devotees publicly burned scrolls valued at 50,000 drachmas. (A drachma was a typical day's wage, equating to perhaps $5-7 million in today's dollars.). The dramatic ruins of the city's massive library tell us how valued the people considered written material, and serve to increase the shocking impact the scroll-burning must have had on those who saw it. By the end of two years' work, Ephesus was being radically changed because of Paul's passion. No wonder Luke tells us that "the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power!" (19:20)

At a climatic moment of Paul's ministry in Ephesus, there was even a riot. A silversmith worried about the economic impact Christianity was having on the acclaimed Artemis worship at Ephesus worked the locals into such a frenzy that 25,000 or so ran into the huge theater near the port and shouted pro-Artemis slogans for two hours. Paul wanted to preach to the crowd, but his friends kept him away from the riot. One man did get to speak to the crowd, but only for a moment before the furious chants began to rain down on him. (19:23-24).

Paul left the city, and left Timothy in charge of the church there (1 Timothy 1:3). Despite living in an increasingly difficult environment, the church in Ephesus thrived, and likewise the entire area of Asia Minor.

Today, Ephesus lies in ruins, the economic victim of a harbor that silted up. The Temple of Artemis once stood as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, complete with more than 120 massive columns. Today, only a single column rises from a small pasture, hard evidence that Artemis of the Ephesians wasn't nearly as great as the 25,000 fanatics once insisted she was. On the other hand, Paul's message of Jesus Christ resulted in the conversion of billions, and his letter to the Ephesians is still being read, studied, and memorized today, some 2,000 years later.

In one of those passages, Paul broke into a moment of sheer praise. It's his personal doxology:

"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." (Ephesians 3:20-21)

The impact of the Gospel was much more than Paul had ever imagined, and it indeed remains strong, throughout every generation since that day.

By the time the Letter to the Ephesians was written, Paul was late in his years, full of confidence in his ministry, and the witness of too many miracles to count. Roll back the clock however, and you'll eventually come to the first day Paul walked into Ephesus, armed with little more than a passion for Christ.

If you'd like to change your world, or make a life-changing impact on those you come in contact with, take a look at the way Paul pursed his passion.

I. Remember your past successes

Take the example of Colin.

Like a lot of high school students, he needed a summer job. It wasn't easy finding one, but Colin did what he could. When there was an opening, he worked day jobs on soda trucks. And that's what he had. That was the opening. Just occasional day jobs helping out on trucks delivering soft drinks.

But because he was there, he heard about an opening at the Pepsi plant. It was a lousy job, one of cleaning up soda syrup. No one else even wanted the job. But Colin took it.

And get this. He did such a good job there, the plant manager asked him to come back the next summer. That summer, he moved over to a bottling machine. By the end of the summer, he was a deputy shift leader.

Colin was getting an important lesson in life. One success builds on another. "All work is honorable," he later wrote. "Always do your best, because someone is watching."

From job to job, success to success, Colin moved up in the world. We knew Colin - Colin Powell - as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Gulf War, and later, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.

From job to job, assignment to assignment, Colin Powell modeled something for us. You can use past success as a building block for future success, even if the only past success you have is mopping up soda syrup really, really well.

(Source: The Fred Factor, Mark Sanborn, Doubleday, 2004, page 23.

By the time Paul arrived in Ephesus, he was, at the least, comfortable with the process. He didn't start his work in Asia Minor's most influential city. Instead, he came to the city armed with the knowledge that God had worked through him in several other places.

He had had a successful ministry in Pisidian Antioch, where "the whole city gathered" to hear his sermons. (Acts 13:44)

He had survived vicious attacks against his name, and his body. (Acts 14:19-30, for instance.)

He'd been in Corinth for 18 months, a city notorious for its 1,000 temple prostitutes and the daily appearance of visiting sailors who took advantage of the city's over-land shipping shortcut. The city was so immoral that a saying had developed. A person living in a wild way, elsewhere in the world, was "living like a Corinthian!" Paul had seen success there, despite the ongoing problems of disorder, drunkenness and immorality referenced in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church.

Paul had been only a short time in places like Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea, but the churches he started there were all alive and doing well.

In the very beginning of Paul's work, he'd simply been a assistant leader in a single church in Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:25-26). He must have had no idea that he would soon become the key leader of a movement that would change entire countries, especially in the explosion of Christianity in Asia Minor. It was in Ephesus that most of that work was done in Asia Minor, but when Paul arrived there, he had almost no resources with which to get the job done.

One of the things he did have, is something you've got. He had some success in his past that gave him confidence for the future.

None of us should ignore our past mistakes, or failures. Paul's work in Athens, for instance, had shown so little impact, the entire effort was written off as a near-failure. (Acts 17:32-34) But Paul's reaction to that disappointment was to move to Corinth, where the message did take root. Had he quite the entire mission because of a few discouraging stops, Paul would have never made it to Ephesus, where his message found the most listeners, and where he saw his greatest success.

With his past successes behind him, Paul boldly walked into Ephesus and followed the same model that had been successful for him in the past. He found the synagogue, and shared his belief that Jesus was the Messiah with all who would listen there. When the synagogue turned him away, he headed for the marketplace, this time surrounded with his first converts.

Every success led to more confidence, and increasing confidence led to more success.

We all know examples of those who use past successes to lead to future success.

  • It's the college graduate looking for a full-time job, remembering the day he landed a part-time job selling burgers.
  • It's the salesman who remembers the first few small sales as he tries to land the largest contract of his life.
  • It's the first-year school teacher who remembers the success of her student teaching days.
  • It's the rookie NFL quarterback remembering what it was like to score touchdowns with his college team.
  • It's a physician early in her practice, remembering the long days of the internship, and what she had learned there.

If you've got a passion - if you've found your God-given purpose in life - then pursue it first of all by remembering your past successes. That will be all the confidence you need to walk into the "Ephesus" of your life, ready to see what God will do, through you.

II. Use what you have to do what you can

At the first, Paul found only 12 men who were not very far along in their faith. They had heard about John's baptism, and nothing more. (Acts 19:1-3) Twelve men in a city of nearly half a million is so small, many would be too discouraged to continue. Paul's passion is what drove him to take those 12, share the Gospel with them, and start his work. From that small start, however, came miraculous change.

When Lee Iacocca took over a broken-down company, he had little to work with. One thing he did have, however, was the concept of a "mini-van," a vehicle that would reverse Chrysler's fortunes in a very short period of time.

Rick Warren started his first church with a group so small, they were able to meet comfortably in a single living room. Today, he has an international ministry and a church body that numbers nearly 20,000 a Sunday.

Brother Andrew, "God's Smuggler," started with a single suitcase with some Christian literature he left behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet-controlled Poland. Half a century later, he heads an international ministry, and reflects on his sometimes-dangerous visits to more than 125 countries. Smuggling Bibles through dangerous border crossings, the evangelist claims to have never had a Bible confiscated, and he was arrested only three times. (Source: www.opendoorssusa.org)

Football Coach Chan Gailey once wrestled with a budget too small and shortages of equipment at Troy State, a far cry from the programs he'd known as a player. As an assistant coach at Troy in the 1970's, he must have wondered if he'd ever realize his dream of coaching at the Division I level. His solution? He worked hard at his job, and a few years later, returned to Troy State as its head coach. He took the players he had, formed a great team, and won the Division II championship in his second year. From there, he went on to coach the Dallas Cowboys and at Georgia Tech, among other places, enjoying the brightest spotlights his profession can afford.

The barren pasture lands of Texas, and the harsh deserts of the Middle East proved to have oil underneath the surface. If people had only worked the surface, the amazing value of the land would have never been discovered. The dirt of South Africa proved home to diamonds and gold, and the minerals of the appropriately named Dead Sea proved incredibly prosperous to those willing to start where they were, and use what they had.

Who's in your circle of acquaintance? Start there. Realize that the people God has placed around you are, and your current life situation is exactly where God can use you, if you'll take what you have, and do what you can. Say there are only a handful of people in your Bible study group? Start there, and do what you can. In fact, if you wait until you have all you need to accomplish great things, you'll almost certainly never accomplish anything of note.

Late in his ministry, Paul found himself in prison. Literally unable to plant new churches, walk to a new country, or re-visit the pastors he'd left on location, Paul could have thrown up his hands, lived those prison years in bitter disappointment, and lost his ministry. But his passion simply would not allow it, so he used what he had - pen and paper - and did what he could. He wrote letters to his churches, and their leaders, almost certainly unaware that God would use his written words as instructions for billions of believers.

III. Trust God for the results

Re-visit the most intense moment of Paul's stay in Ephesus. Read Acts 19:23-34.

To the untrained eye, the 25,000 rioting Artemis fanatics were out of control. Paul's friends desperately tried to keep him away from the crowd, for they knew the life-threatening danger he faced. They were a mob without restraint.

But were they, really, out of control? Luke tells us that most of the people in the theater weren't aware of why they were in such a frenzy (19:32). To the rest of the city - which included hundreds of thousands who weren't in the theater - there must have been intense curiosity over the uproar. After the crowd dispersed, two hours later, surely the news circulated. People asked questions. People prodded for answers. And when they found that Paul's group of believers were at the center of the protest, the message of Christ found untold thousands of new listeners. It is quite conceivable that God arranged to have more people hear the message in a single day than had heard in all of Paul's ministry over the past two years, combined!

If your life seems out of control, rest assured it is not. God is always in control.

IV. Passion never retires

Paul moved from Ephesus to other stops along his path, but he never lost interest in the young church he'd started there. As Paul reached his last years, he wrote a great number of letters, including a very detailed letter to the church in Ephesus. And among his very first words to Timothy was a very clear instruction concerning the church in Ephesus.

1 Timothy 1:3-4

His letter to Timothy, therefore, is a crystal-clear, passion-filled instruction manual for not only Timothy, but for the church he'd left behind in Ephesus.

For Paul, prison was a life circumstances in his last years. For many people today, aging leaves a prison of a different kind. Illness or disability makes it impossible to work or minister as in the past. A lack of finances might be the constraining factor. No matter the constraint, it's possible that all of us would come to the same question Paul must have faced. "In the light of my present, less-than-ideal circumstances, what can I do now?"

Paul decided to write letters. He acquired or made his own paper and ink. In those days, the expensive materials for such writing was extremely difficult. But Paul made it work, and right until the end, he continued to work. His passion never retired. His passion never slowed down. The way he expressed that passion changed, but the passion itself only glowed brighter with time.

And because Paul left the results of his last years' work to God, God used that work - his letters - as the most effective work of Paul's entire life.

What's your passion? What did God plant in you? Have you let an excuse stop you from expressing that passion? Passion simply never retires. It can't quit. It drives the people who own it until they've squeezed every last ounce out of life into the passion that continues to call them.

Conclusion

Our generation has seen its own example of a man who rose from a prison cell to international influence in the Christian community.

Chuck Colson knew the glory of a White House office in the Nixon Administration, and the scandal of being the first member of that administration to serve a prison sentence after the Watergate scandal. But it was in prison - where Colson started where he was, and used what he had - that Colson formed the idea of a Christian prison ministry. And today? His 20 books have sold more than 5 million copies, his radio broadcasts are heard on hundreds of stations across the world, and he received the $1 million Templeton Prize in 1993, an award that annual recognizes the person who has done the most to advance the cause of spirituality. From the worst moments of his life came the greatest passion he'd ever known, and a work far greater than anything he'd ever known in the heady world of White House politics.

Andy Cook is the pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in, Warner Robins, Georgia.