Why does life have to be so difficult? Have you ever wondered that? I know that I have! And as Christians, why does it seem like our Christian faith can sometimes make it even more difficult, instead of easier? These are questions that I can’t help but ask; not always, but when life seems like it is just one obstacle after the other I find myself pondering these questions again.
There is a book in the Bible that addresses these questions. Not directly, but through story. And I was greatly encouraged when I spent some time re-reading my way through this book, The Acts of the Apostles. It tells the story of the early church, which faced many challenges. But this story is really about God’s people overcoming these obstacles to share their faith and grow the church. I spent the month of December prayerfully pondering Luke’s second book, which ends (spoiler alert!) with the words that are the title of this post – “without hindrance.” Words that really surprised me, given the story that I just read, but also greatly encouraged me. I hope that they will encourage you, too, but first let me you offer a quick recap of this wonderful book, the Acts of the Apostles.
When we think of the Acts of the Apostles, we probably think of the story that we as Lutherans hear every year on the Day of Pentecost: the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit that gave birth to the church. It was an incredible event, an amazing miracle, with a fantastic outcome – that day about three thousand persons were added to their numbers. Awe came upon everyone, the story tells us, and they were joyfully praising God and “having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:47)
But shortly after that, two of the early leaders – Peter and John – were arrested and placed in custody. They were released, after being threatened, but the challenges were just beginning. Every chapter that follows tells the story of another struggle faced by those first believes. But every chapter that follows also tells the story of the gospel being shared, boldly, and the early church growing, despite the many obstacles they faced (some of which were self-imposed!).
As I continued reading and pondering this powerful, I continued to read of of arrests, imprisonments, persecutions and executions. I read about arguments that those first believers had, over who “gets” to be part of this new movement, and who doesn’t. And I was continually surprised by just how difficult it was to be one of those first believers.
Peter is at the heart of these early chapters, the same Peter who denied knowing Jesus when he was arrested, who Jesus nonetheless identified as the rock on which he would build the church. The same Peter that we hear about every year on the Day of Pentecost, who – filled with the Holy Spirit – stood and boldly proclaimed the gospel to those who had gathered, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven.” But the last we hear of Peter in this book is about halfway through, in chapter 15, when he defends Paul and those who were bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. In fact, Peter’s last words in this book are memorable: “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they (the Gentiles) will.”
That is the last we hear of Peter. From there, the story turns to Paul, the former Pharisee and persecutor of the church who is now boldly proclaiming the gospel to anyone who will listen. But Paul also faces many of the same challenges – arrests, imprisonments, difficulties traveling, plots to be killed, and on and on. Through it all, Paul trusts in the Lord, shares his faith boldly, and accepts whatever circumstances in which he finds himself.
The entire book ends with Paul, in prison in Rome, where he will eventually be executed. But we don’t hear of his execution. Here is how the book ends:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.Acts 28:30-31
The very last word in this book, placed at the end of the last sentence to give it significance, is akolytos, a Greek word which means without hindrance. When I first read it, I thought, to be perfectly honest, Really?! I mean, the man is in prison, awaiting execution! He has dealt with countless hindrances throughout these pages! Even his journey to Rome was hindered by a shipwreck and a three-month delay on the Island of Malta! He has suffered physical ailments (his well-known “thorn in the flesh”), numerous arrests, disagreements with his friends, and on and on! How can Luke conclude this book by saying that Paul was proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance? I get the “with all boldness” part, but how about the “without hindrance”?
But, here’s the thing: It’s true. The kingdom of God was being proclaimed without hindrance, not because of the obstacles that the early church faced, but because there is no obstacle too big for God to overcome. This inspired book, telling the story of the early church, reminded me that there is no obstacle too great. And I needed to hear that, to be reminded of that, because our world is filled with obstacles to the kingdom of God. Our world can be a pretty discouraging place. So I really needed to be reminded that God is at work, authoring an incredible story that continues to be written through us today.
I needed to be reminded to keep doing my best – proclaiming the kingdom through word and deed, teaching about the Lord Jesus, doing what those first believers did. And doing this with all boldness, a boldness based on faith and trust and hope. I will continue to make my own mistakes, as Paul did and as Peter did before him. As each of us does, every day. At times, I will be my own greatest hindrance. I admit that. And at other times, there will be hindrances that are out of my control and will seem too great for me to overcome. But they’re not. Whatever hindrances there are that are trying to prevent the gospel from being proclaimed, they will ultimately fail. Because God has the last word. And the last word in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles reminded of that in a powerful way. It is a word to remember: akolytos. Without hindrance.
And I have written this blog post, as I have written most of these blog posts, to remind myself of this. To remind myself that without God, every obstacle is too great for me (and for all of us) to overcome. And to remind myself that with God, there is no hindrance too great. The kingdom of God can be proclaimed with all boldness because we trust that God is working without hindrance. And because we believe that God always has the last word. Akolytos. Thanks be to God!