A word has captivated me for over thirty years, ever since I first stumbled upon its significance while studying Greek in seminary. It’s unhindered.
If something is “hindered,” it’s held back, kept back, restrained. Something has gotten in the way, prevented it, stopped it. If something is unhindered, it is set free. It advances. It goes forward.
Unhindered has loomed large in my thinking for so long because of its unique place in the New Testament, and particularly in the book of Acts. The word is used twenty-five times in the New Testament, seven times in the book of Acts alone. Acts is a book about Jesus’ gospel going through barrier after barrier as it breaks out into the world and into the hearts of men and women. It’s about the church overcoming roadblocks and impediments, persecutions and trials as it grows and boldly proclaims Christ.
And it’s about individuals who will not allow anything to stop them from being used by God to take Christ to the world. Let’s take a quick tour.
In the eighth chapter of Acts we find a young man who was head of the Queen of Ethiopia’s treasury. He has been to Jerusalem and was reading a portion of the book of Isaiah in his chariot. We don’t know anything of his background, only that something had urged him to explore the Old Testament and the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Holy Spirit urged Philip, one of the apostles, to approach the eunuch and ask if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” So Philip explained how the prophecies of the Old Testament told of a coming Messiah, and that Jesus was that Messiah. But that wasn’t all:
And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:31, 36-38 ESV)
In the Greek, “What prevents me from being baptized” literally reads “What hinders me?” And the answer is nothing. This was a Jew witnessing to an Ethiopian. Crossing racial, ethnic, political boundaries.
The gospel was going out to the world. Then comes Acts 10.
Peter was given a vision that he should no longer be bound by Jewish dietary rules, that under Christ, the law had been fulfilled, symbolic of the gospel going not only to the Jews but also the Gentiles. Just after that dream, the Holy Spirit prompted Peter to visit a man named Cornelius who had asked for some time with him. Cornelius was not a Jew. He was a Roman centurion. At that time, it was against Jewish law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or even to visit one. But the urging of the Spirit was clear. Do not show favoritism. All are to be accepted. All are to be reached.
So Peter went.
The centurion asked about Jesus. Peter told him, and Cornelius and his household gave their lives to Christ. But that’s not all:
Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:47-48)
The sentence “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized” literally reads “Can anyone hinder” or “Can anyone forbid” or “Can anyone stop” this from happening? And the answer was no.
Now, we turn to Acts 11. Some people didn’t like what happened between Peter and Cornelius. Apparently they hadn’t got word yet about Philip and the Ethiopian, but this news had reached them quickly. In a hastily called meeting the church leaders asked Peter, “Is it true? You went to the house of a Gentile? You ate with him? And you baptized him?” The idea of the gospel of Jesus exploding outside of Judaism into the Gentile world was mind-boggling.
As disciples they knew that Jesus was God in human form come to earth to show the way, but they didn’t quite get the scope of His mission. For them, He was the Messiah for the Jews. But that the Messiah was for the world was beyond their comprehension. Yes, Jesus crossed some pretty radical boundaries – there was, after all, that scene with the Samaritan woman at the well, and Zacchaeus was a bit sketchy – but did Jesus mean to unleash all this? Did He really come for everyone? Everywhere? So they took Peter to task, and Peter replied:
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:15-18)
There is our theme: unhindered.
But there is one passage that captures this dynamic, at least for me, more than any other. It brought unhindered to my attention so many years ago. In Acts 20 we pick up the end of Paul’s life. He had become a controversial figure on a number of fronts, but the bottom line is that where Paul went, Christianity went, and where Christianity went, the world was being turned upside down. Religiously, culturally, economically. Quite literally, riots broke out.
Paul had been beaten with rods, stoned, robbed, imprisoned, flogged and lashed. Now the Holy Spirit strongly urged him to go to Jerusalem, which was not a place Paul should go. It was the hotbed of opposition to everything he was about, which is why he had avoided it for years. And he knew what awaited him there. He was under no illusions about what was ahead:
“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24)
We know that Paul went to Jerusalem, was arrested by the Jewish leaders under false pretenses, and during that arrest they tried to kill him. Some Roman officers broke it up and then bound Paul in chains and arrested him for inciting a riot. As they began to flog him for good measure, Paul told them that he was a Roman citizen, which was true. That meant he had to be released and stand trial. But the city was so embroiled that they had to put him in protective custody. There the Holy Spirit urged him to take his case all the way to Rome so he could proclaim Christ there too.
Through his obedience he not only brought the message of Christ to Rome, but while in Rome he wrote some of the most pivotal portions of the New Testament, including Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and, later, 2 Timothy.
But the book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome. However, that’s not the final word. And I mean that literally. The final verses of Acts say:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31)
In Greek, the adverb is placed at the very end. Though it’s a bit awkward when put directly into English, it reads that Paul was “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness unhinderedly.” And that’s the last word of the last chapter in the book of Acts.
From the Jews to the Gentiles; from Jerusalem to Rome.
And from Rome to today.
James Emery White
Excerpt from James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.