Being Part of Something Big! – Acts 14:21-28

Most of us are pretty ordinary people by any standard. Most of us probably don’t even know someone who is famous, let alone ARE famous ourselves! But we can be a part of the biggest thing that is going on – and not just in the USA or North America; we can be a part of what God is doing in the world in terms of the building of his Kingdom.

At the beginning of Acts and of our readings and devotionals, you should surely recall (in Acts 1:8) the commission of the witnesses of Christ to take the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Most of what we have studied so far in Acts has been the outworking of those first three areas, but with the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, truly the final “ends of the earth” portion has been inaugurated.

Today’s reading presents the return loop of these first missionaries, as they largely retrace their route all of the way back to the sending church of Antioch in Syria. Along the way they appoint elders to provide a leadership structure for these new communities. (It is not the focus of this study through Acts to dwell much on church leadership, but note in this passage that there is a plurality of leaders established – not an authority based in any one individual in a large way.)  Prayer is a part of the process in the choosing of these individuals.

We also note again that the issue of suffering for Christ is presented as a natural and normal course of life for those who believe. These hardships are inevitably bound to challenge one’s faith, and so we need to be encouraged to persevere through it, for the reward is great.

Ultimately Paul and Barnabas return to the great church of Antioch to report all that had happened. Wow, that must have been a wonderful experience – to hear story after story of these incredible events! There were accounts of significant numbers of people coming to Christ, including droves of Gentiles through the new moving and work of the Spirit. Imagine the people also hearing about the opposition thrown against the missionaries everywhere – especially of Paul being stoned nearly to death!

We repeat this sort of experience every time we have missionaries whom we support around the world come back to our fellowship to report what God is doing in their corner of the earth. It is a great privilege for us to be participants and partners in such endeavors yielding eternal fruit for the Kingdom of God!  Every Christian should be passionate about missions! This is our church family extended around the world! These folks need our support – in finances and resources certainly (which is a reason why it should be painfully difficult for anyone to leave a local church and withdraw their resources from the support of such endeavors), and through spiritual means of intercession and partnership in communication. And now, in this modern era, it is even possible for us to be involved on the front lines at various times through projects such as our Kazakh team, as one example.

All together, it affords common people like all of us an opportunity to be a part of something so very much larger than who we are in our simple lives in this community.

The Return to Antioch in Syria – Acts 14:21-28

21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. <Note – Luke here is talking about Derbe – mentioned in verse 20>  Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed eldersfor them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. 24 After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia,25 and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.

26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

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Preaching is a Very Rough Business! – Acts 14:1-20

Whenever I read today’s passage of several stories on Paul’s first missionary journey, I am reminded of my own travels some years ago to this very same part of the world in modern day Turkey. I was with a small group of American pastors visiting with an EFCA (our denomination) missionary in that land. He was showing us a local shrine dedicated to a particular Islamic holy man who had made many trips in his life to Mecca, or some such story.  This was in a public market area, and looking very touristy I am sure, we attracted a varied crowd of people around us. One man wanted to make a public show and ingratiate himself to us, so he began to play “tour guide” by telling us about the shrine and its significance. However, another man standing nearby took serious issue with the interpretation of the first fellow, and they began to argue in loud voices with fingers shoved in each other’s chests. More and more people began to gather and argue – all of them yelling in Turkish at each other. It turned into a small riot, attracting the attention of nearby police … at which time we sort of quietly went slinking away through the crowds.

In our story today, the Apostle Paul was not ultimately able to quietly slink away, at least not at first!

There are many repeat elements as in the passage yesterday – of Paul and Barnabas using the strategy of going first to the Jews by speaking in the synagogue in Iconium, and then looking for other opportunities to preach to a wider audience. The reactions are also similar, as a range of responses are seen from those who enthusiastically believe to those who are violently opposed. Here the opposition was so fierce as to be life threatening, so they move off to the other (somewhat nearby) cities of Lystra and Derbe (see the map at the bottom).

In Lystra, an accompanying miracle performed by Paul, along with the preaching ministry of both men, caused the crowds to actually draw some wrong conclusions. Though Timothy was from Lystra, this was probably a more Gentile-dominated area. The people concluded that the missionary pair were gods come to earth – thinking the likely older and more distinguished-looking Barnabas was Zeus (the big boss god) and that Paul (the orator) was Hermes. At first, the guys don’t realize what is going on, but finally they begin to understand that the folks are getting ready to make some sacrifices to them!  (I hate when this happens after my sermons!)

But just to show how a preacher’s stock can go from bulls to bears in a short time, the crowd is swayed toward disapproval on the word of naysayers who come from Antioch and Iconium – the previous stops on this road trip. Paul ends up getting stoned, and is dragged out of the city since he is presumed to be dead. I’m not sure how Barnabas escaped the same treatment; I guess his sermons weren’t quite as inflammatory. The old preachers’ joke about this (in the category of why the chicken crossed the road) is to ask, “Why did Paul march back into a city where he was just stoned?” … and the answer has always been, “Because he wasn’t done yet with his sermon!”

We might think, “Wow, that’s rough! I’m glad stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore!”  Well, in fact it does – pretty much daily around the world. In many countries, the Christian faith and the witness of the Gospel of Christ is despised and persecuted. Christians are regularly killed because they believe in Jesus. To see countless stories and gain information on this topic, I’d encourage you to look at the web page for Voice of the Martyrs. Indeed, we can be thankful that such treatment has been historically rare in the USA. But as we have shared throughout this series, it is generally pretty clear that the tide is changing and that a growing hostility toward Christ is growing. These thoughts rightly challenge the depth of our faith and commitment.

In Iconium – Acts 14:1-20 

14 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the gospel.

In Lystra and Derbe

In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked.He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.

Tying Up those Old Testament Loose Ends – Acts 13:13-52

A couple of years ago when I was coaching high school cross country, I was the regional meet director for Western Maryland. A part of this task was to join with other regional directors and put together our combined results and prepare for the state championships the following Saturday. This meeting was held on a Sunday morning at a hotel conference room somewhere in central Maryland. So I had to take a day off … though as it turned out, it really was not that complicated nor time-consuming, and I probably didn’t actually need to attend.

In some other conference rooms down the hall, it was clearly audible that a church worship service had begun; and it was very energetic sounding. Seeing I was no longer needed at the state cross country meeting, I ventured down the hall, not quite sure what kind of church I was going to encounter on the other side of the closed door. It turned out to be a very ethnic church, and I was instantly a minority of one! At a break in their worship service, there was this time where EVERY person in the room went around and hugged EVERY other person in the room. I guess my story as to why I was there came out in that time, because later in the service, I was called upon to come up front and share a word of greeting and encouragement from the Word! It was quite a fun experience

My adventure is somewhat similar to what we see in the Scripture passage today as Paul and Barnabas continue in the early stages of what we know as “The First Missionary Journey” – visiting a synagogue service in Antioch of Pisidia (this is in modern day Turkey, whereas the Antioch from which they were sent out was in Syria). As men with educated backgrounds in Judaism – known evidently through some conversation – they were called upon to give a word of exhortation from the Scriptures that were read that day.

Paul stands and basically takes his listeners through a summary of what in Bible College or Seminary would be a class called “OT-101” (Survey of Old Testament History).  He took them quickly from the time of God’s choosing of Israel to that of King David. Paul then jumps them right to David’s ultimate SON – Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all that was written in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul tells them how the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem messed up completely by having Christ put to death, though in the larger plan of God, this opens the door not only to Jews who receive Christ, but Gentiles and all men everywhere who trust in faith.

The application of the sermon was that Paul encouraged the listeners to not make the same mistakes of so many of their ancestors (like in verse 41 – which quotes from the prophet Habakkuk), but to rather see and acknowledge that in Jesus the Christ – all the loose ends and varied prophecies and details come together in one new, great truth.

Wow, what a message! Totally dramatic new teachings! There was no way such a radical presentation could not stir up a range of reactions. Immediately a group of people are excited and follow them out the door – asking questions and desiring them to return the next week. Seven days later, “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” And the response is the same as can be noted in multiple places in Acts (and is likewise the 3-part response to the preaching of the Gospel in our day):  Some believe (on this occasion, quite a few!), some remain seekers, and many scoff and reject.

Those who do the rejecting in this story do so quite vociferously, as these traditional Jewish leaders see their whole world being turned upside-down. The persecution they engender drives Paul and Barnabas out of town and on to the next location.

We will share this thought again and again: we should not be surprised at persecution and opposition – it is normal. Certainly the early believers saw it this way, because rather than being blown away by it,“… the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

In Pisidian Antioch – Acts 13:13-52

13 From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. 14 From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”

16 Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 17 The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; 18 for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; 19 and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years.

“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. 25 As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’

26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.

32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:

“‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’

34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’

35 So it is also stated elsewhere: “‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’

36 “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. 37 But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. 40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:

41 “‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’”

42 As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43 When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.

46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us:

“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

God’s Mission: Lighting the Darkness (Acts 13:1-13)

A NEW MISSION

In this passage, Luke records the birth of “foreign missions.”  Up until now, mission to the Gentiles had been a result of God’s provision more than man’s purpose.   The early church was blessed with many skilled teachers.  Now God called them to be missionaries.

Acts 13:1-3  Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

Where do we expect change to come from?  For some, we expect change to come from the mouth of a skilled politician.  For others, from the united voice of grass-roots movements such as the Tea Party or Occupy group.  But do we believe that God can change the world?  If we do, that changes everything.   When God set aside Barnabas and Saul (later called Paul), it was out of a clear intention: God empowers the few to impact the many.

The prayers of the church confirmed this new mission.  Their identity as God’s representatives had not changed, but there was now new work to be done.

A NEW CULTURE

The men travel to the island of Cyprus.  Since the days of Alexander the Great, the Jews had been migrating to this island.  There, they shared the gospel in several cities:

Acts 13:4-12  So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.  5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.  6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus.  7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God.  8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.  9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him  10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?  11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.  12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Paphos was an interesting place.   It was there that the religions of ancient Greece blurred together with Jewish beliefs.  We meet two characters:

  • Bar-Jesus: Though God’s word condemned such practices, magic was known to be a part of Jewish folk religion.   “Elymas” was his title.  It most literally means “wise,” probably referring to his magical insight.  His actual name was Bar-Jesus—literally meaning “son of Jesus/Joshua”—so it’s ironic that Paul would call him a “son of the devil.”  Paul confronts and God intervenes. Bar-Jesus is temporarily blind.  No one would not sit in this man’s darkness as Paul brings a message of light.
  • Sergius Paulus: He was a prominent Roman official.  History tells us that he was in charge of water management.  Apparently Bar-Jesus had been his spiritual advisor.  When Paul removed this source of darkness, he experienced the true light of the gospel.

Sadly, we know nothing more about what happened in this community. But do you see God’s plan at work?    God used these early missionaries to transform a culture from the top down.   The leadership was transformed by the gospel—not influenced by a deceptive spiritual advisor.

We must therefore pray for similar transformations to take place, both near and far.  The mission of the gospel is lighting up the darkness—bringing the Light of the World into the darkest corners of our culture.  Let’s pray that this light would continue to spread.

The Shock of Answered Prayer! – Acts 12:1-25

From my several years of political activism and engagement, I met a number of people in politics who are among the finest folks I’ve ever known. However, the stereotype so often associated with the political characters of the world has been sadly earned by a majority of those working in this arena. And the King Herod of today’s passage would fit easily into that devious latter category of rascals.

This Herod – the grandson of the Herod in the birth narrative of Jesus – was allowed powerful authority under the Romans. He had distant Jewish blood connections and was always insecure about his position in the eyes of the populace. So he was playing his cards on both sides of the equation – pleasing the Romans and pleasing the Jews.

Keeping the peace is what most pleased the Romans, and he could do this by also pleasing the Jews with a growing persecution of the church. James, the brother of John, was executed by this vain king, and seeing how much it pleased the people, he determined to repeat the deed in a bigger way with Peter. Fortuitously intervening for Peter was the Passover season – so he would be stuck in prison until these days had passed. Things looked grim – very bad indeed. The church was praying, but the circumstances seemed to be surely insurmountable. Extra guards were standing watch – probably because some in the Sanhedrin had remembered that this Simon Peter fellow somehow escaped prison in the past and was preaching to the crowds when everyone in authority thought he was under lock and key.

Our story today records how Peter was miraculously delivered through the agency of an angel on the evening prior to his trial and certain execution. Awakening from what seemed more like a vision than a real-life situation, Peter discovered himself outside the prison and down the street. He proceeded to the home of John Mark’s mother – probably the single most prominent location of the church in Jerusalem – and knocked on the door.

In what is among the most humorous passages of Scripture, the people do not believe the servant girl’s report that Peter is actually at the door. But weren’t they praying for this very reality? Well, maybe; or maybe not. It may well be that they were likely praying for Peter to have courage and strength in his hour of trial and martyrdom. He shares the whole incredible story with the church and leaves for another location – leaving James (the brother of Jesus) as essentially the predominant single leader in the Jerusalem church. And the passage concludes with an account, not of Peter’s demise, but rather that of the arrogant King Herod Agrippa I.

Let us take away two major thoughts of application today:

1. We should pray in faith that God is able to accomplish ANYTHING!

So often when we pray, we do so without any honest or real expectation that the prayer is actually going to be answered – especially when the circumstances are not favorable. God does not always choose to intervene and overturn the natural flow of life circumstances. In fact, it is probably true that he most often allows the natural course of events to transpire. Yet there is no shortage of those occasional incidents where, against all odds and explanation, God miraculously steps in and accomplishes incredible things. He is able to do that, and we should pray fully believing that it could very well transpire – that we might even witness miraculous interventions.

2. We should pray in submission to God’s will, recognizing that not every prayer is going to be answered in the way we would most desire.

If God always answered prayers the way we desired, none of us would ever die – we’d always recover from any ills and circumstances. God is going to accomplish his will; and that will sometimes involves even the tragic loss of life of people who love the Lord. It is humanly inexplicable. We have seen such sadness even in the Christian community of Hagerstown this very week. But we must trust God in these matters that He is one who does all things well in the bigger picture of eternity. It our text today, James the brother of John is martyred, though God has an extensive future ministry for Peter.

Are you getting a better sense for why prayer should indeed be our first IMPULSE?

Peter’s Miraculous Escape from Prison – Acts 12:1-25

12 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.

So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”

12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”

16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter.19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.

Herod’s Death

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.

21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.

Barnabas and Saul Sent Off

25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.

The Cutting Edge Church – Acts 11:19-30

There really is something extraordinarily energizing about the early years of a new church. As with our lives, though we might like to stay a teenager forever in some ways, a church also has to grow up and live through other seasons. But those early years of vitality of living through new experiences together are special memories indeed.

At TSF, we’ve had experiences of living through such a time and setting the course locally for contemporary ministry that God has multiplied through dozens of other churches in our region. I remember one time when we were interviewing a young man as a possible candidate for a pastoral staff position, he was hesitant to come, and even said, “You guys are so out there that you are doing the stuff that happens before the cutting edge arrives!”  Well, that was an overstatement to some extent – probably revealing as much about the comparatively traditional place where he was serving as it spoke of the actual ministry of TSF at that time.

Antioch was truly the cutting edge church of the early New Testament era. I wrote last week that if there was one Bible person I’d like to be, it would be Barnabas. And if there was one church of the early Christian era that I’d like to be part of, it would be the church in our reading today – Antioch of Syria. So it is interesting that Barnabas becomes the primary leader of this congregation.

The Gospel message that had spread throughout the Roman world after the persecution that broke out upon the occasion of the martyrdom of Stephen had spread to Antioch – a city about 300 miles straight north of Jerusalem in what would today be Syria. This was no small city. Having been favored by prominent leaders in both the Greek and Roman empires, at the time of the writing of Acts, it was the third most important city in the Roman sphere. It was a renowned center of commerce and luxurious living, populated as well by maybe about 25,000 Jews. In what today might be called “a university town,” it was a place of cosmopolitan blending of cultures.

The text today clearly states that the empowerment of God’s spirit resulted in a tremendous response of the Gospel message by large numbers of Gentiles. The news of this came to the ears of the mother church in Jerusalem who, as we read yesterday, had come to the startling realization that such was a new work of God. And so it was deemed wise to send Barnabas to oversee and bring his unique encouragement skills to this high-energy and fledgling community. It was a perfect choice!

Barnabas arrives and sizes up the situation, realizing he needs some serious help in discipling all of these new believers. Being Gentiles in large numbers, they would have lacked the Jewish background and Old Testament foundations necessary to understanding the richness of God’s work through Christ as the fulfillment of the plan of the ages. Barnabas went through his mental rolodex of apostolically-qualified resumes, deciding that Saul of Tarsus was the perfect guy. He had the background and the communications skills. He was from just 100 miles to the northwest and was oriented toward success in such a cosmopolitan context. Saul was never going to fit comfortably in the more stuffy environs of the Jerusalem church. So here was a place he could really bloom. It was perfect for the church; it was perfect for Saul.

So Barnabas fetches Saul for this task, and together they teach for a year. This must have been an amazing season of ministry. The believers were making an impact upon their surrounding culture – to the extent that it was here they were first given the title of “Christians.”  There was no hiding their faith and commitment.

God has always used different churches at different times to accomplish the work of reaching varied types of people. Certainly the church communities in Jerusalem and Antioch were very different from one another. One was not more correct than the other; they were simply in different places with a different sense of a vision from God as to what the local expression and mission of their ministry should be. But the unity of the one true Church (capital C) was evident in the heart of the people in Antioch to care for the poor in Jerusalem, and so a generous gift was collected and sent in the care of both Barnabas and Saul. These folks were simply stellar in their faith – truly a great church in every way.

The Church in Antioch – Acts 11:19-30 

19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

The Day that Grace Hit the Fan – Acts 11:1-18

I confess it is difficult to get into the sandals of first century Bible characters, but let’s try to do it. Yesterday’s reading told the story of Peter going to the home of Cornelius with the result that the Gospel message spread beyond the confines of Jewish people and Proselytes.

News travels fast, and the mother church in Jerusalem heard about it. And it was surprising beyond any capacity to imagine or believe. Central to the suspicious feeling was the word that Peter – yes, PETER! – not only went into the home of a Gentile, but he also stayed there and ate with them!

So, you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal?”  Well, Jews just didn’t do such things. You may remember the prophets of the Old Testament warning the children of Israel over and over about not becoming like the nations around them, else they fall into similar idolatry and sins. The people did not listen, they associated too closely, and two captivities later (to Assyria and Babylon), the returning remnants determined to not have the same fate befall them. And so, for the past 400+ years, the Jews were very strict about whom they would fellowship with beyond necessary business communications.

So Peter is “called on the carpet” about his actions. And as it says in verse 5 today, Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story. And what does he essentially do? He blames God! He really does – explaining how it was all by divine initiative and sovereignly-orchestrated circumstances that he did all that transpired. The result was that the same Spirit baptism (the work of God that identifies a person with the body of Christ) that came upon the first Jewish believers also fell upon these Gentiles. And Peter concludes, So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

That was a good question about which the answer was an obvious one! As we wrote yesterday, this marked the proof of a new era of God’s grace abounding. It was not just a next chapter of God’s work specifically through the nation of Israel; no, this was an entirely new program of God’s activity to reach all people of all nations. It was indeed the day that grace hit the fan – to be spread wide and far beyond the confines of the Jewish world.

Don’t fail to read the final paragraph, for here we see that these folks were not just traditionalists and obstructionists. They did not dig in and defend their roots, but rather they praised God for this incredible new breeze of expansion of God’s work through Jesus Christ.

Not every issue was immediately solved … sticking points like the role of circumcision, the value and place of the Law of Moses, the matter of fellowshipping together with people from vastly differing cultures and traditions – all these issues had to be pounded out over time. We’ll be talking about them in subsequent chapters. But today, there is the great joy that the good news is for all men. Since around TSF we are 99% or better from Gentile backgrounds, we should today when reading this have an extra profound sense of God’s grace extending to all of us! Thank God it hit the fan!

Peter Explains His Actions – Acts 11:1-18

11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’

“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.

11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’

15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Hanging Out With God – Acts 10:1-48

If I had a dollar for every time I asked a teenage son of mine about his social plans, “So who else is going to be there? / So who was with you last night?” … well, I could take us all out to dinner tonight. As parents, we ask these questions because we know how significantly our kids are influenced by the people with whom they hang out. There is nothing new about this timeless truth, since Solomon said the same thing 3,000 years ago – “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.”  (Proverbs 3:20)

But it is not just teenagers who are subject to this; adults are influenced by the people around them nearly as much.

I often encounter Christians who are annoyed with God. They expected to hear from him about this or that – to somehow intervene in their lives … but it hasn’t happened. And when we probe about why that is, it is not uncommon to find out that they really are not spending time with God – not employing such easy disciplines as Scripture reading and prayer. Expecting to hear from God about guidance for issues in our lives when we, in fact, don’t spend time talking with him about them would be about like trying to decide if we should or should not marry a person with whom we only spend time very occasionally.

In today’s rather long chapter about the story of Cornelius, the first thing that jumps out at me is that both Cornelius and Peter were given direction from God as a side benefit of regular prayer. They were hanging out with God, and while doing this, God dropped on them some pretty cool stuff that would change their lives.

Cornelius the Centurion was a Roman soldier who was also a “God-Fearer.”  This meant that he accepted and worshipped the God of Israel, though he remained technically a Gentile. God reaches out to him to bring to him the full message of the completed work of Christ. Simultaneously, God uses the situation to move the early church to the full biblical understanding that this new work of God’s abounding grace was for the Gentile world as well – God was not modifying an old program; he was creating a new one. Each needed to have a categorical shift in their thinking and understanding of what God was doing in the world, and it was awesome.

So are you hanging out with God? Are you seeking him and asking his leading and direction? Some people, incredibly, fail at this basic starting point. Beyond that, I have found it takes some time and experience to hear God’s voice. Oh how I wish he worked on a faster schedule! But looking back, I can always say that God consistently revealed to me in a variety of circumstances, feelings, and opportunities what was his direction in what proved to be the perfect timing. And so I’ve learned also that when I am genuinely looking and seeking and asking … even greatly desiring something … but God is not seeming to hear or answer, that this is his way of putting that issue on hold (or even saying “no”) for reasons I will not be able to see until much, much later (if ever).

I have no better advice for you today or any other day than this: Hang out with God. Make prayer your daily impulse … hey, “impulse” – that would be a great word for a sermon series title!

Cornelius Calls for Peter – Acts 10:1-48

10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

Peter’s Vision

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

Peter at Cornelius’s House

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”

27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

The Miraculous Spread of the Gospel – Acts 9:32-43

Approaching today’s reading, let us recall that the purpose of Luke’s historical account of the Acts of the Apostles was written for this fellow named Theophilus – to describe for him the way in which the message of the Gospel had spread all over the Roman world. Throughout the book of Acts, we see read various summary statements of the results of this preaching ministry – 3,000 saved, then growing to 5,000, and everywhere stating (as in verse 42 today) that many people believed in the Lord.  To see something really cool, go to this link and watch the time-action way the Gospel spread to 364 places in the book of Acts.

Since the purpose of our series is a devotional one, I really wish to stay away from some of the controversial topics like tongues and healings, etc.  But it is just about impossible today to write much without getting into it a bit. Though my views on the subject are very standard for the Evangelical Free Church and the portion of the broader evangelical movement that is resourced by schools such as I have attended in Philadelphia and Dallas, I have many Christian friends and even family members who disagree with me. There are TSF people who do not think as I do upon this topic.

I’ll be as brief as possible to say that I believe the signs and wonders such as are seen in this passage and in numbers of other Scriptures in Acts (particularly on the occasion of the Spirit’s first coming to a group of believers) are miracles unique in the experience of the early church era. At a time when the Scriptures were far from complete, God validated the message and the messenger with very unique signs and gifts – miraculous abilities and activities that gradually ceased to be the normative experience of believers and church communities. Something better took their place:  the completion of God’s Word – the Bible. This is the final authority that, in the power of the Spirit, vindicates the message and messenger.

Do not hear me saying that miracles cannot and do not occur; but you may rightly understand me to say that they are not the normative experience that we should seek out, nor are they the evidence of gifts that I believe have also ceased, nor the evidence of a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit – in my understanding of Scripture – happens at the moment of salvation and is not a gift to be sought afterward as a second blessing or second work of grace.

I also reject the interpretation that healing is in the atonement (quoting from Isaiah 53). I take that passage to say that the “stripes by which we are healed” refer specifically to the spiritual issue of sin, not physical well-being. We are fully healed spiritually and eternally by faith in Christ’s death, and we will be physically healed in our glorified bodies upon our exit from this world across the threshold of eternity. We are invited and obligated to pray for the healing and touch of God in the lives of people who are afflicted with the ailments that evidence the decay of our mortal flesh. And God may, and often does, honor these prayers with even incredible means of intervention. We should engage this resource more than we do!

Today’s passage tells the story first of a paralyzed person being healed after eight years of affliction, with the result that all who were nearby and aware of this miracle followed the Lord. And secondly, we see an actual miracle of a physical resurrection through the work of Peter – again with Luke noting that the outcome was not simply to help a person or bring someone back to life merely for their individual benefits, but that rather the act was one that God used uniquely to bring large numbers of followers to the faith. Geographically speaking, these towns are in the area to the northwest of Jerusalem, both near and along the Mediterranean coast.

Applicationally speaking – We should be faithful to pray for God to do great works through the power of His divine will in healing and restoring people to wellness in every way. The error of certain Pentecostal and Charismatic friends is to essentially assert that God is obligated to hear us and honor our requests, particularly if we arouse enough faith. But the error of the side where more of us (such as are in the EFCA) stand is to go ahead and pray out of some sense of obligation because we can’t deny we are told to do so, yet to honestly at our core doubt that God will consider doing something even miraculous. God is able, and He does heal.

Aeneas and Dorcas – Acts 9:32-43

32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years.34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

 

Barnabas: The Best Good Guy – Acts 9:19b-31

If you could be any person in the Bible, who would you want to be? Some folks might go right for the Apostle Paul – the mighty man himself. Others might want to be Solomon because of his wisdom, but remember that would include the issue of a thousand wives! Daniel or Joseph would be good choices, until you consider the years of trials that each endured as well as the years of blessing.

If I could be anyone, it would be Barnabas – the guy who actually gave Paul his start!  In my book, Barnabas is the best of the good guys. His name meant “son of consolation” and he was always encouraging people and seeing the best in them.

Today he makes his second appearance in the Acts narrative, though far from his last – we’ll be talking about him more in the coming weeks. In his first appearance, which was what I have a couple of times referred to as Luke’s style of giving main characters a brief “walk on” role early in the play, Barnabas was simply listed specifically as one of those who sold a property and deposited the assets at the feet of the Apostles. This was with a view toward contributing for the basic needs of the early church community – he was being an encouragement.

In our text today, we see that Saul immediately began to use open door opportunities to present the Gospel. He went into synagogues where he was welcomed to speak. We will see Paul use this same strategy later in the book throughout the ancient world. He was a highly-trained university dude – a sort of elite Harvard-educated fellow.

The synagogue folks in Damascus immediately recognize that this is the same guy who was condemning the preaching going on “among those who call on this name” – of Jesus. And here he is presenting the totally opposite point of view from what they anticipated relative to his recent press releases! And several times in this passage we see the Jewish default response, which is to stop it by killing the person doing it. So, Saul’s new friends help him escape by dropping him over the city wall in a basket. (Remember being a kid in VBS and doing the craft project related to this story?)

So Paul needs some more new friends and goes to Jerusalem to get connected with the church leadership there. His welcome is … ah … less than inviting and is rather filled with distrust. This would be about like Governor O’Malley becoming a Republican and showing up at the local Central Committee meeting and hoping to be invited to dinner. Ah… not today!

And then comes these great words, “But Barnabas” … the great encourager is the first to befriend him and sponsor him in communication with the others. The ice is broken and again Saul takes on a powerful work of preaching the gospel in Jerusalem. And again also, it is a Jewish element – this time the Hellenistic group of those adopting the Greek culture – who rises to meet this new threat by eliminating Saul. Apparently none of these folks were very good at keeping their plots secret, and so Saul is sent off. At this point of his career, he is sort of being sent down to the minor leagues to hone his skills for a while before coming back to be a star player in the early church.

But Barnabas … don’t you want to be like that guy? What does it involve? Well, certainly a lot of the same stuff we’ve been preaching at TSF for a while now. It is the counter-current theme of caring about people diverse from yourself in some way. It may be a difference of generation or cultural background or personal taste. Do you care about seeing other people grow to be all they can be in Christ as much as you care about just fellowshipping with your own natural affinity group? It is a hard sell – this “preference deference” stuff. But it is what Jesus did, and you’ll never be all you can be until you do it … and be a Barnabas type of person.

Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem – Acts 9:19b-31

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.