Choose “Done” over “Do” (Letter to the Galatians)

As most of you who are local to the Tri-State area probably know, I do occasional guide service work at the Antietam National Battlefield. This is usually 2-3 hours with a group, with the first 30 minutes of conversation at the visitor’s center as a background set-up. Then we spend the remaining time travelling around the battlefield and following events of that day in 1862 as they developed in consecutive order. Most people come with some basic knowledge of varied elements of the battle, but when their previous knowledge is organized and experienced chronologically, it is interesting to see how it all truly comes alive for them.

I am hoping that many of you will have this similar sort of experience this summer through our study on the life of the Apostle Paul. As we work through these 60 total devotional thoughts, I trust that all sorts of miscellaneous pieces of knowledge you have about Paul and the early church will fall into order in such a way that it truly makes it all come alive for you.

Today might be the first day where you realize this as we talk about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Throughout this devotional series I am going to drop into the narrative a summary of each of Paul’s writings at the time and sequence of his life story. Today is the first of these, as Galatians is the first of his writings. And seeing the topics in the book of Galatians as it relates to Paul’s recently completed first missionary journey gives us a new insight into Paul’s mindset when we read through this book of six chapters.

I should include here a word about New Testament studies and academics. Understand that not every scholar agrees exactly about when each and every writing of Paul was composed. And as we approach Galatians, I will tell you that there has been a centuries-old conflict about who were the recipients of Paul’s letter – the older northern Galatian province, or the southern Galatian region that includes essentially all of the communities of Paul’s first journey. The majority of scholars prefer the southern view, and I agree – for a whole host of reasons that probably involve deeper weeds than we want to get into today.

So here is Paul, back “home” in Antioch of Syria from which he was sent, reflecting on the incredible experiences that resulted in hundreds and hundreds of converts – Jewish and Gentile. These new Christians had been formed into fledgling church congregations, the leadership of which were appointed by Paul and Barnabas on their re-visits in each city as they re-traced their steps back home. Understand that there is really no manual or history of churches … no seminary program in pastoral studies for these new Christians to know how to do this. Many of the elements of New Testament worship involved taking familiar patterns from the synagogue and infusing them with new Christian meanings, adding especially the observance of the Lord’s Table as a weekly event. (This last sentence is essentially a summary of the topic of my master’s thesis at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1982, entitled “Synagogue Influences on New Testament Worship”.)

We have a weekend ahead, giving you an opportunity before the next devotional on Monday morning to read through the book of Galatians. Here is a basic three-part outline:

Chapters 1+2 – Paul defends his apostleship and authority. As we have recently studied and written much about the opposition the Apostle faced on the first journey, it is no surprise that after he returned home there would be many in every place who came in to discredit Paul, and thereby to discredit his teaching. Again, read these two chapters with your mind freshly recalling the first missionary journey.

Paul concludes this discussion with what I like as a favorite verse in all of Scripture, 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Chapters 3+4 – Paul defends the nature of the gospel as a message of grace through faith, standing above and beyond the legalists’ message of works and adherence to the Law.

Galatians 3:26-28 – So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Chapters 5+6 – Paul presents the glorious new way of living in the Spirit and under the control of the fruits of the Spirit, rather than under the Law in an effort to accomplish good works in the flesh.

Galatians 5:13-14 – You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

What a great letter Galatians is!  This coming October will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The book of Galatians has been called “the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation” due to its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith alone.

One of my former professors summarized Galatians this way: “Galatians was written to remedy a desperate situation, to call early Christians back from the Mosaic Law to grace, from legalism to faith. It is an emphatic statement of salvation by faith apart from works and is as relevant today as when it was originally penned.”

We continue to need the message of faith alone. It has always been true and will always be true that, apart from an understanding of this truth, the natural proclivity of man is to believe that he must DO something to get his salvation, when in fact what is needed has already been DONE – trust in that alone.

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Persecution is Merely Average (Acts 14:21-28)

I had a particular music history professor in college who was notoriously difficult when it came to grades. Not exactly understanding that everyone else was not a genius like he was (with a Ph.D. from Berkeley at age 24), he explained his grading philosophy on the first day of class.

“If you do all of the work I prescribe and do it accurately and well, you will get a “C” grade. A “C” is a good grade – it says you did all of the work you were supposed to do. If you do all of that plus a good bit more, you may be able to earn a “B”.  And if you do all of that, plus teach me something that I don’t already know, I’ll give you an “A” … although no student has yet to get one of them from me.”

Y’all know how competitive I am, and I determined to get an “A” from him in one of the five classes I would have to take that only he taught. I think I got a pair of “C” grades and one “B” in the first three semesters. By the fourth semester I had figured out some music analysis patterns that he liked, and in a major paper and presentation on Tchaikovsky I was able to prove to the prof that several melodic themes in two of the composer’s symphonies indeed had roots in Russian folk music rather than merely western influences. I got an “A-” for the semester, though another student a year ahead of me got the first full “A.”

We live in a place and time where persecution for our faith is not terribly profound, though it is true that Christians are increasingly becoming a hated minority. But if we are affected in some way – like being overlooked for a promotion because the boss resents our belief system – we think we are going above and beyond in the Christian experience … surely deserving a “B” or an “A.”  However, the actual truth is that opposition, ridicule and persecution are to be seen as normal in the Christian life. Jesus said that just as the world persecuted him, they would persecute his followers. Paul said to the Philippians that it was a sort of gift or blessing to suffer for our faith … Philippians 1:29 – For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.

We have seen the persecutions suffered by Paul already on this, his first missionary journey. He and Barnabas retrace their steps back toward the sending church at Antioch in Syria. Along the way they encourage their new believers, set them up for success in local church experience, and tell them that they should expect the Christian life to be filled with difficulties and hardships.

The Return to Antioch in Syria

Acts 14:21 – They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. 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 elders for 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.

Acts 14:26 – 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.

What an amazing gathering that must have been back in Antioch, home with the brothers who had sent them out to share the gospel, even while not having much of any idea how to do it or what it might look like. They simply obeyed God’s directive to GO and to be SENT. Imagine the stories that poured out of Barnabas and Paul … like about getting stoned and dragged out of town presumably dead! … or telling how people thought they were Zeus and began sacrificing to them! The most interesting report had to be the fact and manner by which the gospel was massively spreading to the Gentiles.

This was the beginning of the worldwide expanse of the gospel and the church. Over the last 2,000 years, missionaries have been SENT and have been GOING to the corners of the earth with the same message and goal of growing the body of Christ. We do the same. We are involved in much the same sort of worldwide endeavor. Our efforts as a church extend to places like Kazakhstan and Thailand and Togo and Brazil.

It is the most wonderful privilege to have the joy of partnering in this eternal work. There should be a place in the corner of every Christian’s heart for the corners of the earth where the gospel is being preached. After church in just two weeks on the 16th, we are going to have a luncheon to hear about our partnering work in both Spain and Kyrgyzstan. Don’t miss being a part of this. Parts of your giving dollars go to these works, so invest also with parts of your heart. Christians have been doing this for two millennia.

How to Get Stoned (Acts 14:1-20)

Over the past couple of generations the terminology of “getting stoned” has related to being high on marijuana, drugs or alcohol. Various suggestions have been advanced as to how the “stone” word got involved in describing these activities – from smoking through stone pipes, or perhaps being so wiped out that the user looked as lifeless as a stone.

In any event, getting stoned meant something completely different in the Bible, as Paul could testify. And it would appear from his life that preaching a great sermon is what could most quickly get you pelted with rocks. Wanting to learn and apply Scripture wisely, I’ve taken this to heart, therefore determining that it is best to never be too terribly interesting or provocative! Being the last person on the planet who is likely to ever get stoned in the modern sense of the term, I might as well go full-out on avoiding the other meaning.

The first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas continues in our text today in Acts 14 as the pair travel from Antioch to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. To give you a sense of the distances and directions involved with these four cities (that are in modern-day south-central Turkey), going from Antioch to Iconium would be like the distance from Hagerstown to Baltimore. Going next to Lystra would be similar to travelling south, southwest from Baltimore to Washington. And finally from Lystra to Derbe would relate to the direction and distance from DC to Annapolis.

So these are not great, great distances, though we are talking about a time in antiquity without rapid communications such as we know. Yet even without electronic infrastructure, it is startling how quickly the word of their travels spread from one place to another, with the oppositional element following not far behind.

Acts 14:1 – 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. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 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. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the gospel.

Again we see the familiar ministry patterns of beginning in the synagogue with Jews, along with the gospel bearing successes not only with a Jewish element, but also with numbers of Gentiles. As well, we also note again the divisions that caused a hostile reaction and life-threatening plots.

An additional new element is that of “signs and wonders.”  The purpose for these is stated clearly in the text as confirmatory of the spoken message. I believe this is a special and unique work of God that was for this particular time in the beginning of church history. Paul could not begin his message by saying, “Today’s sermon will be coming from Matthew’s gospel” … none of that was yet written. Eventually, as the Scriptures were written and gave authority and authentication to the preaching of evangelists and pastors, the need for special manifestations ceased. (See Hebrews 2:3-4)

So Paul and Barnabas once again need to pack their bags and head down the road to the hometown of Timothy …

Acts 14:8 – In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. 9 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.

There are so many places in Scripture where I find myself doing a “LOL” … this is one of them, as it really is humorous. Imagine Paul and Barnabas, being unable to understand the language while also seeing the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, eventually coming to realize what is actually happening! It was an “Oh My Goodness!” moment … “They think we’re gods!!”

Acts 14:14 – 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. 21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch …

There is so much I like about Paul. Surely he had to be from the New Jersey town of Tarsus! The bold speech … the in your face attitude … it reminds me of my roots!  The old pastor joke that seeks to answer why Paul marched right back into the town where they just executed him with stoning is that … (wait for it) … he hadn’t finished his sermon!

The opposition to the preaching of the gospel was so intense and angry … sorta like Paul himself had been a few years previously. He was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Christians, and now he has enemies going from town to town to seek him out and do the same to him.

We are going to find ourselves on a number of occasions throughout this series on Paul commenting about how the preaching of the gospel is not universally popular. Far from it. Though it is the means by which many come to faith, it is also a message that incites expressions of the selfish roots of sin and evil within many people. The kingdom of darkness is not going to just sit back and let truth be preached without seeking to disrupt, intervene, and discredit, even in violent ways. None of this should surprise us, even in our day; and neither should it deter us from speaking the truths of eternal life.

Trashing the Message and the Messenger (Acts 13:42-52)

Certainly we live in a day where particularly with political speech there is a great deal of hostility. When an idea is rejected or disapproved, it is no longer enough to simply disagree. Now the pattern is to also personally destroy and discredit the messenger or proponent of the disliked idea. This double-barreled attack is deployed to assure that the opinion is eliminated from viability.

Yesterday we noted the establishment of a pattern by Paul and Barnabas to begin their evangelistic strategy from city to city by starting in the synagogue. And today we will note the beginning of a pattern of reaction to this methodology: some Jews and proselytes believing, while the leadership rejected the message and the messengers by inciting vindictive violence upon them and creating great upset. The result would be that the gospel message would move beyond Jewish circles to include increasing acceptance by Gentiles, even as civil authorities would grow more hostile to the church movement as distinct from Judaism.

Paul had finished the sermon with a quote from Habakkuk that was a warning to not miss God’s true work and thus risk judgment. A number of listeners were sufficiently moved by this to want more information …

Acts 13:42 – 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.

We need to remember that the sermons and events we read about in Acts were just some representative highlights of all the preaching and teaching that Paul, Barnabas and others did on the missionary journeys in the early church era. Conversations lingered long after gatherings and were surely continued on other days as well. Ministry, then and now, is truly a 24/7 type of thing. The “conversation” must have been very intense, resulting in a huge crowd congregating the next week …

Acts 13:44 – 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.

There is a new term we hear in political discourse these days – “the deep state” – referring to career Washington insiders who are threatened by the prospect of change from the outside. The bulk of Jewish leadership at the time of Christ and the New Testament era was a sort of “deep Jewish state” who liked things just the way they were – with them in authority. And they were willing to fight to keep it that way.

Acts 13:46 – 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.’” [Isaiah 49:6]

This prophecy from Isaiah was specifically anticipatory of Christ personally, though the messenger of this gospel who was most particularly commissioned to take it to the Gentiles was Paul. So there is a sense in which this passage would apply to this missionary ministry.

Acts 13:48 – 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.

It was God’s plan to reach Gentiles. God always desired the nation of Israel to be a beacon of light and outreach to the rest of the world. They were never very good at it however. Though God had especially selected them through which to work his plan of salvation (and in that sense they needed to be the first to hear the fulfillment of it in Christ) God’s heart was always of a missionary bent toward the whole world.

It is impossible from this passage (in my view) to not see the sovereign work of God in salvation and, dare I say the word – election. Surely from this entire passage and work of the Spirit through Paul, God was choosing (electing) for the gospel to go to multitudes of Gentiles – people whose hearts were divinely prepared and open to embrace this saving truth. We can surely thank God for His grace in this matter that extends down to today and to each one of us!

Acts 13:50 – 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.

Those hostile to Paul were persistent, working with and through sympathetic people in governmental authoritarian circles to have the missionaries expelled from the region. We will yet this week see that their hostility led them to pursue Paul and Barnabas even to their next several destinations, with dramatic actions and incitements.

Look again at that last verse: the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. Even in the midst of all of this turmoil, there was joy in the assurance found through the knowledge of Christ. Growing the Church in a hostile surrounding culture has never been easy. Plan to stay for our luncheon after church on 7/16 as we hear reports from our missionaries in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Spain. We’ll hear of great difficulties and opposition, but also note the greater joy in serving Christ for those carrying the gospel to these regions. Do you have that joy in your office… your neighborhood… wherever you live for Christ and share the gospel in an unbelieving culture? It is never easy, but it is worth it all in the end.

The Elements of a Great Sermon (Acts 13:13-41)

What is it that makes for a great sermon … you know, beyond the fact that it was preached by the great staff at Tri-State Fellowship? The science of homiletics – preaching – is one that that has been studied over the years with a wide variety of opinions and applications. Surely there is variety, even within the Scriptural models, but also some timeless truths to be learned and applied.

Luke records a number of Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts, today’s passage being the first rather complete model.

This sermon is preached in the synagogue on the next stop of Paul’s first missionary journey. Having made two major stops on the island of Cyprus, he and Barnabas head now to the north and to the mainland of what is today the country of Turkey – landing at Perga on the coast and travelling north to the major city of Antioch of Pisidia.

Are you getting your Antiochs confused?  The departure point for the journey was from Antioch of Syria, these cities being named after a dynasty of kings by the name of Antiochus. Actually, the first Antioch (called Antakya today) is also in modern Turkey but is very close to the border of Syria, not far from the city of Aleppo which is sadly much in the news in recent years.

Acts 13:13 – 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.

John Mark leaves then to return to Jerusalem. He was the cousin of Barnabas. Why he did this is unknown. Speculations include that he was displeased with Paul becoming the more prominent leader, or that he did not like the growing Gentile emphasis. Maybe the hardships and controversies were more than he could endure; but in any event, Paul saw it clearly as a defection and personal defect (15:38).

Acts 13:14 – 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.”

We see here a pattern of Paul’s missionary strategy – to begin in the synagogue to the Jews and proselytes and then to move on to the Gentile population, often because of large-scale rejection of the message in Jewish circles. As with the account of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth, after the pair of regular readings from two sections of the Old Testament (as we call it), a capable person would be asked to give a homily or explanation to expand upon the passage – essentially a sermon. And if there happened to be a credentialed teacher travelling through the area and attending, he might be asked to do the speaking.

Acts 13:16 – 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.’ [Psalm 2:7]

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.’ [Isaiah 55:3]

35 So it is also stated elsewhere: “‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’ [Psalm 16:10]

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.’ [Habakkuk 1:5]”

So what are some of the elements of this sermon that make it a quality teaching?

  1. It begins by referring to a common experience, identifying the speaker with the listeners. Together they shared a common Jewish background of two thousand years of God’s work and preservation of their heritage.
  2. The teaching is based upon Scripture and exposition. The message begins with assumptions of a common understanding of many passages that detailed Israel’s history. It moves on to quote four specific passages to ground his grand idea and argument in authority.
  3. The content focuses not only on current truths and events, but it demonstrates how those events relate to the overall plan of God that He is executing through all of time and human history. It culminates in the cross and resurrection, drawing the attention to these pinnacle events and to Jesus as the heart of God’s big story.
  4. It ends by calling the listener to action and to faith. There is glorious hope and provision, while also stating the warning for unbelief.

Effective sermons share these elements to a large degree. We identify a common problem or life challenge. We point to God’s work in addressing this through the use of the timeless truths of Scripture. And we present the opportunity and encouragement for all who hear to be renewed by again trusting in the grand work of God.

Does this work all the time for all the people? Nope … and tomorrow we’ll see an example (that will be repeated in Acts and is repeated to today) of what happens when the truth of Scripture is presented to a wide group of people.

Paul Meets Paul Meets Jesus (Acts 13:4-12)

I am far from a well-travelled, frequent missionary exposure sort of fellow; but I have had about five or six missions-oriented, foreign visits in my lifetime. And some of the most unusual experiences of my life have been in these places where the activity of the kingdom of darkness is much closer to the surface than in our western, post-modern context.

I’ve witnessed open witchcraft in Puerto Rico, was warned to be cautious about KGB agents sitting in the back row during a church service in Uzbekistan, saw a near riot develop from our conversation being overheard at an Islamic holy place in Ankara, Turkey, and went one by one on differing walking routes so as to not make a scene when meeting with Turkish pastors in a secret underground location in Istanbul.

The Evil One is very real, and he and his minions are especially hostile to the spread of the gospel in parts of the world they have particularly held as a long-term stronghold. This is the real enemy of the gospel; and as Paul, Barnabas and John Mark set out on what we know as “the first missionary journey,” they will immediately run into Satanically-based opposition.

From Antioch in Syria, they travelled west to the Northeast coastal corner of the Mediterranean Sea, sailing slightly to the southwest and landing in Cyprus at Salamis – on the eastern side of the island. From there they would go to Paphos on the western half. The story is in Acts chapter 13 …

13:4 – The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.

13:6 – They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”

Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

It might have been a bit fearful for Saul and Barnabas to discover that the Roman government authority named Sergius Paulus was asking for a performance of their teaching. It could have been that this teaching was raising a stir in the Jewish circles of his community and he needed to know what was really happening (possibly because his attendant was this Jewish false prophet and sorcerer named Bar-Jesus / Elymas – who had alerted him … maybe with a view toward the proconsul stomping this out). But God’s sovereign hand was in this as well.

Bar-Jesus in Aramaic meant “son of Jesus.”  And Paul, filled with the Spirit, took aim at him and said essentially that he was no son of Jesus, but rather that he was a child of the devil! What follows is a power encounter – that the power of the Spirit through Paul was greater than any magical Satanic powers Elymas possessed. This scene had the effect of bringing the Proconsul to faith in Christ.

It could not have been lost on Paul that he was preaching out of a synagogue to Jews, gets called in front of a Gentile ruler who is converted, the Proconsul’s name just happens to be the same as his own Greek name of “Paulus,” the whole scene therefore affirming the calling he had from the Road to Damasus that he was going to be sent to reach Gentiles. This was clearly a work of God.

From this point forward, the Jewish name Saul is dropped in the narrative in preference for Paul. Barnabas becomes secondary to Paul’s leadership as the journey takes on an increasingly Gentile focus beyond synagogue preaching.

We today in the Tri-State area may not have too many head-on encounters with demonic workers, but that does not mean that we do not have a real enemy around us from the kingdom of darkness. Paul would later write that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but is rather against powers that are of the spiritual realm. Let us not forget the true enemy as we seek to be missionaries of the gospel in the places God calls us.

Antioch: A Special Church (Acts 11:19-30, Acts 12:25—13:3)

Some of my favorite memories in my years of ministry have been the opportunities I have had to be with Christians in more remote places where the gospel is not wide-spread. Several times I have mentioned the very great blessing of being with a church in France just four years ago – a congregation of people with whom my college son Jesse associated during his studies there. What a wonderful group of highly committed people! Our church we’ve partnered to help plant in Kazakhstan is another. Just this week a letter has come from the pastor there with pictures of the growth taking place in a less-than-ideal environment. Some years ago I was blessed to be with a group of Iranian Christians in England – a group very similar to that which our friends the Kurtykas are seeing incredible growth in Scotland.

There is simply something very refreshing about a new and exciting work of God. And that is what we encounter in our passages today that talk about the church in Antioch of Syria – a location about 300 miles north of Jerusalem.

Over the years of the Christian church, from Jerusalem down to today in places like China, persecution has served to have the opposite effect of its intent. In the desire to eradicate the presence of the gospel message and associated believers, the hostilities and subsequent sufferings rather have become the impetus for the spread and expanse of the message. It is like trying to stomp out a fire with your feet, only to have that action actually spread sparks in multiple directions that enflame new fires. The early Christian writer Tertullian wrote in his most famous work “Apologeticus” (about A.D. 197) said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

The persecution that broke out in Jerusalem upon the death of Stephen was an incident having the effect of spreading the gospel message in varied directions, including to Antioch – the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria.

Acts 11:19 – 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.

The authoritative center of the belief in Jesus as Messiah and Savior was still in Jerusalem. As we’ve written already in this series, it was still not very widely understood that this new belief system was distinct from Judaism. But with numbers of Gentiles coming to trust in Christ now in Antioch, it began to be clearer that this was an entirely new and more intentionally expansive work of God.

Barnabas was a man from Cyprus who was a Levite, and he was highly regarded in Jerusalem circles; so he was sent to ascertain what was really happening in Antioch. Seeing the Gentiles coming to Christ, Barnabas knew just the person who would be able to make this work flourish – Paul/Saul.  Knowing he was in Tarsus, Barnabas went looking for him to bring to Antioch, which he did. Certainly Barnabas had previously also known from earlier association with Paul that a special ministry to Gentiles was a part of Saul’s understanding of his life’s calling.

Acts 11:27 – 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.

Acts 12:25 – When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.

13:1-3 – Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with 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 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Antioch was a sort of church that I would like to see TSF increasingly come to be like. There existed a plethora of gifted leaders with varied skills, but not only this, they were a very varied group ethnically and in terms of background. It was a special place, and it was from this place that God began the first organized mission work to expand the gospel message.

Especially selected for this new work were Paul and Barnabas. The very best leaders in the church were those who were sent to go out to new places with the message of the cross. We can be, and in fact we already really are like the church at Antioch. Imagine what our congregation would be like if the six of our church families who serve in missions work in other places of the world were instead home here with us! That would amazingly enriching, but their calling and work in other places is their (and our) priority. What a privilege to be a part of this work!

The church of Jesus Christ is the greatest thing on planet Earth. What a blessing to be a part of it! Let’s make TSF a special place for the work of the gospel, just as Antioch was in the first century!

The Double Whammy of Being a Turncoat (Acts 9:26-31, Galatians 1:18-24)

When we think of someone who committed treason, probably the first name that comes to the minds of Americans is Benedict Arnold. There is even a saying used when someone seems disloyal … to call them “a regular Benedict Arnold.”

Most folks don’t remember some of the amazing military accomplishments that Arnold accomplished in the early Revolution. He was instrumental in victories at Fort Ticonderoga, and he also used his smaller fleet to prevent the British from seizing New York. His greatest effort was a daring and successful assault at the Battle of Saratoga. He felt unappreciated and plotted the surrender of West Point while switching sides. His evil plans were discovered, and Arnold avoided being captured and went to England. He was never really entrusted with much rank of distinction by the British, while actions such as burning Richmond added to the sense of betrayal by the Patriots. He died in a state of destitution in England in 1801.

It is actually difficult to be a traitor! If you think about it, it is a lose-lose situation. The original group is angered to the core by the betrayal, and the new group never really trusts you since you weren’t a part of them at the beginning. The only way to make it with the second group is to have an advocate, and then to prove your genuine loyalty over time.

This sums up our focus today on the story of Paul in his return to Jerusalem about three years after his conversion to Christ. After the stoning of Stephen, he had risen to a high rank of persecuting Christians; but now he was returning to Jerusalem and essentially continuing the very work that Stephen had done in the promotion of the gospel. This was a defection and changing of teams we can surely applaud. Here are the pertinent accounts in both Acts 9 and Galatians 1 …

Acts 9:26-31 – 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.

Acts 9:31 – 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.

Galatians 1:18-24 – Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me.

It is certainly understandable as to why the apostles and other early believers would be skeptical of Paul upon his arrival back in town. His track record was well-known. Was he being a “Trojan Horse” seeking to fool them?

But Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement” as his name meant, was truly an encourager who saw the best in other people and in what they could be for Christ. He was the ultimate discipler. I think Barnabas is my favorite biblical character, and if I could be one person in the Scriptures, he is the one I’d want to be. We all need a Barnabas in our lives at some point, and the church would be a lot better off if we would choose to see other people in the family as did this man. Do you think like this? Do you consider how God might use you as a person of great impact with a newer or younger believer? Such ministry is at the very heart of our philosophy as a church.

Staying in Jerusalem with Peter for 15 days, just imagine the conversations that took place! Again, Paul’s persuasive debating skills created a large stir and a resultant group who wanted to kill him. So he was taken to the seacoast town of Caesarea about 65 miles from Jerusalem, and from there Paul was sent back to his home area of Tarsus in Cilicia.

Over time, the fruits of Paul’s faith became obvious to the early believers, especially back in his home region. And in Jerusalem there was also a brief time of peace that aided in the expansion of the gospel. But this is a story just getting started. The only believers at this point are Jews, Samaritans and proselytes. But all of that is going to change, and the Apostle Paul will be at the heart of a new spread of the message of Christ to all peoples.

Paul, A True Basket Case (Acts 9:19-25)

Have you ever been gobsmacked? (You can’t see it here in this online platform, but as I typed that word, the spell-check does not recognize it, underlining it in red!).

Is that a new word for you? It is British slang to reference something that leaves a person utterly amazed and astonished. For example, it is that feeling you have every time you hear me preach! Oh… you didn’t connect to that illustration? Really? That leaves ME gobsmacked!

Well today we read about some folks in Damascus who were gobsmacked at the preaching of Paul in his first efforts at proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah…

Acts 9:19 – 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.

Before we talk about preaching, you might be wondering about the order of things here. Yesterday we wrote about how the passage in Galatians chapter 1 said that Paul quickly went off to the desert of Arabia for three years, but here it looks like he immediately began preaching in Damascus. It depends upon where the “at once” in verse 20 belongs with the rest of the surrounding words (Greek word order is different than our English translations). Various translations have it at different points, and the different New Testament accounts select incidents without an effort to always be completely thorough with every detail. So some commentators believe that the trip to Arabia happened after the paragraph above (and before the following verses below), while others think that Paul rather soon after conversion went to Arabia and that these events today occurred after he returned briefly to Damascus three years later (and I agree with this).

In any event, Paul’s preaching to the Jews was very powerful and left them gobsmacked… or “astonished.” This same Greek word is used elsewhere in Acts to talk about the amazement on the day of Pentecost by all who heard preaching in their language, or later in Acts 12 when Peter was miraculously released from prison and showed up at the door of the “gobsmacked” folks who were praying (but not really believing) for that very thing to happen!

The preaching of a message of Jesus as Messiah to a Jewish audience, especially by a guy who was clearly remembered to be one who had originally come to town to arrest the early followers of the way, was sure to have a controversial effect. Likely some were persuaded, though surely more were violent in rejection of this message…

Acts 9:23 – 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. 

The same event is recounted by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:30-33 … If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

I have never had to escape a church or flee from town after a sermon (more likely the listeners are the ones escaping). But Paul’s preaching created such controversy that, in the minds of some, the best method to end this was to kill Paul. With a walled city, the only way in or out was to pass through the checkpoint of the main city gate … or have your friends drop you out the window and down the wall in a basket. This was the first of many escapes for Paul in his life. And what an irony that the one who came to do the persecuting soon became the persecuted!

We need to understand that in any day the preaching of the gospel is not popular in a lost world. It is a message that divides. People don’t like being told that they are sinners who are lost, hopeless and spiritually dead and on the road to eternal separation. But once a person’s mind is quickened by the Spirit to understand this truth, it becomes for that person the most precious message of life. Our role is to preach and share the truth. It will not always be popular or well-received. But we must be faithful to do it as our commission to a lost world.

Time in the Desert (Galatians 1:10-17)

One of the grievous annoyances of being in professional ministry is the occasion suggestion by someone that you are in it for some personal gain of either riches or self-serving adulation. Though some ministry “characters” out there on TV or in the broad public eye have managed to make a lucrative profession out of serving God, I’m pretty sure most of the rest of us had other ideas about where we were headed in life – a direction that on most occasions would have netted greater material gain. But some “Damascus Road” experience made for a change in life direction.

In the early section of the letter to the Galatians, it is clear that the Apostle Paul was getting some of this sort of accusatory rhetoric. And to combat it he recalls to their understanding the history of his life and of the roots of his understanding of the gospel.

Galatians 1:10 – Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

11 – I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13 – For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Here in our early stages of the study of the life of the Apostle Paul, this passage is of particular interest as regards his personal testimony. Paul tells the Galatians that this gospel message is certainly not something he came up with himself, nor was it sourced in any human imagination or teaching. No, Paul’s life was radically changed, and the message was one that came to him directly by revelation of Jesus Christ.

The word “conversion” has the sense and meaning of “going in another direction.”  And that is surely what happened to Paul after his dramatic episode on the road to Damascus. A clearly understood part of this revelation was that Paul was going to be especially used to take this truth about Jesus to the Gentile world.

But Paul didn’t just re-book his Damascus ticket for the next week to some Gentile destination to begin his new life work, nor did he quickly return to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles of this Christian movement. No, it says in verse 17 that he went into Arabia, later returning to Damascus and eventually also to Jerusalem (after three years, as it says in verse 18).

So, where is this “Arabia” and what was Paul doing?

When we think of Arabia, like Saudi Arabia, we think of a largely remote area south and east of Israel. Damascus of Syria is to the northeast of Jerusalem. However, at this time in history, both of these areas were largely a part of one Nabataen Kingdom that was centered in modern-day Jordan.

In any event, we can take from this passage that Paul withdrew himself into a remote area after his conversion experience. Obviously his life had changed, and he had much to re-calibrate about the issues of faith, Jesus as Messiah, how this fit with the long-term history of Israel and the revelation of the prophets, and how this message should be communicated to a Gentile world.

This is far from the first time that major biblical figures withdrew for an extended period before they would re-emerge in God’s power with a great message and ministry. We should recall how Moses spent the bulk of four decades in the wilderness of Midian before being called to his great life work. The prophet Elijah wandered in the desert before his great life work, as did the one who later came in the spirit of Elijah – John the Baptist.

And we should remember as well that the other apostles all had three years of teaching and discipleship under Christ himself. Now it was Paul’s time, surely to grow and learn, study and pray. And surely as well there were times when Paul must have thought that life was passing him by.

The Lord often gives all of us certain desert times of personal preparation before He uses us for some ministry project. God likes to sometimes fix us in a sort of “holding pattern” before embarking on a new adventure or opportunity.

This does not always make sense to us. After nine consecutive years of college and graduate school, I was ready to head into full-time ministry. But God let me hang around waiting for almost a full year before leading to my next assignment. There I was in the possession of the finest theological education available on planet Earth … cleaning swimming pools. But looking back, that was a precious year with our first newborn and a productive and enjoyable part-time music ministry.

Multiple times in my life I have felt “stuck” in my circumstances. Surely a good God would have something better and more appropriately fitting for me!  But the Lord likes to say to us – “Wait!” … or some version of “sit in the saddle where I’ve placed you!”  To use a more biblically-based metaphor, he tells us to be faithful today in the place in the vineyard where we are working.

All of this is to build trust and dependence upon God and His timing. So don’t begrudge times in the desert; they are times of God’s design for our good and His eventual glory.