One more week and we are finally through our series, Telling Our Story. I hope this has been as encouraging and productive a journey for you as it has been for me. Today, having spent lots of time talking about the how and the why of the things the first church did, we shift gears and talk about the what. What was is they were doing that enabled them to be so successful? Read on to find out.
The Nature of Our Work
What does it look like when you’ve done a job well? That depends on the job, of course. A school project done really well looks like a paper with a big A on top. If you’re selling insurance, it looks like helping someone understand the worth of investing in a personal safety net should the tightrope that is life get plucked, sending you falling to the ground. If you’re a firefighter, it looks like a rescue made with as little collateral damage as possible. For a NASCAR team, it looks like a trip down victory lane. If you’re building something you ordered from Amazon, it looks like not having any extra pieces beyond the ones that are supposed to be there. The list here is as varied as the jobs we could imagine. Let me give you one more, though, what does it look like when we’ve done church well?
This morning finds us in the second-to-last installment of our summer series, Telling Our Story. The big idea for this whole journey has been that the modern church needs to do some looking back in order to know how to move forward wisely and well. And I don’t mean looking back to the last time everyone remembers the church was really rocking along and growing well. We’ve got to look back, way back, to the story of the first church as recorded for us by Luke in his narrative of the first few years of the church that we call Acts. The reason we look back there is because they were getting it right in some really crucial ways. They were not just getting it right, but they were getting it right in an environment in which getting it right was a whole lot harder and costlier than we’ve ever really experienced before. Until now. As the world around us continues to change and our situation looks more and more like theirs did (for the record, we’re still a long ways off from that point, but it’s the direction in which we’re heading all the same), understanding just how they did what they did so well will become crucial to our getting it right too.
This has been a really powerful journey so far. We’ve seen the church get up and running, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen them boldly stand out from the world around them in some really critical ways. We’ve seen them deftly navigate around external challenges and avoid potentially devastating internal ones. We’ve seen them trust God in places that didn’t make sense and were frightfully difficult only to come out on the other side even stronger than they were before. And just last week we learned what was perhaps the greatest secret weapon they had in all this success: Prayer.
But while we’ve talked a lot about the church along our journey together, we haven’t talked nearly as much about what the church was doing. We know how to overcome the challenges we may face along the way, but we don’t know what we are to be doing that may give rise to those challenges in the first place. Oh, it’s been there in the story the whole time for us to see if we looked closely enough, but we’ve kept our attention pretty occupied so far on the bigger picture. And indeed, when you get a movement up and running for the first time with a clear and compelling vision driving it forward, it takes a little while to figure out exactly what the day-to-day operations are going to actually look like. This morning, as we continue in Acts 13 and 14, that’s the thing we are going to find. The church was doing amazing work in these early days. We know the how. We know the why. But what was it exactly the church did while they were being so successful? Or, what did it look like when they were doing church well?
Well, if you’ll remember, at the end of chapter 12, the Lord removed a major threat and obstacle from the path of the church. With Herod’s death, the Roman authorities in the region would have been focused on shoring up their leadership and not on the church. And while the Jewish authorities were still a threat, they were simply not the threat that Rome represented. With this giant obstacle removed, then, the church entered a period of time when they weren’t having to focus all their attention on surviving and doing some ministry on the side. Instead, they were able to start giving more direct attention to how they could expand their efforts.
At the beginning of chapter 13, Luke takes us to Antioch which was quickly outpacing Jerusalem as the epicenter of church growth. In Antioch we find a group of church leaders praying, fasting, and worshiping together. Listen to this in v. 1: “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” Now, pause there for a minute. I know it doesn’t seem like it when just reading the text like this, but think for a minute about how incredibly diverse this leadership group of the church in Antioch was. Barnabas represented the old guard, but with a forward-thinking mindset. Simeon was probably a black man. Lucius from Cyprus would have had lighter skin. Manaen was a close friend of Herod and thus was likely very wealthy as well as politically connected, and then there was Saul. In other words, the church leadership represented the diversity of its community. Indeed, if a church doesn’t look like its community, it’s not going to be able to minister very effectively to its community. That’s a sermon for another time.
In any event, while this diverse group of leaders were praying and fasting (that gets mentioned specifically several times in this passage which is probably another lesson we should learn later), the Spirit spoke in such a way none of them could deny: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” And although Luke almost certainly condenses the actual timeline here for the sake of narrative flow, once they had this call from the Spirit Himself, the group commissioned the pair and sent them on their way.
And “their way” was to begin a trip that would take them to several different stops in the broader region. Now, travelogues like this can seem a little bit dull, but let me encourage you to go home and read this one. There’s actually quite a bit of drama and it makes for pretty interesting reading. Their first stop was on the island of Cyprus. After some rather intense spiritual warfare with a false prophet who had the ear of the Roman governor on the island, Sergius Paulus, Saul, whom we are now told was also called Paul, perhaps in honor of his first major convert, Sergius Paulus himself, and the rest of the group sailed back to the mainland where they made their way to Pisidian Antioch.
In Antioch here, things got pretty exciting. Paul and the group start by going to the local Jewish synagogue. This was always his approach on all of his missionary journeys. He always went first to the Jews to proclaim the fulfillment of the Law in Christ. Then, when he was rejected there—because he was always rejected there—he went to wherever the Gentiles gathered for religious and cultural conversations and proclaimed the Gospel there. Well, this was beyond where the Gospel had yet been taken by any believers. No one had even thought about pushing this far into the Gentile world just yet. That meant Paul’s message was new to both the Gentiles and the Jews alike, and they wanted to hear more. Look at 13:42: “As they were leaving, the people urged them to speak about these matters the following Sabbath.”
Now, if you’ve ever brought up a new idea to a group of people and done it well, the first reaction is generally going to be positive. If you’re given the chance to do it again a full week later, though, what do you think is going to happen? A week’s worth of chatter and gossip are going to build up and things aren’t likely to go quite as smoothly as the first time. In particular, throughout the Roman Empire, Jewish synagogues were filled with Jews, yes, but also Gentiles who found the Jewish message of a unitary God who was more powerful than any of the pagan gods attractive. These were called god-fearers. A few went on to become full-fledged Jews, but most just stayed on the fridges because the requirements for such a move were pretty challenging. This will matter a whole lot more next week.
Well, new and foreign movements in urban centers tend to attract the attention of folks who are wealthy enough to have time to care. Wealthy folks are often also politically connected folks. These god-fearers in the Jewish synagogues, then, represented several things: a source of additional income, the promise of political protection from an Empire that officially considered them a nuisance at best, and a boost to their social standing among others. When Paul and Barnabas came proclaiming this new message that the ethnic Jews weren’t so sure they agreed with but which seemed to really capture the attention of the god-fearers in the community, well, let’s just say the town wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Verse 44: “The following Sabbath almost the whole town assembled to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what Paul was saying, insulting him.”
Paul was never one to take a challenge lying down when the Gospel was at stake. The result was that the Jews used their political alliances with sympathetic Gentiles to sway public opinion against Paul and crew. With the threat of persecution now very real, they didn’t stay to take it, they moved on to the next town. Except, the Jews in Antioch saw the threat Paul posed to their power base, so they sent folks on ahead of them to poison the well wherever they went. The result was that as Paul and company arrived in Iconium next and then Lystra, while they found some interested ears, they were also eventually run out of town. In Iconium they were threatened with stoning. In Lystra, Paul actually was stoned and left for dead, but somehow survived.
While they made a couple of more stops on this journey, their path now turned toward revisiting the places they had already been to encourage the new believers they had left in their wake before returning home to Syrian Antioch. Luke offers a summary of this starting in 14:21 that is worth our attention. Listen to this: “After they had preached the gospel to that town and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to [Pisidian] Antioch, strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, ‘It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. [Something Paul could say with particular authority given the abuse the disciples would have known he received from their townsfolks.]’ When they had appointed elders for them in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
So, what is all of this? What’s going on here? Well, as I said, there is a lot of stuff going on here. We could easily spend four or five weeks just going through what we see in these two chapters. What’s the big picture, though? What was the church doing that allowed them to be so successful? There are two things. We saw one of them at the beginning, and we just saw the other of them here at the end. Did you catch them? Think about it. What happened at the beginning of the story here? Paul and Barnabas were sent out to do mission work. They were specifically called by God, commissioned by the church, and then sent on their way.
The first thing that made the first church so successful was that they were an intentionally sending body. They intentionally sought the Lord and listened well to Him so that when He called, they were ready to answer. They were not afraid to send out even their best and brightest leaders to do mission work when God called them to go. Now, Paul and Barnabas went pretty far from home. And part of the fear on the part of many churches—and many individual believers—in thinking about this particular concept is that they don’t want to send or go far from home. But that’s a deception of the devil. There’s plenty of missions work to do right in our own backyard. The fact is, though, that churches that thrive are sending churches. They actively look and listen closely for God’s call on the lives of individuals connected to their community who are growing in Christ to be sent to reach out to expand His kingdom. That sending could be across the world, but it could also be simply to have a Gospel-conversation with a neighbor who doesn’t know the Lord. The point is not the location, but the sending itself. Sending churches are thriving churches.
Let me challenge you on this a bit church. We have a few folks we are sending…but not many. If we want to become fully the church God designed us to be, that’s got to change. And listen: There’s no age limit connected to this sending. Whether you are 9 or 90 or beyond, if you are following Jesus, you’ve been called to go and its our job to send you. But, if we are going to hear that call, we’ve got to be listening…which means praying.
That was the first thing. The second one helps us see the results we are seeking when we get the first thing right. We see this one right here at the end of chapter 14. Paul and Barnabas, after planting all these churches and being a part of the conversion of many new disciples didn’t just leave them to their own devices to figure it out as they went. The pair went back to them in order to give them training and instruction so they could stand on their own two Gospel feet. Our whole goal in sending people out on mission into the community and world around us whether that is across the street or across the world, in your school, home, or workplace, is to create disciples of Jesus who can stand on their own two Gospel feet. You see, we’re not looking to just sow seeds and sit back to wait and see what happens. We are looking to actively make disciples. The church working well makes disciples who can stand on their own two feet.
When people connect here, we want them to grow in Christ. If we’re not doing that, we’re failing. Period. But the growth is for a purpose. It is to see them become genuine, passionate disciples of Jesus who can stand on their own two feet. They are confident and mature in their faith—a confidence and maturity demonstrated by their willingness to then reach out to expand His kingdom, creating more disciples who can stand on their own two feet. That’s who God made us to be as a church. That’s why I repeat that idea to you over and over again every time we get together. We are to be a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. And when we do that well, when we are working well as a church, we are going to be making disciples who can stand on their own two feet. The church working well makes disciples who can stand on their own two feet.
Are you with me? Friends, our future is bright. God is moving in our midst. He is doing some pretty serious reputation building on our part. He is building energy and excitement around what He is doing. And what He is doing is creating opportunities. He is preparing some people to go and equipping us to send. If we are going to be the church He has created us to be, we’ve got to be ready to go with Him, to follow His lead. It’ll come as we commit ourselves to prayer like we talked about last week. But it’ll hit its stride as we listen, hear, and obey. But all of this is pointed in a single direction: Making disciples who can stand on their own two feet. The church working well makes disciples who can stand on their own two feet. Let’s get started.