Engage in Kingdom Building

| Acts 13:1-4; 14:21-28

Lesson Focus:  The focused activities of transformational churches build the kingdom of God by making disciples.

Go Where God Sends:  Acts 13:1-4.

[1]  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. [4]  So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.  [ESV]

[1-4]  The focus in Acts now turns to the city of Antioch, a city that will offer far more influence on the course of the expansion of the church than the church in Jerusalem. Antioch was the third or fourth largest city of the Roman Empire, with a population estimated to be around half a million. It was the headquarters to Rome’s Syrian legion. The city lay inland, but within a few miles was the port city of Seleucia and gateway to the Mediterranean. The focus of attention has turned away from two significant features that have dominated the book of Acts thus far: the city of Jerusalem and the apostle Peter. In verse 2 we find a church worshiping the Lord and fasting when the Holy Spirit spoke to them. The believers were told to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the work to which I have called them. Following more prayer and fasting, the church laid their hands on them and sent them off. Praying and fasting was an integral part of their worshiping at this time in their existence. It is not that the church had established a particular tradition of fasting, one that was kept on a regular basis as part of a recurring cycle of fast days in the church’s calendar. There is no evidence of that at this stage in the church’s existence. Rather, they sensed a particular need that required special focus and attention, one that must be addressed with deliberation and urgency. They were deeply burdened about where they should go next in obedience to the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ. And they turned to God in prayer. The need of the lost drove this church to prayer, and prayer drove this church to missions. Prayerless churches will always have a poor vision of the needs of the lost and perishing. We will never see great advances in the cause of the gospel without first seeing the church on her knees in prayer before the Lord. Likewise, before the Lord begins to do a great work, He sets His people praying. Twice Luke tells us that the church in Antioch was fasting [2,3]. The sense seems to be that it was the whole church that fasted rather than just the five men who are mentioned in verse 1. They were facing an important point in their existence. They were in need of divine guidance. It is perfectly understandable that in such a situation they would gather together to pray, collectively, as the church of Jesus Christ. They dare not make this decision just because it seemed wise to them. They needed divine counsel. And they got it. The Holy Spirit spoke to them: Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them [2]. We are to understand that He did this through one of the prophets who was present. Fasting is a spiritual discipline much in neglect in our time. What should we think of fasting today? And what, in particular, should we make of what seems to be on this occasion a communal experience of fasting rather than something that individual Christians did privately? The fast recorded here in Acts 13 is a congregational fast, since it looks as though the entire church was involved, although it is possible that they in verse 2 refers to the five individuals mentioned in verse 1. The fast in Antioch was observed for the purpose of discerning the Lord’s guidance. Fasts may also be engaged in to strengthen prayer, express grief, seek divine protection, express repentance, and express heartfelt worship and praise. This fasting at Antioch changed the course of history. From this point onward, Christianity invaded the heart of the Roman Empire. It transformed the very capital city of Rome itself. The sending of the disciples to Cyprus was a decisive moment. It is hardly surprising that the church found in Barnabas gifts that made him acceptable in any community. He evidently was a man of encouragement and winsome personality. He was well known to the church in Antioch. He had been sent there by the church in Jerusalem to investigate the extent to which Gentiles were entering the church without being circumcised or having the purposeful intent to obey the traditions of the Jews regarding food and the celebration of feast days. He had been glad at the sight of the grace of God at work in the city and had encouraged the believers to continue as they had begun. Saul had evidently received their approval, too, when they had sent him along with Barnabas to Jerusalem with financial help to face the onset of famine. Now they were ready to send him farther afield, to Cyprus and beyond, as a trusted ambassador of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Grow People Through Bible Teaching:  Acts 14:21-22.

[21]  When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, [22]  strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.  [ESV]

[21-22]  There is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in this missionary journey. As the apostles spend time in the city of Derbe, it appears that many disciples were made as a result of preaching the gospel [21]. It surely proved a confirmation to the apostle Paul of his calling that conversions now attended his ministry, especially given his experience in Lystra when the people had almost killed him. God grants us these encouragements from time to time. But it was now time to return to the cities where the apostles had been with the gospel, including Lystra. So God-centered and kingdom-focused was the apostle Paul that he seems to have taken no heed of threats made against his life. He did not choose the easier path when the more difficult one included a blessing for the people of God. Here is a lesson for us: to place the needs of the people of God above our own comforts and conveniences. What exactly did Luke mean by strengthening the souls of the disciples? As the apostles passed through these churches, what exactly did they do? Luke tells us three things that they did for these churches. First, they encouraged them to continue in the faith, which they had received from him. A number of similar expressions are used in different parts of the New Testament to indicate that there was a recognizable body of doctrine, a cluster of central beliefs, which the apostles taught. Here it is called the faith, elsewhere ‘the tradition’, ‘the deposit’, ‘the teaching’, or ‘the truth’. To some extent we can reconstruct from the apostles’ letters the content of the faith. It will have included the doctrines of the living God, the Creator of all things, of Jesus Christ His Son, who died for our sins and was raised according to the Scriptures, now reigns and will return, of the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer and animates the church, of God’s salvation, of the new community of Jesus and the high standards of holiness and love He expects from His people, of the sufferings which are the path to glory, and of the strong hope laid up for us in heaven. These truths Paul left behind him, and then elaborated in his letters. Each church would begin to collect apostolic letters, alongside the Old Testament Scriptures they already had, and in their public worship on the Lord’s Day extracts from both would be read aloud. There was a second thing that the apostles had to do in order to be realistic and honest about what these disciples could now expect: through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. This was a no-nonsense appraisal of the nature of the Christian life. The Christian life is cross-shaped [Matt. 16:24]. Trials are designed to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy and to drive us to cling to Him more closely. God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast.

Join God Where He Is Working:  Acts 14:23-28.

[23]  And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. [24]  Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. [25]  And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, [26]  and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. [27]  And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. [28]  And they remained no little time with the disciples.  [ESV]

[23]  Third, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders … in every church [23]. The church was in need of structure and organization, and as they returned to the cities in which there were now groups of disciples, the apostles appointed elders. Elders first made their way into the church’s rank of officers in Acts 11:30, which refers to elders in the church in Jerusalem to whom the church in Antioch sent relief in preparation for the famine prophesied by Agabus. Elders were leaders, elsewhere called shepherds and overseers. This pattern of leadership grew directly out of the Old Testament, where God is the shepherd of Israel, and kings, prophets, priests, and elders were called to act as His agents in an undershepherd role. In the New Testament, Jesus the Good Shepherd is also the Chief Shepherd, and therefore, elders are meant to depict Christlike qualities. Later, Paul gave a list of qualifications that must characterize an elder if he is to carry out his function well in the local congregation, as an example to the flock and as one who demonstrates true Christlike care for the people of God – qualifications that include the ability to teach, as well as a mature, godly character [1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9]. The churches that the apostles were now leaving behind for a season were young and immature. It is difficult to imagine how they were to manage without good leadership. They would quickly become the targets of Jewish and superstitious hostility, and some of those who had made a profession of faith would quickly find themselves terrified and in need of much help and support. Others would need to be encouraged to take leadership roles. Still others would lapse into moral failures and need to experience the more disciplinary elements of oversight. The church of Jesus Christ needs representatives of Jesus to demonstrate Christ’s teaching and pastoral care for its members. Training elders and appointing them to oversight in the church so that the church can care for its own needs is part of the apostolic strategy. It is a fundamental aspect of mission work to see the establishment of godly elders in the local churches that the missionaries have been enabled to plant. The apostles had appointed a plurality of elders in each church, thereby ensuring that no one individual could rise up and exercise dominical powers over the flock of God.

[24-28]  It was over six months since Paul and Barnabas had set out from Syrian Antioch. Now they are back in the church that had sent them, and they give a mission report before the church. Two things immediately strike us about the report given in Antioch. First, these apostles had been sent by the church in Antioch and were now reporting back to the church in Antioch. They reported that they had established churches in the various cities they had visited. They had been engaged in church-based and church-focused missions. They did not see themselves as spiritual opportunists, engaged in personal ministry outside the structure of the visible church. There was a sense of collective responsibility between Antioch, Jerusalem, and the churches in Asia Minor. True enough, there were serious issues of tension, but these issues would be addressed because they saw each other as belonging to the one church of Jesus Christ. The second thing that strikes us is the way Luke described the meeting in Antioch: they gathered the church together. Missions was a priority for the entire church. Luke records their report in verse 27. First, they declared all that God had done with them. They began with God and not themselves. It would have been easy to highlight their own involvement. But this report was an account of a divine work, a supernatural outpouring of the Spirit upon the labors of men. Of course, there had been human involvement in the entire venture from beginning to end. These men had been commissioned and sent by the church in Antioch. The church had gathered to pray and fast, seeking the Lord’s guidance in what they should do and where they should do it. They had chosen their best men and sent them away, not having any certainty as to exactly what these men would face along the way. The apostles themselves had preached the gospel and performed miracles. They had faced difficulties and opposition. There were tales of what they had done; but far more significantly, it was what God had done through them that they emphasized in their report. God uses means to accomplish His work. He uses people to testify to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostles were merely obeying God’s command to go and make the gospel known. Their endeavors would have been in vain had the Lord not been governing and empowering the apostles’ effort. Second, they reported that God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. It is difficult, perhaps, for us fully to enter into the problem that Gentile inclusion in the kingdom of God without some ritual of conversion to Judaism caused the early church. In largely Gentile territory, there was no problem. Becoming a Christian meant believing in Jesus Christ. Of course, there was a need to turn from pagan superstitions, but Gentiles who had never become interested in Judaism would not have ever imagined that they needed to be circumcised or change the food they ate in order to become Christians. But in Jewish cities, where the apostles had first gone to the local synagogues, the situation was very different. News of Gentile conversions might have been received with joy in Antioch, but in Jerusalem there were mixed feelings. People there had not envisaged that preaching Jesus as Messiah would appeal to Gentiles to the extent that Paul and Barnabas were now reporting. It was their concern for some control over the spread of Christianity beyond Jerusalem that had forced them to send Barnabas up to Antioch in the first place [Acts 11:22]. True, for some, perhaps, it was a matter of control. But it was more than that. There were important issues at stake, matters of ceremony and ritual that, in the eyes of many, defined the essence of what being a Jew, even a Christian Jew, meant. If all of a sudden Gentile believers far outnumbered Jewish believers, there would be social and cultural ramifications that would radically alter what the new faith looked like. Christianity has social consequences. The New Testament church was struggling with the problems that accompany growth. If Gentiles were going to be allowed into the kingdom of God, did they need to become Jewish first? And if this was not possible, did it not imply that there would emerge Gentile-Christian churches and Jewish-Christian churches? The church has struggled with the issue of ethnicity ever since, asking the very same questions over black churches, Hispanic churches, and a myriad of other divisions based on race, language, and ethnic distinctions. The answers are not always easy to discern. On this issue, in Antioch the answer was very plain: to refuse to fellowship on the basis of noncircumcision was unacceptable and gospel-denying. It was sectarian and racist. The advance of the gospel changed everything, forcing the church to think outside of their social comfort zones. It did then, and it does now. The issues being faced here in Syrian Antioch at the close of the first missionary journey are in essence those that continue to trouble us. How do we manifest the unity of the body of Christ in a local church?

In summary, we find in 14:21-28 three foundations upon which Paul based his missionary activity. The first foundation centered upon apostolic instruction whereby Paul sought to strengthen and encourage the new disciples to continue in the faith [22]. The second foundation consisted of appointing elders to provide leadership for the churches [23]. Although no fixed ministerial order is laid down in the New Testament, some form of pastoral oversight, doubtless adapted to local needs, is regarded as indispensable to the welfare of the church. We notice that it was both local and plural – local in that the elders were chosen from within the congregation, not imposed from without, and plural in that there was a pastoral team, which is likely to have included (depending on the size of the church) full-time and part-time ministers, paid and voluntary workers. Their qualifications Paul laid down in writing later [see 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1]. These were mostly matters of moral integrity, but loyalty to the apostles’ teaching and a gift for teaching it were also essential. Thus the shepherds would tend Christ’s sheep by feeding them, in other words care for them by teaching them. Such was Paul’s double human provision for these young churches: on the one hand a standard of doctrinal and ethical instruction, safeguarded by the Old Testament and the apostles’ letters, and on the other pastors to teach the people out of these written resources and to care for them in the name of the Lord. The third foundation was the recognition and conviction that the church belongs to God and that He can be trusted to look after His own people. So before leaving the Galatian churches, Paul and Barnabas with prayer and fasting … committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. These are the reasons why Paul believed that the churches could confidently be left to manage their own affairs. They had the apostles to teach them, pastors to shepherd them, and the Holy Spirit to guide, protect and bless them.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why was the church at Antioch engaged in worshiping, praying, and fasting? What was the result? Why do you think this church added fasting to worship and prayer? Why is the spiritual discipline of fasting not practiced more in today’s church?

2.         What three things did Paul and Barnabas do for the churches in Acts 14:21-28? What is the faith that the churches (and us) need to continue in? Why must we enter into God’s kingdom through many tribulations? Why did Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in every church? What responsibility did elders have in these churches?

3.         Look at the report that Paul and Barnabas gave the church at Antioch in 14:27. What two things did they emphasize? What things can we learn from this first missionary journey concerning how to maintain the unity of the body of Christ in a local church?

References:

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.