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Three men and a mission (sermon)

Sermon by Rod Benson at Faith Bible Baptist Church, Castle Hill, Sydney, 30 September 2012

Acts 12:25–14:28

The last recorded words of Jesus before he was taken up into heaven were these: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In Acts, Luke follows this pattern of outward momentum in his narrative of the mission of the first churches.  Chapters 1-7 describe mission in Jerusalem; chapters 8-12 outline the expanding mission in the adjacent regions of Judea and Samaria; and, beginning with chapter 13, we read how the Christian gospel spreads throughout the Roman world.

It’s an exciting time to be alive.  Stephen and Philip have prepared the way by word and action.  Peter has introduced the gospel, and the Holy Spirit, to Gentiles.  Paul has been commissioned by Jesus as “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 1:5; 11:13).  Other evangelists have shared the message about Jesus with people in Syrian Antioch, and a healthy, vital, missional church has formed.  Luke says there were “prophets and teachers” at Antioch, and mentions five by name: Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul.

It’s about AD 47, and these Christians at Antioch are on the verge of exporting their new faith in Jesus across the Mediterranean to Cyprus and beyond, launching the first wave of global evangelisation.  One day, so Luke tells us, while worshipping God and fasting, they receive a message from heaven.  The Holy Spirit identifies two church leaders – Barnabas and Saul – and says, “Set them apart for the work to which I have called them” (13:2).  The church agrees, and sets aside time for more prayer and fasting before setting aside Barnabas and Paul, and launching them off on a seemingly vague Spirit-inspired mission.

In doing so, the Antioch church becomes a model for mission in every church.  I want to suggest five things that Acts 13-14 tells us about Christian mission.

1.  MISSION INVOLVES INTENTIONAL TEAMS (13:1-5)

God is a missional God, and he inspires visions for global mission.  The Christians in a church like Antioch are open to God, embrace the vision, and develop a strategy, and respond by faith.  And key leaders are willing and prepared to serve God, and are endorsed by their church.  God, the church, its leaders and its key missional agents work together as a healthy, focused team.

“Postmodern preachers don’t populate the pews,” says missiologist Leonard Sweet, “they connect people to the living Christ.  Postmodern evangelism doesn’t say to the world, ‘Come to church.’  Rather, it says, ‘Go to the world.’”[1]

Do you expect God to speak to you?  Are you part of a strong team, doing mission in your community?  Do you support a global mission team through your local church like they did at Antioch?  Is it time to join the team?

2.  MISSION CONFRONTS REAL EVIL (13:6-12)

As Luke tells it, Barnabas, Saul and a young man named John Mark leave Antioch for Selucia and set sail for Cyprus – three men on a mission.  They land at Salamis on the east coast, and preach their way across to the west coast, arriving at Paphos (a journey of about 150 km).

One of the first people they meet is an alarming character called Bar-Jesus, aka Elymas, a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet, and an advisor to the proconsul Sergius Paulus.  A proconsul was something like a state premier in Australia.

The proconsul, whom Luke describes as “an intelligent man” (v 7), hears that Barnabas and Saul are in town with something new to say.  His intellectual and spiritual hunger prompts him to send for the visitors, who are happy to oblige.  Evidently Barnabas and Saul make some real progress with the proconsul, because Elymas now turns nasty.  Perhaps he sees them as a threat to his livelihood that was secure and uncontested until these Christians arrived.

Elymas then tries to turn the politician away from the faith (v 8).  Has someone ever tried to do that to you?

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Saul confronts Elymas (vv 9-10).  He denounces Elymas’ allegiance to the devil, his opposition to everything that is right, his proclivity for deceit and trickery, and his penchant for perverting God’s ways (v 10).  Evidently Sergius Paulus, the proconsul, got quite a surprise hearing his trusted advisor unmasked in this way!

But Paul has not finished.  He declares that God is opposed to Elymas; and he declares that the sorcerer will be temporarily blinded.  And it happens (v 11)!  Before his very eyes, the proconsul has witnessed the gospel triumph over the occult, good over evil, truth over falsehood.  And, seeing his sightless advisor, Sergius believes the truth about Jesus that Barnabas and Saul have been sharing with him.  He is the first recorded totally pagan convert to Christianity.

What opposition have you felt as you have told people about Jesus?  How would you feel if a modern-day Elymas confronted you?  What would you do?

3.  MISSION HAS PARTICULAR CONTENT (13:13-43)

From Paphos the trio sail to Perga in what is now southwest Turkey, and move quickly north to Pisidian Antioch, the government and military centre of southern Galatia.  On Saturday, as is their custom, they go to synagogue (v 14).  After hearing readings from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers invite the two visitors to share a message of encouragement with the congregation (v 15).

Paul stands, addresses his audience as men of Israel and Gentiles who worship God, and preaches the Christian gospel.  He briefly reviews ancient Israelite history from the patriarchs to David, emphasising God’s gracious initiative at every step (vv 17-22).  Then he skips forward almost 1,000 years and says, “David’s descendant, Jesus the Saviour, has fulfilled God’s promises to Israel” (vv 23-25, my paraphrase); and “it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent” (v 26).

Like Peter in Acts 2, Paul focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the core of the Christian gospel (vv 27-31).  He emphasises the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, substantiating his claims to his largely Jewish audience by using three Old Testament quotes (vv 32-37).

Then it is decision time (vv 38-39): “Therefore, my brothers,” says Paul, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.  Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”

This is the heart of the Christian gospel: Jesus, an innocent sufferer, has died to forgive our sins; and all who believe in Jesus God regards as ready for heaven.  There is no doubt that, to be Christian, mission must have specific, Jesus-centred content.  Mission involves presence and proclamation, love and truth.

With a brief warning to consider their response, Paul is done and the service is over.  The people are impressed, and they invite him back next weekend, and discussions continue outside (vv 40-43).

Could you share the good news with someone who is not a follower of Jesus?  How would you speak about Jesus to a nominal Anglican grandmother; a professional football player; your dentist; a stock broker; a restaurant waiter; or a Muslim university student?

4.  MISSION ATTRACTS STRONG PERSECUTION (13:44-14:20)

In these verses Paul and Barnabas move through Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, and encounter five instances of anti-Christian behaviour.

During the week after Paul preached at Antioch, people spread the word that he was booked to preach again.  Next Saturday almost the whole city gathered (v 44).  But when the Jews see the crowds, jealousy swamps them and they begin talking abusively against what Paul is saying (v 45).  Paul and Barnabas respond boldly – and provocatively (vv 46-47).  Jews generally turn away, but Gentiles who hear respond positively and turn to follow Jesus (v 48), and the gospel spreads through the whole region (hardly the result intended when the Jews verbally abused Paul) (v 49).

Those first Christians quickly discovered that, as the gospel spreads, persecution increases.  If you’re not suffering for Jesus, you should ask yourself why not.

The Jews now stir up God-fearing women of high status and the leading men of the city, and Paul and Barnabas are expelled from Antioch (vv 50-51).  But the disciples they leave behind are joyful and Spirit-filled (v 52).

The two missionaries travel east to Iconium, preaching well, and many Jews and Gentiles believe (14:1).  But some Jews who refused to believe poisoned other Gentiles’ minds against Paul and Barnabas (v 2).  This leads them to intensify their evangelism, aided by signs and wonders from God (v 3).  Then they hear of a plot to attack them, and they flee to the quiet backwater of Lystra and nearby Derbe, and continue to preach (vv 4-7).

In Lystra Paul heals a man crippled from birth, and the local people declare in their own language that the visitors are gods descended from heaven (vv 8-13).  When Paul and Barnabas see the local priest lurching toward them with bulls and wreaths ready to perform an extravagant ritual, they realise what has happened, establish the truth about themselves, and again share the gospel in a culturally aware manner (14-18).  But Jews from Antioch and Iconium come and influence the milling crowd, and Paul is stoned and left for dead outside the town.  Miraculously, Paul revives and goes the next day to Derbe (vv 19-20).

For the sake of Jesus, and for the gospel, they have suffered verbal abuse, deportation, slander, threat of violence, and serious physical assault.  The personal cost of doing mission in the name of Jesus can be very high.

What price are we prepared to pay to see people saved by the grace of God?

5.  MISSION REQUIRES STRATEGIC DISCIPLESHIP (14:21-28)

A missional church needs to filled with people who are passionate Jesus-followers.  Missionaries and leaders need to be followers of Jesus who teach and train others to follow Jesus.  And the new converts need to learn to follow Jesus.

This is emphasised in these last few verses.  Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Derbe, “and won a large number of disciples” (21a).  Then they returned through Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith” (21b-22a).

After appointing elders in each church (v 23) who would carry on the tasks of evangelism, teaching and nurture, Paul and Barnabas returned to Syrian Antioch (v 26).  There they joined their fellow followers of Jesus and “reported all that God had done through them” (v 27).

They had been away almost two years, “and they stayed there a long time with the disciples” (v 28).  Are you a disciple?  If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Are you investing your life in making new disciples, and encouraging existing disciples to grow in their faith?

Two seeds lay side by side in the fertile spring soil.  The first seed said, “I want to grow! I want to send my roots deep into the soil beneath me, and thrust my sprouts through the earth’s crust above me . . . I want to unfurl my tender buds like banners to announce the arrival of spring . . . I want to feel the warmth of the sun on my face and the blessing of the morning dew on my petals!”  And so she grew.

The second seed said, “I’m afraid.  If I send my roots into the ground below, I don’t know what I will encounter in the dark.  If I push my way through the soil above me, I may damage my delicate sprouts . . . what if I left my buds open and a snail tries to eat them?  And if I were to open my blossoms, a small child may pull me from the ground.  No, it’s much better for me to wait until it’s safe.”  And she waited.

And so it happened that a hen scratching around in the soil for food found the waiting seed and promptly consumed it.

Mission is the heart of the Christian faith.  It is the heart of what it means to be Baptist.  If you’re a Christian, you need to know what mission is, and how to do it.  Acts 13-14 reminds us that mission involves intentional teams.  It confronts real evil.  It has particular content.  It attracts strong persecution.  It requires strategic discipleship.

Time is precious.  People are precious. Whatever God calls you to do in his service, don’t wait another day.

——————

Sermon 610 copyright © 2012 Rod Benson. Preached at Faith Bible Baptist Church, Castle Hill, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 30 September 2012. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 53.

Categories: sermons

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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