This is really the first time that a local church, and one not led by the Apostles in Jerusalem, begins to prayerfully and strategically adopt the great commission as their responsibility. This church in Antioch was established by ordinary, faithful Christians, heard about in Jerusalem by the Apostles, encouraged and strengthened by Barnabas and Paul, and now becomes the first sending church for the express purpose of gospel advancement into un-evangelized places.
There was both a plurality of leaders and a diversity of leaders represented in discerning together the leading of the Spirit, but make no mistake about it, Luke is absolutely clear, that it was in fact the Holy Spirit leading them. And those leaders are willing and eager to part with some of the mature leaders, in order to see the gospel go forward. Antioch is a model for any local church that aspires to be a faithful church in these ways. They are sacrificially committed to fulfilling the great commission, not as an add on to ministry, but as a first concern and priority of ministry.
The next thing we see, then, is Paul and Barnabas actually engage in the work of Christian mission. They are preaching the gospel broadly but paying attention to the doors opened by the Spirit more personally. They are responsive to opportunities and open doors and they are actively and thoroughly engaged in spiritual warfare, which every missionary must be if they want to be fruitful and effective. And it the midst of their faithfulness in these areas, God lends his power to their words, demonstrates the power of Christ over the powers of darkness, which gives credibility to their preaching and testimony, and a governing official believes in Jesus.
This is a great example of what Paul would later say in one of his letters to the Corinthians, that the Kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. This was the power of Christ joining itself to their preaching and prophetic confronting of a false teacher. It's Awesome!
- Oh, that we would be so bold and faithful to proclaim the truth, and be dialed into the Spirit. Oh, that in our boldness, Christ might display his power and glory for the salvation of many thousands in our community and city. Let's pray to that end... let's expect and anticipate that end. Let's be available and eager to be used of the Lord to that end.
We are looking at this in two parts, Paul's sermon itself today, and then the response of people to his sermon tomorrow.
I will offer one observation regarding the scope of his sermon and then zero in on part in particular that really grabs my heart personally.
1) The Scope of the Sermon
The gospel is a multi-faceted message. It is news to be heralded, a story that needs to be told, and a reality that needs to be embodied by people whose lives have been changed by it. Paul gives a great example here of preaching the gospel in it's narrative arc. He's connecting propositional truths to a random audience. He's connecting the story of Israel directly to Jesus because the audience is Jews. This is appropriate contextualizing of the message of the gospel. In this sense, the gospel is the story of God's redemption through the story of Israel resolving itself in the story of Jesus, and then connecting to our own stories.
Paul succinctly recaps Israel's history of slavery, wandering, longing, all leading up to Jesus who has freed them from the crushing demands of the law which has held them captive for generations. Paul draws straigh lines from numerous OT passages to their fulfillment in Christ and invites them to respond in faith, that they might receive forgiveness and be free from their bondage to the law of Moses which they could not keep, no matter how hyper vigilant they were.
This is the task of gospel proclamation in a nutshell. To connect the stories of your hearers, their hopes, dreams, disappointments and needs, to the reailty of Christ.
2) An Encouragement from the Sermon
v. 36, Paul says that "For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers..." Man I love this. Rather than feeling pressure to be some generalized ideal of a super-Christian, or some imitation of a celebrity pastor, or pattern ourselves after the most mature Christians we know, what if we allowed ourselves the room to only aspire to this much... that we would fulfill the purpose of God for us in our own generation.
There's such relief in that because I don't have to fulfill the purpose God gave anybody else, nor do I need to fulfill the prupose that anyone else wants to give to me. I want my ambition to line up with this verse... to simply fulfill God's purposes for me in my own generation. That's so freeing, and not at all minimalist. That's glorious. What if we all stopped trying fulfill the ministries God's given to others and ignored the ministries others expect of us and just sought diligently and humbly and securely to fulfill God's unique purposes for us in our own time? If we'd all do that I have no doubt that we'd see many thousands come to know Jesus in our own generation and that our faithfulness would echo into eternity, to the praise of His glorious grace.
I see two things happening here. One ofthem I've experienced, the other I have not but I earnestly pray for it.
Personal Awakening to the Gospel
I love how when the gospel lands in receptive and open hearts it just creates more hunger for the gospel. Those who were listening in Acts 13 to the preaching os Paul and Barnabas want to kep learning, listening and understanding. I know what that's like. I have found personally that since my heart became truly awakened to the gospel, I have never grown calloused or cold to it. My heart is stirred contiually by the gospel. I have found it to be only more compelling as time goes on and understanding increases. There is a depth and breadth to the gospel that does not get old or tired but is always fresh, always sweet, always savory, always refreshing. This is how a truly gospel wakened heart responds to the gospel... with eagerness and openness to be more alive to ultimate reality.
Widespread Awakening to the Gospel
v. 44 says, "almost the whole city was gathered to hear the word of the Lord." Oh man, I love that. I want to see that. I long to be in the middle of that kind of gospel movement and Spirit wrought revival. ALMOST THE WHOLE CITY GATHERED TO HEAR THE WORD OF THE LORD. They didn't gather for a festival and have the word of the Lord preached. They didn't go to some city event and have an Apostle hijack the mic. They didn't go shopping ona beautiful day in the public square and have some crazy person get on a bull horn or megaphone. They turned out specifically to hear the word of the Lord preached. A whole city unable to ignore the reality of a resurrected Jesus. A whole city provoked and compelled by the apostolic witness to the gospel. A whole city captured by the grace of Christ and seeking a deeper understanding of Christ and Christainity. This is such a miracle, and I so want to experience it my own day.
What would it be like to have our roads congested with people hungry to hear Christ proclaimed, rather than just because of commuter traffic. What if our parks and public squares were filled on Friday nights, not for cover bands and food trucks, but to celebrate the cross and forgiveness of sins. What if our stadiums and sporting events were gatherings for true worship of a worthy King and not idolatry of gifted athletes. I dream and pray for a day when almost everyone in my community gathers to hear the word of the Lord, receives and believes that word, and then scatters into their various spheres of influence to share that same word of the Lord boldly, broadly and fruitfully.
We are seeing in this passage the polarizing nature of Jesus. We Paul and Barnabas preaching the gospel and some Jews and Greeks are continuing to respond with faith. The Church is growing. The Kingdom is advancing. And yet, in that same setting where many are surrendering their lives to the Risen Christ, there is a hostility and strong opposition to Christ. There are literally Jews trying to incite violence against the apostles.
I am learning more and more just how divided people become around the real Jesus. And it’s important to distinguish between cultural version and diluted, distorted iterations of Jesus that effectively reduce him to our glorified buddy, counselor, advisor or cheerleader. There are a lot of people in the Bible Belt, for instance, who are fairly neutral on Jesus. Some see him as having some good things to contribute to society, or as a good example, teacher or philosopher. But they don’t worship him or accept the claims of Christianity about him. They don’t believe, but neither are they outwardly hostile. Similarly, you have professing Christians who confess certain things about Jesus and their belief in him, but functionally, Jesus is an add on to their life, a consideration or feature they are willing to factor in at times, but he’s not Lord, God and King. In many ways, they are somewhat neutral on Jesus.
I would argue that people in that place of neutrality, neither opposing Jesus nor surrendered fully to Jesus, are responding to a watered down Jesus, not the real Jesus. The real Jesus and the biblical gospel tends to have the impact we see in Acts 14. Some respond in repentance and faith while others respond in rejection and hostility. The real gospel isn’t typically met with apathy and indifference, but with excitement or opposition.
We even see the tendency of people, in their zeal for the power of God, elevate ministers of the gospel beyond their deserved status. In Lystra, because of the healing power of God over a crippled man, people deify Paul and Barnabas. I love how eager and aggressively they were in denouncing such exaltation. Today, when we see pastors seeking celebrity status and nurturing the cult of personality that can emerge from their ministry, it makes me think of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. There is certainly nothing wrong with appreciating and respecting and learning from faithful preachers, teachers, authors, and ministers. Nor is there anything wrong with being so fruitful in ministry to gain an enlarged platform and leveraging that for gospel purposes. But the ego and pride of man is such that not many of us denounce the inflated status we might receive because of the power of God.
There are two dangers that I believe must be vigilantly guarded against…
The Danger for Leaders
For the pastor/leader, we must pursue humility with great intentionality and specifically fight against the temptation to believe our own inflated status which others will ascribe to us. This is a trap on the small scale of a local congregation as well as the large scale of media and megachurch. Part of this means that those charged with teaching and preaching in particular, must be appropriately honest about their own weakness, limitations and struggles with sin in ways that point people away from them and to Christ. It means we must refuse to let people believe we’re better or more impressive than we actually are. This means too, that it is an absolute abomination for leaders to prey upon foolish audiences to boost their pride, pocketbooks or pedigree. That has no place among the Lord’s servants.
The Danger for Everybody Else
For those of us being led and influenced, we must fight any urge to canonize people and exalt them. All men and women are sinful, weak and flawed. All great teachers are always better teachers then people. And none of them are right about everything. It’s just too easy to assume that who a person is on a stage and with a mic is always who they are when they are alone or in private settings. You don’t know what you don’t know. Some of the most faithful preachers in church history have aspects of their lives that were horrifically out of step with the gospel.
Some of them owned slaves. Some of them had terrible marriages. Some of them were terrible parents. Some of them were unfaithful spouses and immoral people. Some of them had horrible tempers and struggles with addictions. All men are just men. Even great men are just men. There is no substitute for Jesus. But he is a worthy substitute for us. That’s why we worship him and no mere messengers. It’s the responsibility of the general public not to deify any man or woman with a platform. We set them up for failure when we prop them up… let’s knock that off and magnify Christ alone.
Returning to the idea of celebrity pastor culture that we touched on yesterday, this is such a stark contrast. Consider the benefit of being a celebrity pastor in the 21st century western world. While you may get some public ridicule and negative media attention, you will also get a huge church, enormous influence, book deals, platforms on the conference circuit, a massive social media following, the praise and applause of people who adore and admire you, the wealth and material comfort of first world success, etc. None of this touches on any eternal reward, but the earthly benefits are far reaching. First century celebrity pastors were rewarded with eternal blessing for sure, but their earthly benefits were things like stoning, imprisonment, the ire and opposition of the Jewish leaders and the persecution of the Roman empire.
I am certainly not accusing any contemporary celebrity pastors of any unfaithfulness just because of their celebrity status. Not at all. But I love Paul and Barnabas’ faithfulness and resilience in the face of suffering. And something seems culturally bizarre and out of whack, even within the Christian subculture. Perhaps its the consumeristic tendencies that muddy things. There is just a tension in my own soul about these things.
I love too, their strategic ministry. The were about making disciples and planting churches. And the maturing of disciples was done through encouragement and gospel reassurance in the midst of present struggles and anticipated suffering. They weren’t preaching a fun life. They were preaching the fullness of life. They weren’t preaching an easy and prosperous life. They were preaching a difficult but enduring life. Churches were strengthened by that emphasis and clarity. They didn’t need to be placated, shielded from reality or promised comfort. They need truth that could hold them fast when everything around them threatened to crush them.
And we see that part of the responsibility of a local church is not only to send out missionaries, but surround them continually. Churches are planted by churches. And the work of planting churches belongs to local churches. We pray. We send out. We give. We support. We receive back. We encourage. We celebrate. We rejoice. And then we do it again and again and again trusting God’s Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes through us as God’s people.