It is really clear as I keep reading and writing about these passages that the Apostle's missionary strategy was really simple. They just faithfully executed that simple strategy. They went into the social environments of the cities they visited, and they listened, observed and discerned points of connection between the longings and beliefs of people and the gospel of Jesus Christ. And then they unapologetically and ashamedly proclaimed Christ. Some beleived and were persuaded from among the Jews, the Gentiles, the men and the women, but always some resisted and opposed them. They weren't secretly identifying with Christ or subtly alluding to Jesus. They were clear. They were bold. And they were fruitful.
They weren't results focused, they were obedience focused. The results were in God's hands and led to the next gospel opportunity, whether that was through the hospitality of someone like Lydia, or the imprisonment by officials like in Thessalonica. God was orchestrating things and each moment and interaction was an opportunity to join Him in what He was doing by the Spirit.
I love the example of the Berean Christian converts who teach us that critical thinking about the Scripture is characteristic of real Christianity. Real Christianity isn't unthinking, blind faith, or unconditional acceptance of what your taught. Real Christianity takes biblical teaching seriously, but also takes personal biblical study seriously. This is not the sign of a skeptics of God's word. It's the sign of a student of God's word. They were receptive and open to waht was taught, but they wanted to dig in and confirm what was being taught. For churches to be biblically faithful they need people with an appetite for the word, and devotion to the word, not just among their leaders, but among their members.
Are you taking the word seriously yourself, or is it something you totally rely on others for?
How can you be both more eager in receiving the word, and yet also more eager in confirming what is taught from the word?
This is one of the great examples in the bible of how to engage as a missionary anywhere. Paul goes into Athens, and he makes the rounds through the social center of the city. And as we mentioned yesterday, he is observing the cultural artifacts and being attentive to cultural hopes and longings, and he's filtering those things through the gospel. He establishes commonality between the beliefs of the culture and the truth of the gospel.
He affirms their shared status as religious people, and calls their attention to their altar "to an unknown God," as if to say, we're all searching for God, longing for God, seeking meaning and deriving purpose from something bigger than ourselves, and he says, what's unknown to you as of yet, I want to disclose to you now. So he starts with where they are and what they believe, and then connects that to the gospel. Notice he doesn't stay there and nurture the deception that all spirituality is compatible or equally true. He starts with there belief and connects it to Christ. But then he clearly differentiates their belief from the truth that is in Jesus. Faithful cultural engagement doesn't placate the false beliefs of deceived people.
Faithful cultural engagement takes people seriously wherever they are in their journey, but seeks to clearly and explicitly proclaim Christ as the only way to salvation. The missionary endeavor is not to be implicit in our gospel representation but to be explicit in our gospel declaration. Again, Paul uses their philosophers and poets, their culture makers and the art and ideas they promulgate, as clear springboards to the ultimate reality of the gospel.
A little insight here... art moves people. Whether it is ancient poets and philosophers, or modern day filmmakers, authors and musicians, art has the power to reach in and open up peoples hearts in profound ways. Paul was brilliant in leveraging those things, and the openness they create, to draw straight lines to the gospel. Good art is always a signpost to the ultimate Artist. Creativity always echoes something of the Creator. We should be leveraging the stories, the beauty, the music and the creativity of our culture to make gospel connections... that's how missionaries operate, and if you are in Christ, you are a missionary by identity and you have a divine commission for this task.
- Watch a movie this week and think through the elements of the story that touch you, move you, inspire you, trouble you, etc. Think about how the story reflects aspects of the gospel and where it diverts. In other words, where is the story written on all of our hearts echoed in this story (there are always echoes). Think through this and have a conversation with someone else who's seen the movie and explore the themes of creation, fall, redemption and new creation, within the story. Learning to approach tv and film this way is an indredibly enriching practice and really helpful in developing critical thinking and gospel fluency.
So we see the birthing of another church made famous by Paul's letters in the NT. Here is the planting of the church in Corinth, to whom Paul sent two letters that are preserved in Scripture. I love the hisoricity of this... all these names and places and the time periods mentioned. We can sometimes start to read the Bible as stories and disconnect it from history. These are real people, in real places and at real times, and with real lives unfolding with real lostness and need, and they are finding real redemption and salvation in the real Jesus. I love it.
We largely see the same elements again. Paul is preaching and reasoning on the Sabbath in the synagogue. He starts with Jews, faces some opposition, and then moves toward the Gentiles where he finds more acceptance. But there is this verse in the middle where Paul receives a vision with instructions from the Lord, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
I am comforted to know that the great fearless missionary Paul, was apparently afraid. He had suffered much forthe sake of Christ already at this point, and there is growing opposition in Corinth from the Jews, and it makes sense that Paul may be dreading what's coming. He may be anticipating and fearing more suffering and he may be shrinking back. Paul was not immune from the worries and cares that ail us. And God mercifully shows up and personally gaurantees his safety in this situation, which Paul takes his word on. I love the way God moves toward us in personal ways at pertinent moments in our lives when we really need a word from him. And he ministers to us in ways and in an inner place that only He can, to bring peace and reassurance and give direction. God is so loving and personally involved with us, and I'm so grateful for that.
And then I love the assurance of ministry fruitfulness too. "I have many in this city who are my people." God has many people in every city who are his. They just don't know it yet. And the way they come to know it is through the faithfulness of God's already redeemeed people to obey our commission and bear witness to the risen Jesus so that those whom He is calling to himself can hear and respond with repentance and faith. He's at work all around us and among those surrounding us. We need only boldly and prayerfully surrender to Him ourselves and then speak of him with others, and we'll see his kingdom flourish and grow right where we live.
Paul's apostolic ministry is reall representative on a larger scale of what so much of Christian discipleship is all about. v. 10 says that he "went from one place to the next... strengthening all the disciples." This is what we need from each other to grow and how we contribute to each other's growth. We strengthen one another. The implication here is that Paul is fortifying the believers whom he has previously led to Christ personally or those who are part of the churches he helped establish. He isn't coming up with new ideas and new strategies and new thoughts and new methods and new beliefs... he is reinforcing what is already there. He is helping to more deeply persuade the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus, that Jesus is absolutely worth following.
I wonder what would happen if we took on this mindset and approach to relationships. I wonder what would happen if we entered into Christian community with the conscious aim of strengthening one another, how much stronger we ourselves would be, and how much stronger our churches would be. It's almost overly simplistic, but I wonder if we haven't made thigns overly complicated. What would change in our engagement and participation with our small group, bible study, neighbhorhood book club, etc., if we adjusted our approach to answer the question, "how can I strengthen my brothers and sisters tonight?" I wonder what kind of social environment that would create.
That's the kind of place I want to belong to and be part of. That's the kind of place I think anybody could connect to and thrive in. That's the kind of place we all could flourish.
Real quick... this part about Apollos is fascinating. Here is this gifted and competent communicator. He loves Jesus. He knows the word. He's preaching faithfully and fruitfully. He is charismatic and effective. He is a stalwart for the kingdom. But Priscilla and Aquila have to pull him aside and correct some of his theology.
They are not vocational ministers. But they are serious about the gospel and ministry. And they are well studied enough to discern some slight error in Apollos' theology. They appreciate his gifting and affirm that, but they also love him enough to correct his theology. Doctrine matters. We want to get the gospel right. We want to teach the Scriptures accurately. Which means not only that we teach right beliefs, but we give beliefs appropriate emphasis. I love that these to lay leaders in the church were diligent enough student sof the Word to pick up on some nuances with Apollos' teaching that were off. And I love that they loved him and Jesus enough to speak to it. And I love that rather than shaming him publicly or gossipping about him in backrooms, they wisely and humbly took him aside privately to help him be a more faithful servant of Jesus. This is such a good example of older, wiser, stable people, empowering and helping younger ministers to grow into who God has called them to be. We need more of this in the church.