Acts 13:4,5: Team work.
“4 The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.”NIV
From yesterday’s reading, it was obvious that the Antioch church was led by a team (1): a diverse team, composed of differing personalities and gifts. They sought God together, worshipped together and heard His voice together.They moved in harmony. Many church leadership teams spend a lot of time talking to each other; how many give quality time to listening to God?
In today’s short passage the team work continues. It’s a smaller team – just three this time (4,5): Barnabas, Saul and John Mark. We thank God for preachers and preaching. It’s crucial that the word of God should be ‘’proclaimed.’’ However, let’s not overlook those people who help practically in the background, and whose gifts help to ensure the smooth running of church machinery. If you can, ensure they are affirmed; that they know they are noticed and appreciated.
We are not to be spiritual ‘Lone Rangers’. Temperamentally, some are inclined towards solitude, while others are more social beings. If you belong to the first group (and I do) you need to ensure that you don’t ‘go it alone’; that you do honour the body of Christ. God often imparts His wisdom to us through others. Don’t be shy of asking for help or advice. Recognise that God is constructing the church in such a way that there is an inter-dependence. We all need each other. Everyone has something to give to others, and much to receive. That’s how it works and to strike out on your own is to go against the grain of the God-given church order.
Whatever we do though – even as a team – must be initiated by the Holy Spirit, otherwise we are wasting time. When these three set sail, they were being blown along by the Holy Spirit (4). When the divine wind is in your sails, it’s fun to be part of the crew! It may sometimes be dangerous, but with God’s Spirit in charge it will be an adventure.
Acts 13:1-3: How’s your hearing.
“1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshipping 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 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. It has been rightly pointed out that this season of fasting changed church history and world history. On this day in Antioch, a missionary movement was born that would bring the gospel to us.” NIV
Now it is true to say that Acts 13 describes what the church did without telling us we must do the same. But surely it is recorded for our example? Isn’t there an implication that we ought to learn and follow? I obviously think so. I know it is true that Christians who give time to fasting often seem to hear God speaking to them with sharpness and clarity. It’s a bit like ‘tuning in’ time: turning the dial on the radio until all the fuzziness, hiss and crackle disappears, and you get excellent reception. There are times when church communities and leadership teams need to come together in fasting. If we are to recover apostolic Christianity, we cannot afford to neglect this discipline. We shouldn’t become unbalanced – obsessive about it. Yet I suggest we are already unbalanced if this discipline has no place in our discipleship. In a self-indulgent culture like ours, we sometimes need to fight, to resist with weapons of self-denial. There definitely is a place for fasting, and who can say where it will lead? It may involve further sacrifice. It must have cost the church at Antioch to let ‘’Barnabas and Saul’’ go, but no-one in the church belongs to the church (or to themselves); they belong to the Lord, and He strategically moves the ‘chess pieces’ around the world ‘board’. However, the church does have a key role to play in recognising and affirming God’s call on those called to be missionaries.
PRAYER: May I be more hungry for you, Lord, than for anything else. I pray that I will not shrink from the spirit of self-sacrifice for your Name’s sake.
Acts 12:19b-25: Glory to God.
“19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 He had been quarrelling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply. 21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’ 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. 24 But the word of God continued to spread and flourish. 25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” NIV UK
As a man was leaving church one Sunday morning he said to his pastor, ‘That was a great word today.’ ‘I know,’ replied the pastor, ‘the devil told me as I was stepping down from the pulpit!’ Of course there is a place for genuine encouragement. You are often helped by its expression when you minister in public. You can feel so vulnerable, and kind words can be timely and mean a lot. But, as a preacher, for example, you would do well to remember this story every time you speak, and especially when people pour out bucketfuls of compliments on your head. Not everyone who praises you has been deeply impacted by the word, and others who say nothing may be having a life-transforming experience. Learn from Herod, and give God all the glory. Herod was very far from being a Christian, and he certainly was no preacher, but there is a principle here whose application is obvious, I believe. Pass the praise on to Jesus. Give it to Him. Say, ‘This is not mine, Lord, but yours.’ I was reading only recently that John Stott’s life-long habit was to distance himself from people’s good opinion of him. There is wisdom in that, and it must have taken great self-discipline for someone who was so highly esteemed.
What matters ultimately is that ‘’the word of God’’ should continue ‘’to spread and flourish’’ (24). It’s not about our reputations; our little names. We can assert that God’s Word will endure long after the world’s petty Herod’s have been removed from the scene. Jesus’ church will grow; His Kingdom will spread; His Name will be held in high honour. To Him be all the glory!
PRAYER: Help me to live entirely to your praise and glory Lord.
Acts 12:6-19: A very human story of prayer.
The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. ‘Quick, get up!’ he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 8 Then the angel said to him, ‘Put on your clothes and sandals.’ And Peter did so. ‘Wrap your cloak round you and follow me,’ the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. 11 Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.’ 12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognised Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, ‘Peter is at the door!’ 15 ‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ‘It must be his angel.’ 16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. ‘Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,’ he said, and then he left for another place. 18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
Most people reading this story will be able to identify with it at some level. We believe in the power of prayer sufficiently to pray earnestly, and sacrificially (after all, it was the middle of the night and many people had met to pray). Yet when the answer turned up, embodied, on their doorstep, they couldn’t believe it! That is so human. They were like men who dreamed. They had to pinch themselves to see if they really were awake. They were! And Peter was alive, and out of jail. As you read the story through, it is obvious that Peter was not intended to escape, and the meanness of Herod is writ large in his treatment of the guards who, in his eyes, were responsible for Peter’s break out.
Jack Hayford wrote a wonderful little book on prayer entitled, ‘Prayer is invading the impossible’. It is, and in this chapter we see one of its gloriously triumphant campaigns against evil. The impossible was invaded and ransacked.
By the way, Peter’s composure in the face of impending death (6) is testament to the peace of God which transcends all understanding. God can keep His people calm where the rest of mankind might panic and quake with fear. He’s a wonderful God. Choose to walk in His peace today. He’s in charge – not Herod!
PRAYER: Lord forgive my unbelieving, believing prayers, and strengthen my faith. I believe, help my unbelief.
Acts 12:1-5: Prayer changes things.
“It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”NIV
This was another difficult season for the church (1,2). It brought an outbreak of persecution which saw James executed, but Peter supernaturally delivered. This mysterious pattern has been worked out through all church history, and it shows itself in Hebrews 11, the great faith chapter, which depicts some suffering by faith and others conquering through faith (see especially 32-38).
Our passage today tells the story of a dramatic arrest (3). Herod liked to please his public, and it looks like he intended that Peter should meet the same end as James. But he reckoned without understanding the sovereign control of God. This story was to end badly for Herod, not for Peter (19b-24), and James’ martyrdom was not wasted. The blood of Christian martyrs is ‘seed’ leading to further growth.
We are brought face to face with a dynamic reality – the church’s prayer life (4,5). The story goes that Peter was securely guarded. There was no way that he was going to get out of prison. But he did! The little word ‘’but’’ in (5) is such a big word in truth. It is a mighty adversative. It shouts that however difficult the difficulty, however big the problem, our God is greater, bigger, mightier. He will always have the last word.
Later on in the chapter we see Peter persistently knocking at the door (16), and eventually it was opened to him. To my mind, that is a picture of what the church was doing. Let all who pray fervently know that they have promises to undergird them (See, for example, Luke11:9,10).
Acts 11:19-26:God gives the growth.
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. 22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.NIV UK
A long time ago, my sister gave me a card that said, ‘What appears to be the end may be a new beginning.’ It is the way of God in the world to use bad stuff for good purposes. What men intend for harm God works for good. The persecution that broke out ‘’in connection with Stephen’’ (19) did not stop the church, or silence the church. Rather it served to spread the church. The persecution did not destroy the church; it created a whole lot of missionaries. Disciples of Christ (or ‘’Christians’’ as they were nicknamed at Antioch) cannot grow the church. That is not our job; it is not our prerogative. What we can do is ‘tell’ people about Jesus (19, 20). We can open our mouths and speak. We can encourage those who become Christians ‘’to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’’ (23). However, God gives the growth (21, 23). When a church is planted, and when that church grows, let God be given all the glory for it is surely His work. But may we not fail in our responsibility to feed the flock of God (25, 26)
So a new and effective church was born in Antioch. It was the result of mission activity; it was to become a launch pad for further missionary outreach, as we will see. But you can argue that it started with the martyrdom of Stephen. On the face of it, that was a terrible thing to happen. It was grotesque; it was a tragedy. Yet it set off an essential chain reaction, propelling the church further and deeper into its calling; it was an ‘explosion’, blasting the people of God into higher orbit.
PRAYER: Sovereign Lord, give me eyes to see you, and faith to trust you, in the negative experiences of life.
Acts 11:1-18: Don’t major on the minors!
“The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him 3 and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’ 4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 8 ‘I replied, “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9 ‘The voice spoke from heaven a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again. 11 ‘Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, “Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.” 15 ‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’ 18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” NIV UK
Beware of majoring on the minors.So often critical attitudes in the church sound like this (3). The major thing was that ‘’the Gentiles also had received the word of God’’ (1). Surely the eating with ‘’uncircumcised men’’ (3) was secondary to that? It was a man-made rule. However, I believe it is true to say that every genuine move of God has had its critics. I don’t suppose it will be any different this side of the second coming. It is important, though, to try to win the critics over, if at all possible. We have to recognise that many sincere Christians have strong scruples they will not easily relinquish. For them, these are matters of life or death, even though in reality they may not be quite so serious. So Peter tried to patiently explain what had happened. He walked them through the story in detail (5-17). After all, his own prejudices had only recently been dissolved in the light of further revelation. In this instance, Peter’s careful ‘diplomacy’ won the day (18). There was a recognition that this was a move of God, and that Gentiles would not have to become Jews in order to be converted.The fact that Luke records Peter’s speech in full when it is a repetition of Acts 10:9-48 shows the significance of this moment in church history. It was a watershed, and a further step was taken in fulfilment of Acts 1:8. It was time for phase 4, and God was in complete control of the unfolding programme of world mission. The Holy Spirit is the supreme evangelist.
PRAYER: Thank you Lord that you can change our minds. I ask you to challenge and change my thinking wherever it is wrong.