Acts 16: 1-10: God at the wheel.
Acts 15:36-41: ‘All things’ means ‘all things’.
“36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. ” NIV UK
There is something sad about this story. I have always found contention among Christians to be painful. Paul and Barnabas had been such a team, up to this point, risking their lives for the gospel; contending side by side in the cause of Christ. The sharpness of their disagreement pierces my heart even as I read about it (39). It’s terribly sad. Who can say that one of them was right and the other wrong? I can understand Paul’s logic (38). They were not embarking on a Sunday school picnic. He wanted soldiers in the trenches with him who would remain courageous under fire. There was too much at stake on this mission to risk another desertion. I believe I can see Paul’s perspective. But true to his character as the ‘son of encouragement’, Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another chance. He probably saw potential in the young man and thought him worth persevering with. It appears that over the long haul Paul came to see what Barnabas saw (2 Timothy 4: 11). May God help us to be willing to change our minds where necessary. Yet there is something glad in this story. Reading between the lines we get a glimpse that God is in control, as now two teams move out with the gospel. When Paul wrote that ‘’In all things God is working for the good of those who love Him…’’ (Romans 8:28) he meant ‘’all things’’. It is indeed ‘’good and pleasant’’ when brothers dwell together in unity (Psalm 133:1 ). Yet even when they don’t, God is still on the throne.
Acts 15:22-35: ‘No blessing without bleeding.’
“22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. 30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.”NIVUK
As we approach Easter 2017, today’s reading speaks of the need to be Cross-centred and Spirit-led.
Cross-centred: See verse 26. Someone said that ‘Christianity that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.’ There can be ‘no blessing without bleeding.’ Not all Christians live in societies where their lives may be on the line because of their beliefs. But a true believer ‘risks’ his/her own life every single day, in that they are prepared to sacrifice what they would naturally, normally choose in order to follow Jesus. The Cross is an event in history; but it is also our calling. It’s a disciple’s way of life.
Spirit-led: See verse 28. There are those times when something just seems right to the Holy Spirit, and there is no jarring in our own spirits as we consider it. There is a harmony between what we sense the Holy Spirit is saying, and our own inner feelings. There is just peace – no disturbance at all.
The way of the Cross and the way of the Spirit are one. If we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit we must also embrace the cross.
Warren Wiersbe tells the story of a missionary wandering around a religious fair in Brazil. He came across one booth bearing the sign ‘Cheap Crosses.’ He thought, ‘Yes, but my Lord’s Cross was not cheap, and neither will mine be.’
PRAYER: Lord, enable me to walk in step with your Spirit – whatever the cost.
Acts 15:12-21: Listen!
“12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. ‘Brothers,’ he said, ‘listen to me. 14 Simon[a] has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 ‘“After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things” –
18 things known from long ago.
19 ‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.’” NIV UK
‘A wise old owl sat in an oak, the more he saw, the less he spoke; The less he spoke, the more he heard; Now wasn’t he a wise old bird?’ We need to train ourselves to listen more, and even to be willing to learn from people who see things differently to ourselves. I’m not talking about having elastic convictions. That would be a contradiction of terms. Let’s hold firmly to revealed truth. Certain things are set in concrete, but it’s good to be flexible wherever there is legitimate room for manoeuvre.
This was a challenging time for the Jewish church. Prejudices and presuppositions were being stretched almost to breaking point. How could Gentiles become a part of the church? Furthermore, how could they possibly gain admission without being circumcised? However, the willingness to listen to another viewpoint was key in what unfolded (12). As James says in his letter, everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. God has given us two ears and one mouth which may be slightly more than a subtle hint. What’s more, He has created a mouth which closes and ears that don’t – unless we deliberately choose to shut them. What won the day at the council of Jerusalem was a willingness to listen, along with the recognition that God was doing something new (12, 14), and an understanding that these events were the fulfilment of ancient prophecy (15-18). The only things asked of the new Gentile believers (19-21) were as a loving concession to enable table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles in the church. There’s a place for compromise for the sake of harmonious relationships, so long as we are not compromising key truth.
Acts 15: 7- 12: Only one way
“After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles should hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’ 12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”NIV UK
Let’s recognise that God has the final say in distributing kingdom work (7). He assigns His people their various jobs; their fields of service. This is His business and not ours. At times we may find ourselves looking over someone else’s fence and thinking their grass is greener. Well, their garden may be bigger (or smaller possibly); it may take on an unusual shape. It’s style may be far removed from yours. But no other garden is ‘greener’. It can’t be better. Be happy to faithfully and diligently cultivate your ‘allotment’. Don’t give way to envy or criticism, or other similarly unhelpful and sinful attitudes. The sweetest place in all the world in which you can live and work is right in the centre of God’s will. Wherever we are called to go; whoever we are called to serve, the message remains the same. The only way anyone can be saved (9, 11) is by ‘’grace’’ and through ‘’faith’’ in Jesus. There is no other way. God gives the same Holy Spirit to all who trust in Christ (8). In the summer of 1976, I served in Annecy, France, with a mission team. The title given to ‘Operation Mobilisation’s’ campaign that year was ‘Un seul chemin’, which, I believe, means ‘one way only.’ Whether Jews or Gentiles, all people need to be made aware that Jesus is ‘the only way to the only God there is.’ (David Pawson) So, go gladly and willingly where God sends, and tell what He says.
PRAYER: Lord God, I can only agree with the psalmist that the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Surely, I have a delightful inheritance. Your will is sweet.
Acts 15:1-6: The gloves are off.
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.’ 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.”NIV UK
Christian people can be unnecessarily contentious. All too often sincere believers savage fellow-believers (regularly in print) and the disagreements are over secondary issues. Brothers and sisters, this should not be. As I observed in a recent daily thought, we must not ‘major on the minors.’ However, there comes a time when you really do have to go into bat on an issue. This was one of those occasions for Peter, Paul and Barnabas. The question was, ‘What do you need in order to be saved?’ There were Jewish Christians who argued that you had to have faith plus circumcision; the apostles always insisted that it was faith plus nothing. Salvation is ‘by grace alone, through faith alone.’ It’s faith in Jesus that saves. It’s similar when Paul writes Galatians. He doesn’t hang around at the outset of the letter. Pleasantries are at a minimum. He gets right to it. He is at white heat.The gospel is at stake, and the gloves are off. Paul is facing pretty much the same question as the church in Acts 15. I don’t want to be a petty, petulant, argumentative sort, picking fights with people because they don’t see things the way I do. Nevertheless, may I not fail to go to war for truth when such a battle is required. At times it will be. Truth matters. Error destroys
Acts 14:21-28: Keeping on keeping on.
“21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders[a] for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. 24 After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, 25 and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.”NIV UK .
‘The will to persevere is often the difference between failure and success’ David Sarnoff.
‘Paul and Barnabas had the courage to retrace their steps so they could help and encourage the new Christians! And when they returned home, they told the church what the Lord had done, not what they had suffered. Paul and Barnabas put Christ first, others second, and themselves last’ Warren W. Wiersbe: ‘With the Word’, p.717.
It is striking that they returned home via the very places where they had faced such persecution; but they were more concerned for the welfare of the churches than they were for their own safety and comfort. (Notice, by the way, that the appointment of elders is a serious matter, to be undertaken prayerfully and not lightly: verse 23, compare with 13:3).
What you say carries more clout when your hearers know that you live the message (22). Paul and Barnabas didn’t dilute the sermon to taste; didn’t promise the new Christians an easy ride. They spelled it out that there would be blood, sweat and tears, and their own lives demonstrated courage, fortitude and perseverance in the face of great danger. Their experiences were visual aids for the message they were bringing.
Safely back in Antioch, they gave testimony to what God had done. In verse 11 we read about ‘’what Paul had done’’, but to the gathered congregation in Antioch they ‘’reported all that God had done through them…’’ (27). We are God’s co-workers. We get to be involved in this exciting dangerous adventure, but let’s make sure God gets all the glory.
(Compare verses 27b with Colossians 4:3 and 1 Corinthians 15:8,9).
PRAYER: Lord God, may it be obvious that you are at work through me, and I pray that you will receive all the honour. It is your due. But I do ask that you will work through my life, for you are able to do far more than I could ever ask or imagine.
Acts 14:8-20: The Danger of popularity.
“8 In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, ‘Stand up on your feet!’ At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. 11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’ 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered round him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.“NIV UK
‘’What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task’’ (1 Corinthians 3:5) In an old book on the Christian ministry, the author says that one reason (among others) why great success may be withheld from a ministry, could be to prevent people from thinking too highly of the minister. When you think about it, that could have some mileage. People may not worship today’s preachers, but some come pretty close to it. The cult of personality is only too obvious. They may not sacrifice to us, but we are aware of ‘’wreaths’’ being brought. This tendency to put fellow-men and women on pedestals is a stubborn streak in human nature and not easily thwarted (18). May all who have a public role in the church exhibit the same self-abasing spirit as Paul and Barnabas (15). We all know how human praise can inflate the ego. Hero worship is far more dangerous than persecution. It also rings true, however, that the crowd can be fickle. Cheers can soon turn to jeers. The people who want to sacrifice to Paul one moment, in almost the next breath seek to stone him (19b). What is not totally clear is whether (20) may refer to a resurrection. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Paul died in an attack which was intended to finish him. But the intended ‘full stop’ turned out to be a ‘comma’. What faith and courage Paul exhibited to walk right back into town; to re-enter the lion’s cage, when the lion was very much alive and well. Warren Wiersbe has observed that Paul was a man on the move, but he was not easily moved by difficulties.
PRAYER: Lord, give me an unconquerable spirit, an unquenchable love and a willingness to keep on keeping on in your cause.
Acts 14:1-7: Business as usual.
“At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to ill-treat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the gospel.” NIV UK
Business as usual for the early church combined great joy and great progress with great suffering. They were rarely out of trouble.
This is a story of custom: ‘’At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue’’ (1a). As we saw in the last chapter, Paul’s habit was to offer the gospel message about Jesus to Jews first (see for example 13:46). As he understood it, this was how things had to be.
This is a story of conversions (1b). In fact, a great ‘harvest’ was gathered in.
This is a story of conflict (2, 4-6). In the wake of the ‘revival’ the apostles found themselves in more trouble. The message of Christ does divide (4). Not everyone will respond warmly and well. Christian faith is reasonable faith, but some will not believe. They dig their heels in. They set themselves against the truth, and they are angry with it.
This is a story of courage. The little word ‘’So’’ at the beginning of (3) is not what you would expect. Let me try to paraphrase (2,3): ‘Paul and Barnabas saw a tsunami of hatred heading towards them, threatening to sweep them away. SO they stood still; they did not run away. They stayed put.’ Look what God did with their faithfulness:
This is a story of confirmation (3): The Lord affirmed His Word with signs following. ‘’But where we work with Him, and He with us, the results are beyond measure astonishing, and his alone.’’ F.B. Meyer.
This is a story of continuation (7): In spite of what I said earlier, there was a time to get out of town. When it came, the apostles recognised it, and it was not cowardice to move. However, they did not let earlier suffering, or the likelihood of its repetition silence them. They were unstoppable…even if they were always in trouble!