Saturday 28 September 2013

Coming home (Acts 14:21-28)

What did it mean for Paul and Barnabas to complete their mission and to finish the work that God had called them to?

1. They followed up on new Christians

They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch.
Acts 14:21

Paul and Barnabas go back the exact same way they came - through Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, which were the three cities they had just come from, where they had preached the gospel, and also where they had just been kicked out of for preaching the gospel. They intentionally made it their mission to go back to these three cities to follow up on the new believers who had just put their trust in the gospel.

Or, as it says, in verse 22, they returned, “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” What does it mean to do follow-up? It means strengthening the disciples - teaching new Christians to grow in the knowledge of and obedience to God’s word. (Hence, the word “disciples” or “students” of God’s word.)

But also, it means reminding Christians to remain faithful to Jesus in the face of temptation and hardship.

“We must go through many hardships (the ESV has ‘tribulations’) to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
Acts 14:22

It means being a new Christian was difficult if you were lived in Lystra, Iconium or Antioch, where Paul was almost killed, if you remember. But suffering is part of the Christian life. After all, we follow Jesus who suffered rejection and persecution before entering into his glory.

Paul and Barnabas loved these Christians enough to teach them the importance of suffering for the gospel. “We must go through many hardships.” He does not say, “We might go through some inconveniences as Christians.” He says to them and to us: We must face rejection and tribulation for bearing the name of Christ.

This is follow-up for new Christians. As we see here in Acts, it means two things: Strengthening them through the scriptures and reminding them the reality of opposition. Paul and Barnabas saw it as their responsibility not simply to preach the gospel and then leave. They had just “won a large number of disciples” in Derbe. That would have been a great way to end the mission - on a high! No, they did not do that. Instead, what did they do? They went back to each and every place they had preached the gospel; back to each and every city where there was a response of faith in order to follow up on the new believers. This was part of their mission - not simply to preach the gospel - but to strengthen these new disciples through the gospel.
Additionally, they appointed elders in each of these cities and churches.

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
Acts 14:23

These elders were leaders of the church, who had responsibility over the church, who had authority over the church. Elders in the bible are elsewhere called overseers or pastors. The three job titles are interchangeable: elders, overseers and pastors. They mean the same thing. You only need to turn a few pages to Chapter 20, where Paul speaks to the elders of the church of Ephesus (Acts 20:17) whom he calls overseers and pastors in verse 28. The same connections are made elsewhere in the New Testament: in 1 Timothy 3:1 and Titus 1:5 where the qualifications of overseers and elders are one and the same; and in 1 Peter 5:1-2 where Peter appeals to elders to pastor the flock, serving as overseers. The elder is the overseer, is the pastor. The word elder denotes seniority and authority; the overseer has responsibility and purview, the pastor’s role is to take charge and lead the flock. Together, these are descriptions of leaders who have been entrusted with the care of God’s church.

Now it is amazing how Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in these churches because remember: all of them were new Christians. All of them were new believers. And yet, what Paul and Barnabas did was so important. They did not take it upon themselves to become the senior pastors of these churches. They did not import leaders in from their home church in Antioch. No, what they did was appoint elders from each church and within each church to become leaders and pastors and elders. Paul says the same thing to Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5)

And that is because they knew from Day One that what they were doing in preaching the gospel was planting new churches. They knew this day would come. You see, their job as missionaries was not simply to call individuals to faith in Jesus Christ, it was to gather men and women together as God’s church.

The end of mission is not more mission. The point of doing ministry is not to create even more ministry, as if the cycle goes on and on and on. No, Acts dares to say to us there is a point to ministry. There is an end to mission. That end is the church. The point of bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth is so that men and women are brought into the kingdom of God. We see that in the church.

In the appointment of leaders, what we see is the headship of Christ. Verse 23 again, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” The appointment of leaders is a reflection of Christ’s headship over the church.

Yes, the church is a community. Yes, the church is a family. But the church is also the body of Christ of whom he is the head. And again and again, the bible contends that our submission to Christ is seen in our submission to our leaders. If one of the reasons why you have problems being part of a church is because you have problems submitting to your leaders here in the Chinese Church, the bible says quite frankly to us: You have a problem submitting to Jesus.

Again, this ties back to what the bible means by follow-up. It doesn’t use that term, of course. Paul and Barnabas are simply completing the mission they had set out to do. But what we tend to do by way of following up new Christians is somewhat strange when you look at what Paul and Barnabas did. What we mean by follow up is more like checking up. “Hey, have you been doing your quiet time?” “Are you going to church?” We do follow-up one to one, over coffee, through Skype and email, as friends and acquaintances. That is, follow-up tends to be done outside the church, independent of the church.

Follow up, according to the bible means three things: obedience, faithfulness and submission. Obedience to God’s word. Faithfulness in the face of trials and temptation. Submission to your leaders in your church. Paul and Barnabas ended their mission by following up on the new converts - on these new churches - and calling them remain faithful in the gospel.

2. They kept on preaching the gospel

After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.
Acts 14:24

The second thing they did is rather a short point and it comes from this one verse: They kept telling people about Jesus. They go to this place called Perga. Again if you turn the page back to Acts 13:13, Paul and Barnabas arrive in Perga. It was the first place they got off the boat; their first stop on the mainland.

And what verse 24 tells us is that they went out of their way to make one last stop in Perga just so that they could preach the word. They were on their way home and one of them said, “Hey, we didn’t get a chance to tell people about Jesus at Perga, we were in such a rush. Let’s go back and do it properly.”

You see that it really is the case because after Perga, they go down to Attalia, which is another port city, in order to catch their boat. It’s like saying, “Our flight leaves from Heathrow tomorrow but we are going to make one last stop in Stansted airport.” Both Perga and Attalia are port cities and the reason Paul and Barnabas go all the way to Perga was not to catch a boat. It was to preach the gospel!

My point is simply this: These guys knew the one thing they were there to do - preach. I know of some guys who can do everything but if you asked them what was the one thing they are there to do, you get a blank. That’s not Paul and Barnabas. Their one mission was to preach about Jesus. They were in Antioch to preach about Jesus. They were sent to Iconium to preach about Jesus. What was their job as missionaries in Derbe? To preach about Jesus. Why did they go back to Perga? To preach about Jesus.

And here at the end of their mission what was the one thing on their minds as they thought to themselves, “What haven’t we done yet? What else do we need to do to complete this thing that God has called us to do?” Preach the gospel.

3. They came home

But finally, what did it mean for Paul and Barnabas to finish their mission. The last thing we see is this: They came home.

From Attalia, they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
Acts 14:26-28

The job was done. It was time to come home. Look at how “home” is described in verse 26 - it was where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. Turn back to Acts Chapter 13. “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers.” The first name we get is Barnabas, the last name on the list of leaders is Paul’s. This was their home church. Barnabas was senior pastor of the church. Paul was resident theologian of the church. Together they planted this church.

But in the verse next verse, in Acts 13, verse 2, the Holy Spirit says to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Some people use this verse to say the Holy Spirit needs to give a special confirmation before we can appoint new pastors in the church. We need to pray and wait for God to confirm that this choice is the right choice. Actually, it’s the opposite. This is not talking about appointment of new leaders. God is telling the church to send away their most senior pastors. The Holy Spirit says to the church: You have to let these guys go. Send Paul and Barnabas off as missionaries - your two most senior, most beloved pastors - send them away from your church to preach about Jesus in places who have never heard about him before. And they did.

Here in Acts 14 we see the conclusion to that episode. Paul and Barnabas come home. They tell them all that God had done through them and especially “how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” This is a pretty amazing verse, let me tell you why. You need to remember that Antioch was Gentile church, that is, non-Jewish. These guys were converted out of pagan backgrounds. In fact, Christians were first called Christians in Antioch, if you remember, back in Acts 11:26.

And now, God says, “I’m opening up a door to the Gentile world.” Who does he send? Two Jewish men. Paul and Barnabas. Out of all the people he could have chosen, out of all the leaders in this entirely Gentile church in Antioch, he chooses the only two Jewish fellas. How amazing is that? More importantly, why? Why does God send two Jewish men to open the door to the Gentile world?

So that when these two Jewish men come back to this Gentile church and tell them everything that has happened, they will get the message: God opened this door. God did this. This is God’s mission.

Do you see? God knows what he is doing in mission. He is sending out his word about his Son. He uses you and me. He sends out people to be missionaries. But every step of the way, God is doing his work of bringing all glory to Jesus.

And here at the end of Acts 14, we are reminded of the end of God’s mission: God’s church. Verse 28: And they stayed there a long time with the disciples. Paul and Barnabas were part of a church. In the mission field, these two were appointing leaders to care for the new believers but now back home, Paul and Barnabas were being cared for in their home church. This was the place where, verse 26 tells us, they were committed to the grace of God.

Missionaries are not guys who can’t stay put, who need to be “out there”. No, the best missionaries are those who know where they are going and where is home. Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel and planted churches. They entrusted these churches into the care of elders, they returned to the welcome and support of their own church family. They weren’t restless wanderers. Paul and Barnabas were rooted in Christ, they were established in his word, they were part of a local church, his body. In other words, they had a place to call home.

Conclusions: The end of missions

What did it mean for Paul and Barnabas to complete their mission and to finish the work that God had given them? We see three things:

Firstly, we see the end or goal of missions. The end of missions is not more missions. There will come a time when there will be no more missions; when the Lamb will be enthroned and all who follow him will fall down in worship before that throne (Revelation 7). That reality is seen today in the church, the gathering of God’s people under the headship of Jesus Christ as Lord. The goal of missions is seen in the local church.

Secondly, we see what it means to do missions. It is to preach the gospel. Jesus says in Act 1:8 you will be my witness - in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria - and to the ends of the earth. Missions is the act of proclaiming Christ to the nations. Until Jesus returns, that is what our mission is, here as the Chinese church, here as believers in Cambridge, to preach the cross of Jesus Christ.

Finally, we see God at work in missions. He has opened the door to the Gentiles. He sends out his missionaries and he brings them home. He uses two Jews, sends them out to the Gentile world and brings them back to a Gentile church. Missions is God’s idea and mission is done God’s way. What he calls us to do is to obey, to stand firm and to speak out for Jesus so that at the end of the day all glory goes to him.

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