God’s purpose from the beginning of the Bible has been to multiply His image until it fills the earth for His glory. In this passage, we’ll see the way He does that is by multiplying His church.
Acts 9:19b-31 Acts: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Darrel Bock Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando Acts 1-12 For You: Charting the Birth of the Church, Al Mohler
Before I jump into this passage I want to begin with a brief apology. Two weeks ago in the second service I made a joke that a black member of our church once told me I was, “white white,” like not only racially white, but culturally white. In fact, this member said that about someone else, not me, but I thought in the moment it would make a better story if I said it was about me. I know that may not seem like a big deal to many of you and that some of you weren’t even there. I appreciate your grace, but before God it was a lie, and therefore wrong according to the God who is truth. I’ve apologized to Him and received His forgiveness, but I also want to tell you I am sorry and would ask your forgiveness.
Now, continuing our series in Acts, we’re looking at the earliest Christianity, and one of the big features of it the book of Acts is showing us is how it grew. The growth of any community is complicated. In theory, most are excited about it: “Of course we want to grow,” but in practice, we can sometimes end up opposing it: It’s uncomfortable, it changes things, or, on the other hand, we can want to grow so badly that we’ll do weird things to achieve growth, even losing what made our community worth being part of in the first place. Any community struggles with this, the church is no different, but today we’re going to see that The Church Multiplies. We’ll look at what multiplication is, we’ll look at how it happens, and finally, we’ll look at how you can be a part of it.
What multiplication is
Multiplication is a concept that appears in the first chapter of the Bible. That chapter, Genesis 1, records God’s creation of everything, and ends with His creation of the first humans. Speaking of humans, it says we were created in the image of God, to reflect God’s character. As God is loving, we are to love, as God is creative, we are to create, as God is just, we are to do justice, and so forth. Upon creating the first humans, God issues the first commandment to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:28). There’s that word: Multiply. In other words, “as you are my image, make more image of me, until the earth is filled with it.” The commission of humanity, from the beginning, is to fill the earth with the image of God for the glory of God.
The first way the first two humans were to obey this command was to reproduce, have children, thereby creating more human life, more image of God. Before they do that however, the first humans turned from God, rejecting His authority. Thereafter they still were humans, and therefore still bearers of God’s image, but the image was tainted and mixed with evil. So the first humans do still reproduce and in so doing make more image of God, but as humanity multiplies, so does sin. Genesis 6:5 summarizes, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Sin would not have the final word though. God was still committed to filling the earth with His image for His glory, so much that He eventually sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, who is called “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). He is the ultimate image of God, and in becoming human He became what the first human was supposed to be: The perfect reflection of God on earth. Last week, in the passage just before the one we’re looking at this week, in His resurrected body, He appeared to a man named Saul. Saul was confronted by the perfect image of God, and it changed him. He went from being an enemy of Jesus to what we’ll see him as today: A promoter of Jesus.
And this same Saul later wrote this, to ordinary Christians who had not seen the risen Lord Jesus visibly as he had: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). He says, “we all” with unveiled face are beholding the glory of the Lord, Jesus Himself, by faith, not by sight, in this life, and in so doing we too are actually being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to another. You see what he’s saying? He’s saying those who believe in Jesus, the true image of God, are also then being transformed into the image of God, being made like Christ, restored to reflect all of God’s love, justice, goodness, and so forth. God’s original purpose of filling the earth with His image for His glory is fulfilled, then, not simply by people having kids, though that’s still a necessary part of it; it’s fulfilled by people believing in Jesus, the true image of God, and in so doing, being transformed into that same image.
So we come to Acts, and what do we see happening? The book begins with Jesus commissioning His followers to bear witness to him from where they are to the end of the earth. You see why now? Because as the good news of Christ goes forth and people believe, the image of God is restored in them and begins to fill the earth. That happens, and by Acts 6:7 we read, “the number of disciples multiplied greatly.” You see what’s multiplying now? Not just people, but disciples of Jesus, people being made like Him, restored to His image. All that is background to help us understand the significance of what our passage says happened to the church, the community of those who believed in Acts 9:31, two words that close the verse: “It multiplied.” The church is the community of the disciples of the Lord, being remade into His image, and because it is, God ensures that it multiplies. His purpose to fill the earth with His image for His glory will be accomplished as not only the number of disciples, but the number of churches, multiply to the end of the earth. The number of disciples multiplied originally in Jerusalem, but now we read that the church itself multiplied, to the point where there are churches “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria.”
So what is multiplication in this passage? Multiplication is the increase of God’s image in the earth through the increase of the number of disciples and churches. The big thing God is up to through the church, then, is the multiplication of His image to fill the earth with His glory. Is that what you want through your church? There are many blessings to church life, but if we start to make those blessing the end goal of the church, we’ll end up opposing God’s purposes of multiplication. Being part of a church often provides a sense of belonging, a great blessing, but if that’s your ultimate goal in the church, you may actually not want it to grow. Things like planting a new church or starting a new Citygroup will definitely be things you resist, because that may mean some gospel good-byes to people who gave you a sense of belonging. It may even mean you’re the one leaving what was comfortable. But can I just say how thankful I am for you all in this regard? This church started 4 years ago when 40 people left what was familiar to see the image of God increase in a new part of Philadelphia for Citylight Church. Since then, you’ve willingly embraced new members, Discipleship Group multiplications, Citygroup multiplications and most recently, sending 3 of our leaders to help plant Citylight Delco. Let’s keep desiring and celebrating multiplication in our church. Ok, that’s what multiplication is: It’s the increase of God’s image in the earth through the increase of the number of disciples and churches. Let’s look now at how it happens.
How it happens
There’s a few things we can observe leading up to the summary of the church’s multiplication in verse 31. First is the activity of this guy Saul. As I already alluded to, Saul was the most infamous enemy of the church, who was imprisoning and advocating for the murder of Christians, before the risen Lord Jesus confronted him and through that he was converted from an enemy of Jesus to a servant of Jesus, from an enemy of Jesus’ people to one of Jesus’ people. So he was with the disciples at Damascus, verse 19 tells us, and then in verse 20 the first thing he does is start to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues. The first way we see the church multiplies, then, is through the proclamation of Christ.
And it’s a proclamation in the face of opposition. Saul was Jewish and committed to persecuting the church of Jesus, so now that he’s been converted, people are amazed, and not the good kind of amazed, like “Wow isn’t this cool?” but “What’s wrong with this guy?” So we read in verse 23 that the Jews plotted to kill him. If you convert to Christianity, don’t be surprised when the people you used to hang out with start saying things like, “Oh come on man, we always do _______ together. You aren’t really giving that up, are you?” Don’t be surprised if they even start to oppose you or insult you.
When that happens, it’s tempting to tone things down. But Saul actually increases all the more in strength verse 22 says, because his strength now comes from Christ, not from people. What that enables him to do is keep preaching the gospel without seeking revenge. Two times in this set of verses we read of people trying to kill Saul, but we never read of him hatching a plot to kill them in response. He’s not even bullying them with his words; his conversation with them is described as a reasonable dialogue, using words like proof, speaking, and dispute. He’s able to engage in reasoned debate with those who don’t believe because he’s getting his strength from Jesus. That’s where you’ll have to get it if you are to be prepared to give a defense for what you believe. Being strengthened by Christ Himself, depending on what He thinks of you, what He promises you, how much more powerful He is than whoever you’re talking to, enables you to defend your faith without getting defensive.
It even enables you to do so with wisdom. There are two times in this passage where Saul flees to escape plots against his life. Why’s he do this? Is he just acting out of fear? Clearly not, because when preaching the gospel threatens his life in one place, when he escapes, what’s he do next? He preaches the gospel again. Through the rest of the book of Acts, nothing is going to stop this guy from proclaiming the gospel. Precisely because that’s what he wants to do, he does seek to escape plots to kill him, because obviously if he’s dead, he can’t proclaim Christ anymore. It is not wrong to flee gospel persecution for the sake of gospel proclamation. Let’s say you talk to a neighbor about Christ, and that neighbor tells you they don’t want you to talk to them about Christ anymore. You do not have to keep talking to them about Jesus anyway. Pray for them, love them, but it’s going to damage your ability to proclaim the gospel in your neighborhood if that neighbor hates you for disregarding their wishes. I’m not talking about doing what we often do: “Well I think they won’t respond well, so I won’t talk to them about Jesus at all.” I’m talking about when you have, as Saul did, and the response is clearly one of rejection. Don’t try to coerce people. The church doesn’t multiply through coercion; it multiplies through persuasion, proving, reasoning, refuting, and when someone makes it clear they don’t want that, wisdom directs us to move on.
The church multiplies through persuasive proclamation, strengthened by Jesus, and it multiplies when individual disciples join together. So in verse 26 we read that when Saul returned to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. The word there for join is the same Greek word used for gluing. Jesus uses it to describe the union between a husband and wife. So Saul’s not just trying to hang out with the church in Jerusalem; he’s trying to join it. He didn’t feel free to follow Jesus or alone or start his own thing. Having come to Jesus himself, he realized he was bound to join Jesus’ people wherever he was. But when he tried to join, he faced some challenges. I mentioned earlier there are challenges to multiplication, and here we see one of them. The church in Jerusalem had been through a lot of persecution to this point, and it was frankly scary for them to think about receiving Saul into membership, given that he was one of the most infamous persecutors of the church before his conversion. Enter Barnabas, verse 27.
Barnabas was briefly introduced earlier in the Acts, where we’re told that his name means “son of encouragement,” and sure enough, here we see him encouraging Saul. Encouraging literally means “giving courage.” Here was Saul, newly converted, trying to join the church, but facing resistance, and what does Barnabas do? He takes him, verse 27 says: He takes responsibility for him, and then he brings him to the apostles and speaks about what the Lord did on the road to reveal Himself to Saul and how Saul then preached boldly in the name of Jesus. For the church’s multiplication, God uses not only people willing to speak to those outside the church, but people willing to speak words of encouragement within the church, spreading positive gossip about others in the church.
We’re all humans, so we know how to spread negative gossip: You spot peoples’ flaws, and you point them out when they aren’t around. But what Barnabas does is he spots Jesus’ work in Saul’s life, and points that out to others, in this case when Saul is around. That’s positive gossip. Matt Cohen, the pastor at our Manayunk congregation, regularly points out things he sees God doing in my life in front of others, and it encourages me. I’m not talking about flattery; flattery is when we make much of a person, often by bending or exaggerating the truth, to make them like us. It’s a way of encouraging ourselves really, gaining courage by scoring points with someone else. Encouragement is choosing to see and focus on what God is doing in someone’s life, rather than on ways they’re failing, and speaking that out loud to them and others for the sake of giving them greater courage. Let’s be a church that gives and receives godly encouragement. Finally, the result of these things in verse 31 is that the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. With Saul now included, it was without conflict, and it was growing. Now, how can you be a part of that?
How you can be a part of it
We’ve already seen some positive examples in Saul and Barnabas, who we can certainly emulate. We’ve seen the place of the proclamation of the word, which we should engage in according to our calling and use our gifts to enable those with a special calling to it to devote more time to it, but verse 31 gives us a more general description of the life of the church that multiplies: They walk in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and as they do so, the church multiplies. Notice what they do and don’t do. They do the walking, but they don’t do the multiplying. Throughout the Bible we’re compared to farmers: Farmers plant seeds and water them, but they don’t put one piece of stem on top of the other. They plant and water, but God gives the growth. The multiplication of the church is not ultimately our work; it’s God’s work. And, much like farming, it is not a work He’s promised to do the same way in different times and places. The church does multiply: Jesus says He will build His church, the gates of hell will not prevail against it, the earth will be filled with the image of God for the glory of God. But He doesn’t promise to multiply our particular church.
So what do you do with that? One way to respond, the way pastors and church planters, and ok I’ll just come out and say it: The way I’m prone to respond, is to say, “Well if God doesn’t guarantee my church will multiply, I’ll guarantee it! I’ll guilt people and brow-beat them into growing it, I’ll figure out tactics that ensure church growth whether the Spirit is present or not, and then I can feel successful.” In case it’s not obvious, that would be the wrong way to respond. The other way is the one we see here: I’ll desire my church to multiply, but I’ll do my part to walk in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, while leaving the actual multiplying work to the Lord.
The first time we read of the church fearing the Lord in the book of Acts is in response to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, two people whose lives God took in judgment on their sin. So the church lived with an awareness that the God they served had the power to take their lives in judgment at any moment, and that’s exactly what their sins deserved. That’s the same God we serve today, and we still are not without sin. We too should walk in the fear of the Lord.
But, they also walked in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. That word translated comfort there is the same word used to describe Barnabas as a son of encouragement. So we could just as easily say they walked in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit. Here’s another way of saying it then: “They walked in the fear of the Lord and with the courage of the Holy Spirit.” Wait a second: I thought they were afraid of the Lord? How do they also now have courage from the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is doing something in them that enables them to have courage beside their fear. Though they know the Lord can kill them, though they know death is what their sins deserve, they walk before the Lord with courage. How is that possible? What is the Holy Spirit doing to encourage them?
He’s doing what He does throughout Acts and really throughout His ministry on earth since He’s been sent: He’s bearing witness to them of Christ. He’s enabling them to feel and get courage from, what Christ did for them. They know the Lord can kill them, they know death is what their sins deserve, but what did Christ do for them? He died! He had no sins of his own. He was the one person who should have had no reason to fear the Lord, but because He willingly bore our sins in our place, He sweat blood thinking about His impending death under the wrath of God. When His opponents hatched a plot against Him to kill Him, He didn’t escape through a basket, because He came not merely to proclaim His death; He came to die. When He went to His own people, and His own people rejected Him, He didn’t have an encourager like Barnabas. When he was put on trial and accused of all sorts of false charges, no one came to His defense; He didn’t even defend Himself. He was willingly left all alone, excluded to die under the wrath of God for our sins, so that in our walk with God, we’d be included, never alone, never without an encourager, an advocate, Jesus Himself, who is seated at God’s right hand now, who always lives to intercede for us.
God has the power to kill us for our sins, we still have sins, and our sins still deserve death. That should cause us to walk in the fear of the Lord. May we be a church that takes God seriously. But the Holy Spirit testifies that Christ also died the death our sins deserved, and lives in heaven now to intercede for us, to remind God as it were that the demand of justice against us has been satisfied in full. The church in Jerusalem thought Saul was their enemy, so they rejected him, while Barnabas took him and advocated for him. But when we really were Christ’s enemy and deserved His rejection, He took us and advocated on our behalf. Jesus is the true and greater Barnabas. He spreads positive gossip for us before God Himself, reminding God not of our work, but of His work on our behalf. By his Spirit He is always present to encourage us, that we might walk both in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The fear of the Lord therefore drives us closer to Christ, for only in Him do we find a full payment for our sins, an advocated before the Father, and through His Spirit, courage to go alongside our fear. I want to read you just a few verses of a hymn by Charles Welsey that give a good picture of the comfort of the Holy Spirit: “Arise, my soul, arise, shake off your guilty fears, the bleeding sacrifice, in my behalf appears…The Father hears him pray, his dear anointed one, He cannot turn away, the presence of His Son. The Spirit answers to the blood, the Spirit answers to the blood, and tells me I am born of God…My God is reconciled, His pardoning voice I hear, He owns me for a child, I can no longer fear. With confidence I now draw nigh, with confidence I now draw nigh, and Father, Abba, Father, cry.” That’s the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
Do you know it? Believe on Christ today, and it will be yours. God is so powerful and we are so guilty; fear Him. But the bleeding sacrifice on our behalf appears; take comfort. Draw near to Him for strength, proclaim Him to those outside and encourage those within. If the Spirit really drives into you how Christ took you and brought you in, you’ll become one to take others and bring them into the fellowship of the church as Barnabas did. God is committed to His image filling the earth for His glory. He has multiplied the number of disciples and the number of churches for 2000 years, and He will continue to do so. Let’s not be a church that fights Him on that. May we walk in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and may He multiply us.