Continuing the Mission
We often start new habits with the best of intentions only to hit a day when we no longer want to do them. For some things that’s no big deal, but what about the mission Jesus has given us His Church? God empowers us to fulfill that mission through continued speaking, strengthening, and celebrating.
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
One of the ways many have been trying to redeem the time under the stay-at-home order is by developing new habits. I’ve been encouraged to hear from some of you of new Bible reading and prayer habits, new workout habits, and new amounts of time devoted to family. You’ve perhaps gotten started with such things in the past, but any time we do I think we all know somewhere in our minds that the day is coming. The day is coming when you won’t want to continue those habits. And some of them you don’t have to: Hobbies for example can come and go. But some of them are actually important. In the book of Acts, the big important thing of which every Christian is a part is a mission given by Jesus, to spread the gospel, the message of His life, death, and resurrection to the end of the earth. In the passage at which we’re looking today, two guys, Paul and Barnabas, have been commissioned to take that message to a particular part of the earth, and despite facing much opposition along the way, the chapter ends with the report that they did in fact continue in the mission and ultimately fulfilled it. How’d they do it? How can we continue that same mission today and fulfill our part? We’re going to see that God empowers the church to fulfill her mission through continued speaking, continued strengthening, and continued celebrating.
Fresh off of persecution in Pisidian Antioch that drove them out of town, when Paul and Barnabas get to Iconium what do they do? They speak again verse 1 tells us, in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. Not only are they speaking, they’re speaking “in such a way” that people believe. In other words, they aren’t just having a comparative religion conversation. They’re speaking with the aim to persuade. That’s what we call evangelism: speaking the gospel with the aim to persuade someone who doesn’t yet believe it. Despite opposition, that’s what they keep doing, until eventually the opposition drives them to Lystra in verse 8.
After healing a cripple, the people of the city exclaim in verse 11 that “the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” They start calling them Hermes and Zeus and even try to offer sacrifice to them. This shows us that these people are totally unfamiliar with the Bible. That’s Bible 101: You worship God, not people. This is a new context for Paul and Barnabas, a very different culture of people with very different beliefs from their own, but what do they do? They don’t accept the worship of themselves; they point out in verse 15 that they are also just men, who share the same nature as these men, but they bring them good news, which is the gospel. Gospel means good news. Despite opposition and even in a brand new context, they continue speaking the gospel. The mission continues as God empowers His people to keep speaking the gospel. We’re all trying to figure out what church is like in a very new context under this stay-at-home order, but when in doubt, we’re always safe continuing to speak the gospel, whether it’s over YouTube in my case or maybe over Zoom with someone you know who doesn’t yet believe. It’s still good news.
But the way you speak it should vary depending on the context. The gospel is the same throughout the book of Acts, but the way Paul and Barnabas have so far called people to believe it is primarily by saying what we read in Acts 13:38-39, that “through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” That is of course still true here, but it’s not what they choose to say here. They’re speaking in such a way that people believe; they’re speaking the gospel with the aim to persuade, so now when speaking to people who have zero familiarity with the law of Moses, instead of talking first about the law and their guilt, they talk about their idols and their vanity, verse 15: “We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” In other words, Paul says, You may not serve the LORD my God, but you do serve some other gods, and the gods you serve are vain. But I am bringing to you good news, a gospel, which calls you to turn from those vain gods to serve the living God, the God who has always been satisfying your hearts with good and gladness, providing all that is good which you have enjoyed.
Might you consider this message for yourself today? Maybe you don’t know or believe anything in the Bible; neither did they. You may not serve the God of the Bible, but you do serve some god. The great Christian teacher Martin Luther, in explaining the first commandment of the Bible’s Ten Commandments, said, “That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” Your god is whatever you live for, and you may not think of yourself as offering sacrifices to it like the people did here to Paul and Barnabas, but have you ever considered how much you’ve given up to get a certain person or people to like you, advance in your career, have enough money, or experience the next great adventure? Has that ever worked? You either work and never get it, or you get it and realize it was exactly what Paul describes it as in this passage: Vanity!
Augustine was right when we he prayed to God: “You have made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” You weren’t made to worship the creation; you were made to worship the creator. We’re all sacrificing to whatever god we serve, but the Christian gospel calls us to serve a God who sacrificed for us. The gods didn’t come down in the likeness of men in Paul and Barnabas as the Lycaonians thought; the one true and living God came down as a man in Jesus Christ. While Paul and Barnabas rejected the sacrifices the people were trying to offer to them because they were mere men, Jesus Christ had every right to demand sacrifice from the people because He was truly God, and what did He do instead? Instead of demanding sacrifice from us, He offered Himself as a sacrifice for us. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Won’t you turn from your vain idols and serve that God?
That’s the evangelistic call in this passage, but the mission doesn’t end with evangelism.
Despite Paul and Barnabas’ best contextualization of the gospel, they faced opposition again. You never get away from that if you’re preaching the gospel. So they go preach in another city, and verse 21 tells us they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, all cities they’d already been to and preached the gospel in before. And what do they do? Verse 22: They strengthen the souls of the disciples, encourage them to continue in the faith, and say that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. They’re being really honest about the difficulties ahead for every Christian, while at the same encouraging people to continue in the faith. As the Christian says in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “If I can get to the Celestial City, I know I will be safe there. So I must venture on. To go back is nothing but death; to go forward is fear of death [tribulation], but life everlasting is beyond that. Therefore, I will still go forward.” So Paul and Barnabas continue speaking, only this time it is to those who have already believed. The ministry of the word begins with evangelism; it doesn’t end there, because once we’re converted there are still many tribulations we must face before entering the kingdom of God. When we face those tribulations it’s easy for us to get in our own head and feelings about them and lose sight of the kingdom, the Celestial City. Every person needs not only to be converted by the word; they need to be continually strengthened by the word.
So Paul and Barnabas strengthen the churches, but their plan for the ongoing strengthening of these churches isn’t ultimately themselves, nor is it even just that church members would strengthen one another, though that of course happens. In verse 23 we read that they appointed elders for them in every church, and then with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. We learn a few important things about elders here. First, elder doesn’t just mean old guy. It comes from a word meaning old man and is used to connote maturity, but if it just meant old man, there would have been no need to appoint them. The old men would have just started ruling. In the church, elder is a definite office to which a man of great spiritual maturity must be appointed. Other words for the same office in the Bible are pastor or overseer, also translated bishop sometimes. Second, elders are meant to be a plurality. They appointed elders in every church, not one elder for each church. Third, elders are the norm in churches, not the exception. They appointed elders in every church; each church didn’t just decide how they wanted to be governed. Though ultimately verse 23 tells us that Paul and Barnabas entrusted these new converts to the Lord in whom they had believed, the fact that they still didn’t leave town until they appointed elders in every church shows that this is how the Lord has chosen to strengthen Christians between the time they believe and the time when through many tribulations they enter the kingdom of God: In churches governed by a plurality of elders.
I know that can be hard to understand; I didn’t really understand it when I first became a Christian. In America we tend to individualize everything, including our spiritual lives, but what I want you to see is that a church led by elders is not meant to be a burden to Christians; it’s meant to be a help. Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in every church because they care deeply about these people, and they want them to be strengthened in an ongoing way by godly, trustworthy men who will pray for them, speak the gospel to them, walk with them through the tribulations, and encourage them to continue in the grace of God. God cares deeply about you like that; don’t reject the instruments He’s given to strengthen you, especially when you’re facing tribulation. COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order have been especially hard because they do have a tendency to isolate us from one another. But can I just encourage you, whatever tribulation you may be facing; don’t process it alone. Reach out to one of your elders and my commitment to you is that we will listen to you and speak God’s truth to you with gentleness. And if you don’t have elders because you aren’t yet a member of a church, connect with us; we’d love to help you learn about membership here or somewhere else if there’s a better fit.
If you are a member here at Citylight, can I just say how thankful I am to get to serve as one of your elders? I know the other elders feel the same way, especially Michael, who serves with me here at Citylight. I count it one of my great privileges in life to have been appointed to this office here, especially in a time like this. Since the stay-at-home order began I can’t count how many of you have told me how much you appreciated the work we as your elders are doing in this time and how cared for you feel; thank you for saying so. Can I ask two things of you? First, would you pray for us, for all of your elders and for me and Michael in particular? Not just once, but regularly? Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher of the 1800s was once asked why his ministry was so fruitful; what was his secret? You know what he said without hesitation? “My people pray for me.” Would you make it so we can say that without hesitation at Citylight? Second thing I want to ask is if you feel any inkling of desire to be an elder yourself, would you let me know? I’m not saying if you’re qualified; you may not be yet and that’s ok; we’ll work on it. There are no perfect elders. It was because Paul and Barnabas ultimately entrusted people to the Lord verse 23 says that they could appoint imperfect elders. I’m just saying if you want to be used by God to continue strengthening Christians through many tribulations on their path toward the kingdom, let me know, because it is a privilege to serve as an elder, and I’d hate for you to not get to do it simply because you never let anyone know you were interested. Ok, as I’ve already delved a bit into celebrating, let’s conclude there now.
Having entrusted these converts to the Lord, Paul and Barnabas eventually end up back in Syrian Antioch, the church from which they were originally sent. Verse 26 tells us they were commended to the grace of God by that church “for the work that they had fulfilled.” They fulfilled the mission on which they were sent. They continued speaking the words of the gospel, both Jews and Gentiles repented and believed, those people were gathered into churches, those churches had a plurality of elders appointed to care for them in an ongoing way. So they come back and gather the church together, and what do they declare? We fulfilled the mission!
No; they declare all that God had done with them, and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they kept doing that for no little time verse 28 says. They fulfilled the mission, but when they look back on it, they don’t see what they did: They see what God did. God empowered them to fulfill the mission; that’s what God does. We are prone to two errors here: Either we celebrate, but we mainly celebrate what we did, not what God did. Or, we fail to celebrate at all. We just continue speaking the gospel and strengthening one another, never stopping to celebrate what God has done. We just see all the work ahead, all that’s left undone, and look, there was plenty undone at this time. There were plenty of cities Paul and Barnabas didn’t hit, plenty of people to whom they preached the gospel who weren’t converted, and some of them even stoned the guys! They don’t avoid talking about the hard stuff; they’re the ones who said it’s through many tribulations they must enter the kingdom.
And yet, they could stop and celebrate along the way too. There is always sadness around us that we should not ignore, but there are also always things God is doing that we should not ignore either. Though we must enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations, Jesus Christ went through the worst tribulations before He rose from the dead, entered the kingdom of God, and poured out His Spirit upon us. Because of Him, people do turn from vain idols to serve the living God, God does give us elders, and though we will face many tribulations, we will enter the kingdom of God with Him. 4.5 years ago Citylight Center City was planted by a team of 40 people. Today only 10 of those people are still part of the church, but God has given us 100 members, people who have publicly professed their faith in Christ and joined this community. God has opened a door of faith to at least 10 people who have trusted Christ for the first time since coming to this church. He’s led over 30 people to get baptized as a sign of their new life in Christ. This year He provided our second elder at Citylight Center City. He sent three of our members out to help plant Citylight Delco this past October. And even though we haven’t been able to gather for worship since March 8, God has brought you to worship at home through these videos, continued bringing you to your Citygroups, continued providing financially for our every need and beyond through the Compassion Initiative, and has even gotten these videos out to people who never came to a church gathering before. We often struggle to believe it, but it is a privilege to serve the living God rather than vain idols. Turn from vain things to Him, entrust yourself to His care through His church and its elders, and he will bring you through many tribulations to His kingdom, where the mission will be fulfilled, and we will join with the church from every tribe, time, and place to celebrate all God has done. As the great hymn puts it, “Oh that with yonder sacred throng, we at his feet may fall, we’ll join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all.”