Split Decision (Acts 15:36-41)

After World War I, Rudolf Dassler and his brother, Adolf, started sewing shoes in the laundry room of their parents’ house in a little town in the middle of Germany. “Their big breakthrough came at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.” Athletes wearing their shoes, including Jesse Owens, won seven gold medals, not to mention other silver and bronze medals.

Production ceased during World War II, their factory was converted to make weapons, but then shoes were made again after the war ended. But, in 1948, “after over 30 years of working together,” the brothers shut down their shoe company and separated. Instead of one family shoe company, two new companies were formed in their little German town. Adolf decided to combine his first and last name and called his new company: Adidas. Rudolf settled on the name Puma. And what followed was a quarrel that lasted for decades, even past the death of the brothers themselves.

No one is sure what exactly led to the falling out. One story is that there was a simple misunderstanding over something Adolf during a stint inside a shelter while waiting out British bombers. Others cite family strife which finally boiled over after many years of everyone living so close together. The result was a net benefit for shoe enthusiasts and, more than that, historians call their town after the split the “cradle of the sporting goods industry.”

In Acts 15 we see an argument between two brothers that leads to the shocking end of their partnership. It is, perhaps, the most famous disagreement in all the Bible. Paul and Barnabas clash over whether John Mark should be part of a second missionary journey into the Gentile world.

Commentators have just as many opinions as we do when we hear about a fight like this. Some say they were both right. Some say they were both wrong. Some say Paul was being unforgiving and unChristlike, others say Barnabas was blind to reality because of his affection for his nephew. We’re given a good amount of information, but what we’re not given is comment from the Holy Spirit about who was “right” and who was “wrong.” Because of that, we should take care when we read through this situation. When Paul and Peter had their showdown in Galatians 2 about how Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles, the Bible makes it clear: Peter was just wrong. But in this case there are no such verdicts. And yet, for all the things the Dr. Luke skips as he tells these stories of church history, a fair amount of text is dedicated to this falling out without assigning blame to either party.

So, what should we make of it? First, we are given a very simple but important lesson that unity, though an important goal that every Christian and church should be striving for, is not always possible. Even among the apostles, who were laying down the foundation of the Church, perfect unity was not always achieved. Second, as we see this situation play out, rather than join one side or the other, we can examine the conduct of each party and examine the wake left behind them. That will be infinitely more profitable than trying to assign blame in a 2,000 year old disagreement.

We begin in verse 36.

Acts 15:36 – 36 After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers and sisters in every town where we have preached the word of the Lord and see how they’re doing.”

In the interval since the Jerusalem council, the church at Antioch had experienced many good days of ministry. Eventually, Paul got it in mind that he’d like to go back out and once again visit the places they had been before.

Many commentators say he was motivated by “wanderlust,” that Paul just didn’t want to stay in the same place for too long. The beloved Dr. Ironside goes as far as saying that this was not the leading of the Holy Spirit, since Paul faced lots of bumps along the road of this trip. I find it remarkable that we can, with one breath, commend Paul for his courage and endurance and faithfulness to the word of God, but with the next accuse him of being out of step with God’s leading.

There’s no need to accuse Paul of faulty motivation. In the New Testament, including Acts, what we see is that there are times when God gives people or churches a dramatic and unique leading to go out and do some specific work that He has in mind. Some new venture, some special opportunity that might only come along at a distinct point in time. But then, when we’re not on special assignment, we’re still Christians meant to be about the Lord’s business, doing everything we do as unto the Lord, discovering good works to walk in.

It’s exciting to look at Acts and see that God can use any one of His people to accomplish eternal goals. You can be in Antioch or in Jerusalem or in Galatia or in Samaria. In a palace, in a prison. You can serve God and minister across the street or in darkest Peru. Young people, old people. Rich people, poor people. You can be on a desert road with no one around, or you can be by the sea or you can be IN the sea and you can do ministry. These believers in Acts didn’t need a particular set of circumstances before they made it their business to be about the Lord’s business. Like Paul, we have freedom in Christ to say, “Let’s go,” as long as we’re still in obedience to the Lord and in line with His word.

We should also notice this about Paul’s plan: The trip he wants to take is not really to go and plant new churches. Now, he would end up doing that work, but his idea was to go back where they had been. I point that out because often people say that Paul was always being strategic in how he did ministry. That he went to big, urban cities because he knew he’d have a bigger impact there. One commentator writes: “Paul’s spirit was ever-forming some new scheme for the advancement of Christianity.” And, from this perspective is born this idea that the church needs to be “planting” X number of churches a year, or that certain, “significant” cities need strategic attention. All I’m saying is that Paul doesn’t say things like that. He didn’t set out on a church-planting trip on this occasion. This was a follow up.

Paul liked following up. We see that characteristic in some of his letters. He talks about wanting to come back and visit again. He didn’t set out from a numeric perspective, but from a desire to benefit people. He wanted to build people up and help them on their walks with the Lord. In the next chapter we’ll see that part of his goal was to spread the news about the Jerusalem Council, so that other Gentile believers wouldn’t be tripped up by legalists that might come to town.

Acts 15:37 – 37 Barnabas wanted to take along John who was called Mark.

John Mark was Barnabas’ nephew. He had started with Paul and his uncle on their first missionary journey, but that hadn’t worked out. Now, it seems he’s back in Antioch and Barnabas wanted to put him in the lineup again.

Before we get to the conflict, let’s notice that both Barnabas and Paul had hearts that were burdened for other people. In this situation, Barnabas had a great burden for John. He wanted to strengthen him and get him serving the Lord again and have him be a part of God’s work.

Paul also had a burden. His was for these young Christians in Syria and Galatia. He was concerned about their spiritual lives. He wanted them to become healthy, thriving Christians as well.

Both burdens were good burdens. Both reflect the heart of Jesus. Sometimes, Jesus would see a mass of people and His heart would be moved because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Sometimes there would be a group of people clamoring for Him outside the door, but He’d say, “We’ve got to go to another town.” Other times, with a very little time to spare, He’d spend a morning cooking fish so He could restore one disciple back to fellowship.

I’m so glad that God put a burden on Paul’s heart, because it led to him bringing the Gospel west into the continent of Europe. And I’m so glad He put John as a burden on Barnabas’ heart, because John Mark would go on to do remarkable things in God’s power, not least of which is write the second Gospel in our Bibles! Both of these burdens have direct impact on our lives today.

We’re told here that Barnabas “wanted” to take his nephew along. The word means he was “determined.” His mind was made up. Barnabas was no greenhorn. He was a hardcore, battle-scarred, field tested missionary. Clearly he understood the risk he was taking in bringing John along again. He knows there’s a chance that he might have to pick up the slack or carry the weight that John might drop when things get tough. But he’s willing to do it. And this is why we love Barnabas – because he’s the Son of Encouragement. He is not only willing to deal with problematic situations, he’s willing to deal with problematic people. When no one in Jerusalem wanted to have anything to do with Paul, Barnabas said, “I’ll co-sign. I’ll sponsor this guy.” That’s great grace. And that’s sometimes what is required if we want to actually help refine people and develop them as disciples.

But was Barnabas just giving John a pass because they were family? I think the record speaks for itself. While this is the last passage in Acts where we see Barnabas or John, we know that this young man went on to powerful, faithful service to the Church and to Paul himself. In the last letter he wrote, 2nd Timothy, Paul says to Timothy, his beloved son in the faith, “I’m about to die. When you come to see me, bring Mark with you, for he is useful to me in the ministry.” If everyone had shunned John Mark and refused to restore him, what chance would he have had to become the minister he did? Thank God for Barnabas and his work in that life.

But, here’s the other side.

Acts 15:38 – 38 But Paul insisted that they should not take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work.

Paul isn’t wrong in what he’s saying. In the movie Inception, the wealthy financier of the team declares that he wants to tag along on the heist. The response from the operatives is: “There’s no room for tourists on this job.” He goes anyway and promptly takes a bullet to the stomach when the plan goes wrong.

A trip with Paul was not for sight-seeing. There was a good chance they wouldn’t survive. And, in the mean time, we’re talking about people’s eternal destinies. This is not a training simulation, this is a live-fire operation deep behind enemy lines.

When it says Paul “insisted,” we see he had as much resolve as Barnabas had. It’s a term that means Paul judged it not good, or counted John as unworthy. We might protest and say, “Wait a minute, Paul, none of us are ‘worthy’ to go and serve the Lord.” That’s true. But, think about it this way: There are certain physical demands placed on soldiers before they’re launched into battle.

The quintessential image is “the wall,” right? In all those TV and movie montages, the recruit has to get over the wall, otherwise they’re not in. Or, we can think of how, in certain jobs, like law enforcement or teaching, if you have a criminal record, you’re not going to get hired when you apply.

It’s not that Paul is getting revenge for how John bailed on them a few years ago. He doesn’t say, “You know, me and John just don’t gel.” He’s got a very specific complaint. His concern is practical. They had to travel light. Everyone had to do their part. And he was focused on the people out there needing ministry. He was focused in on the audience out there. Barnabas was looking at the associates of the ministry. Both are valid targets and worthwhile efforts. But, in this case, they became mutually exclusive.

Acts 15:39-40 – 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and departed, after being commended by the brothers and sisters to the grace of the Lord.

When Adolf and Rudolf Dassler split apart, the each set up their new shoe companies on either side of the river that ran through their town. And, because most of the townsfolk worked at one company or the other, the town itself was divided for decades. “Puma and Adidas families went to separate bakeries, had their own separate butchers, as well as their own separate pubs.” “Puma people did not date Adidas people, let alone marry them.” The division was so real that “residents became known as ‘Bent Necks’- you always looked down at someone’s feet to see which trainers they wore before deciding whether to speak to them.”

This disagreement between Paul and Barnabas meant the end of their partnership. They parted company, but they didn’t portion up the church. They didn’t form two different congregations. Barnabas didn’t make sure to hang around Antioch to tear down Paul once he left on his trip. Nor was there an ancient “space race” to see who could get to the towns in Cyprus or Galatia first. Instead, they graciously went off in different directions, demanding nothing for themselves. So, even though they weren’t working shoulder to shoulder, they were still cooperating, not competing in the Lord’s business.

The fact that there was no sanction from the church, no call for reconciliation, suggests that they were still handling themselves with Godliness and grace. Remember: This church was sensitive to what was right and what was true. They were willing to do arbitration. This debate between Paul and Barnabas must have been very public. It’s like Simon and Garfunkel breaking up. But there’s no pressure from the church for them to come to the table and make up. Instead, we’re told they commend Paul and Silas to the grace of the Lord. Some commentators see that and jump to the conclusion that Barnabas must’ve been wrong since he wasn’t commended, but it doesn’t say that. Luke is telling Paul’s story at this point of the book. He’s no longer telling Barnabas’ story or Peter’s story for that matter. No need to villainize anyone.

No, Barnabas sailed back to Cyprus, his home island, to do the checking in on the towns and Christians there. Church history tells us that he served God faithfully and powerfully until he was put to death for his faith in Christ. We’re told John Mark was there when it happened and that he buried his uncle and then carried on in his own ministry to the Lord. These are remarkable, admirable men.

Paul wasn’t going to head onto the field alone, so he put a call out to a new acquaintance: Silas. It would’ve been impossible for him to know just exactly what he was signing up for, though he was going to find out quite soon, but Silas became a great partner and dear friend to Paul. If you ever see a fellow named Silvanus in your Bible, that’s the same guy. It seems he also served alongside Peter, helping deliver his epistle.

Acts 15:41 – 41 He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Paul experienced a lot of hurt in his life, but we see him faithfully carrying on, moving forward in his walk with the Lord. There were people out there who needed strengthening. Christians who needed nourishment and encouragement and care. I’m sure it hurt to have to watch such a dear friend sail away, but, in God’s grace, Paul was able to continue and keep serving.

This most famous argument in the Bible shows us that agreement and unity is not always possible, even among Christians. And, that’s ok. If we’re disagreeing in a right way, in a Godly, Biblical way, there might not be a resolution or a bridge built over the issue. But, when we come into a situation like this, we’re not to act like the Dassler brothers, we’re to act like Barnabas and Paul. They didn’t turn their friends or church into rivals. They weren’t giving their hearts over to bitterness or revenge. Instead, their joint force for good became two meaningful missions in the work of God. Because they were not ‘bent necks,’ looking down at the human level of who was right and who was to blame. Their focus was upward to the high call of heaven. And rather than be motivated by spite, they were motivated by a burden to reach out to those who needed spiritual help. And what their example proves is that all of us, in any place, can follow the same pattern, living out our Christianity in grace and purpose, not always in perfect harmony with how God is leading others, but always in love, cooperating, not competing, magnifying God in whatever ways He makes available to us.

It’s Between The Brothers (Acts 15:22-35)

The classic Western scene is a town in turmoil, under the thumb of some self-appointed gunslinger. It’s easy to tell who the bad guys are- they’re practically in uniform. They move through town, making demands and knocking people down. But then, the white hats ride into view and after a flurry of action, when the smoke settles, the good guys are left standing. The town has been liberated, thanks to the kindness and sacrifice of those who were willing to do what’s right.

Spiritually speaking, a similar scene was brewing in Antioch. A hostile band of marauders had come into town, demanding all the Gentiles bow their knees to the legalism of the Mosaic Law. In Jerusalem the issue had been resolved and now a posse was being sent to free the beleaguered faithful in Gentile territory. There would be no shots fired, no violent showdown at the corral. Instead, there would be the public reading of a letter. But that was enough to break the blockade.

As students, the Jerusalem Council is a big deal doctrinally and legally. As Gentiles, it clarifies for us the necessary content of our faith and our legal relationship to Jesus Christ. It gives the answer to the question: “Who may climb the mountain of the Lord?” in a New Testament sense.

But, in the moment, this was much more than an issue of doctrine or a legal decision. This was a family concern. There was more at stake than simply who needed to be circumcised. The challenge to grace threatened to disown and disinherit many brothers and sisters from the family of God. The apostles and the Holy Spirit were focused on repairing this breach and drawing together all members of the family in bonds of love. Tonight, with the delivery of the good news of grace to the Gentiles in Syria, we’ll see our text again and again mention brothers and sisters. 8 times, in fact. And the result is a stronger church, a joy-filled church. A church that doesn’t divide, but that rallies in love, moving forward together in the leading of the Spirit.

We begin in verse 22.

Acts 15:22 – 22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, decided to select men who were among them and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: Judas, called Barsabbas, and Silas, both leading men among the brothers.

In the first half of the chapter we saw a dramatic meeting or series of meetings where it was decided that Gentiles did not have to follow the Mosaic Law in order to be Christians. This was being taught in Antioch by some Christians who had come up from Jerusalem, and it was the opinion of a group of Christians in the church known as “the party of the Pharisees.”

But God had done a great thing: He changed hearts. Verse 22 says it wasn’t just the 11 making some unilateral decision. It wasn’t just the apostles and some elders. Not 50% + 1. This was the heart of the whole church, including, it seems, those in the party of the Pharisees. Now, as we’ve noted, this Judaizing issue would plague the church for a long time, especially the ministry of Paul, but here we see God’s people unifying around grace.

Can your mind be changed? There are a lot of issues being discussed today, there are a lot of assertions being made, philosophies being submitted. Opinions being broadcast. Some of those ideas aren’t worth our time at all, but we should be humble enough to acknowledge that none of us has perfect understanding. We know that’s true when it comes to theoretical physics or higher math, but, since we’re not God, it’s also going to be true about matters like politics. Ethics. Human relationships. These are realms we live in and need wisdom in. We find that wisdom in the Scriptures and by having the mind of Christ operating in us. To think that we’ve got all this stuff figured out is foolish. Sometimes God needs to change our minds. Not based on culture or on popularity or convenience, but by His undying truth. What an admirable thing that the party of the Pharisees stood in agreement. Not in anger or resentment, but with grace. In other words, what we see here was not a partisan solution to the partisan problem. It was the spiritual solution, guided by God.

The church in Jerusalem recognized the seriousness of the issue, they didn’t treat it casually. They sent leaders to go and speak to these Gentile brothers in Antioch and wider Syria. Why wouldn’t the letter be enough? Well, for one thing, they didn’t want there to be a situation where legalists in Antioch accused Paul and Barnabas of making it all up. But I’d say because this wasn’t just a legal issue, it was a family issue. So they sent some father figures to go and help these hurting children.

Acts 15:23 – 23 They wrote: “From the apostles and the elders, your brothers, To the brothers and sisters among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings.

The letter opens not, “from the Jews to the Gentiles,” but, “from your brothers to you, our brothers.” What a beautiful thing.

We call it the “United States of America,” but, with a few exceptions, there’s not a lot of unity among the people of our nation. Sure, at times of great distress, like war times, or we think of the unity after 9/11, there is a joining together in national identity. But our default is one of division. Just take a car with California plates up to Oregon or Idaho. Or think of the TV trope of the Southern, country bumpkin in the big city, not fitting in. Today we live in a dangerously divided nation. The Associated Press has a specially designed webpage dedicated to a series of pieces discussing how “Americans are more divided than ever.” On the front page it says:

“It’s no longer just Republican vs. Democrat, or liberal vs. conservative. It’s the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent, rural vs. urban, white men against the world. Climate doubters clash with believers. Bathrooms have become battlefields, borders are battle lines. Sex and race, faith and ethnicity … the melting pot seems to be boiling over.”

People are wondering what to do, how to move forward. We’ve got the antidote to division. It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The power of grace. This is the solution that can bridge the impossible divide between Jew and Gentile. Between tax collector and zealot. Between Pharisee and Centurion. And it’s demonstrated right here in verse 23. Notice they didn’t say, “We’re writing to you brother and sister Gentiles up in Antioch.” They said, “We’re writing to you, our brothers who are among the Gentiles.” Their passports still said “Syrians,” but in the minds of the believers they were all citizens of Heaven, adopted siblings in the household of God. That adoption is meant to break down all barriers between us. Of course we’ll come together from different backgrounds with different heritage and all sorts of variety, but each and all are made new by the blood of Jesus who bought us and made us His own and now knits us together as living stones, fitting together just so.

Scholars point out that where they say, “greetings” it literally means, “We wish you joy.” If we want to move forward together, we’ve got to lay down our desire to win or be right and first wish joy and rejoicing for the family of God.

Acts 15:24 – 24 Since we have heard that some without our authorization went out from us and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts,

In the Church, heart health matters. These apostles weren’t just worried about how to get more people in attendance. They wanted a heart healthy church. And they wanted them to know that they had not been part of sending these legalists up to Antioch, no matter what they had claimed.

It’s very easy in our culture and in our age for people to self authorize. Anyone with a laptop or a phone can set themselves up as an authority from God. Be careful. Because, like these folks mentioned in verse 24, a lot of people out there are not on a mission to build you up, but to turn you upside down. That’s the term used there for “unsettled your hearts.” It’s a term that means to plunder someone. Watch out for self-sent teachers or ‘influencers.’ Watch out for those who seek to do ministry with no accountability.

Acts 15:25 – 25 we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along with our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul,

Again we see remarkable spiritual unity. And we see tenderness. “Our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul.” But we should also note that loving unity is not the same as “live and let live.” The whole purpose of this letter and mission was to conclusively establish that grace plus nothing was the rule of the day. There was no wiggle room. No retreat from the truth.

Acts 15:26 – 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew Poole points out that Paul and Barnabas had been vilified by the Judaizers in their home church at Antioch. Here, the brothers from Jerusalem were standing up for them.

One of the Puritans once wrote about the work of grace replenishing every void made by sin. As Christians we have the privilege of standing in support of those who are wrongly reviled. Multiple times the Bible talks about how we can strengthen those with weak knees.

Paul and Barnabas had many vile things said about them but this much was certain: They had counted their lives as forfeit in their service to the Lord. Legalists can’t claim that. They can only try to delegitimize people around them, knocking them down to make themselves feel higher.

This description of Paul reminds us that he never wanted to be known as the most important guy or the smartest guy in the room. In fact, even though God saw fit to show him incredible mysteries and deliver so much of the teaching of the New Testament through him, Paul said:

1 Corinthians 2:1-4 – When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. 2 For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.

He and Barnabas lived for Christ’s purposes, not their own. We want to follow in those footsteps.

Acts 15:27 – 27 Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth.

A big decision was coming down. Jerusalem was providing verification. It’s ok to do a background check on someone who claims to be speaking for God. In fact, it’s essential.

Now, wouldn’t the letter and the testimony of the Holy Spirit in their hearts be enough? Sure, it could be. But here we see another example of how God wants to include us in His work. He didn’t need Judas and Silas in order to get this job done. But He delights in utilizing us for all sorts of different missions. We often think of a “mission” or a “missions trip” as an evangelistic activity. But we should note in Acts there are a lot of different kinds of missions trips that God sends His people out on. He sent these guys to endorse and encourage. He sent Stephen to engage the members of a Synagogue. He sent Philip to evangelize in Samaria. Another time he sent Philip to explain a passage of Scripture to the Ethiopian Eunuch. From the get go God told Paul that He would be sending him on an ongoing mission to endure suffering for Christ.

There are a lot of different missions God might set each of us apart for on any given day. We want to be ready to report and execute our orders.

Acts 15:28 – 28 For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—not to place further burdens on you beyond these requirements:

The Holy Spirit has an opinion. In the decisions you’re facing, the tensions, the circumstances, the questions. God the Holy Spirit has an opinion. The key to successful ministry and successful Christian living is discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit. Because sometimes He says yes to things and sometimes He says no. Isn’t the Word, on its own, enough? Doesn’t it contain all we need for life and Godliness? Yes, it does. But, if there was no need for the daily filling, leading and intervention of the Holy Spirit, He wouldn’t have been left here to help us after the Ascension.

So how do we hear from the Holy Spirit? Chiefly He speaks through the inspired word of God.

Hebrews 3:7-8a – 7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion

2 Timothy 3:16-17 – 16 All Scripture is inspired by God,ba and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The word of God is a direct line to the leading of God the Holy Spirit. But we’re also told in First Corinthians chapter 12 that the Spirit is active in gifting us in certain ways to build up the Church. We’re told He distributes certain gifts and attributes and we’re to search those out so that we can be walking in step with the Lord. We’re also told in First Corinthians 2 that we’ve been given the Spirit individually so that we can have the mind of Christ in us and be instructed by it. “So that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God.” And so, obviously, there must be personal communion and connection in our minds with the Holy Spirit through prayer and waiting on Him.

Paul also writes about how God works in our own hearts to develop Godly desires to do what pleases Him. These are some of the ways that we hear from and are led by God the Holy Spirit.

Now, the leaders in Jerusalem said that the list that followed were requirements. But aren’t we saved by grace, through faith, not of works? Yes, we dealt with this last time. Suffice it to say, aside from the clear-cut issue of sexual immorality, there were some other dietary issues that needed to be addressed in order to promote the communion and community of Gentile and Jewish believers together. While the New Testament would go on to reveal that we have theological liberty when it comes to what we eat, we also have a duty as Christians to not stumble those around us. And that high goal of love and unity should lead to us living sacrificial lives toward others. Summarizing these requirements, Charles Ellicott writes: “An inspired commandment does not necessarily involve a permanent obligation.”

Acts 15:29 – 29 that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell.”

The heathens of the Roman world drank blood mixed with wine during their sacrifices to deities. So much of Christianity would’ve been totally new and foreign to these pagans out in the Gentile world. We’d note that they didn’t say, “And we’ll be checking up on you to make sure you’re complying with what we said.” No, the Christian life is your personal responsibility. You’ll stand before God alone and must answer whether you obeyed Him or not. We don’t have to wait for someone else to tell us what righteous thing to do, go and search it out yourself in the Living Word and go God’s way.

Acts 15:30 – 30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch, and after gathering the assembly, they delivered the letter.

The way it’s written gives us the impression there were not detours, no long way ‘round. The Gentile church was, no doubt, waiting with great anticipation to hear how this was all going to shake out. Remember: They were willing to obey, but the personal cost could, potentially, be difficult and great.

We commend Judas and Silas here. Earlier we were told that they were revered, leading men in Jerusalem. But what do we see? They were willing to be letter carriers. They weren’t promised any position of importance in Antioch. They weren’t going to some award ceremony. They were delivering the mail that these strangers might be kept free in grace. They show wonderful humility.

Acts 15:31 – 31 When they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.

This was an authoritative epistle they were reading, but it filled them with joy. As Christians, sent to proclaim truth, let’s never forget that we are going out with Good News. It has been given to instruct and encourage us, telling us of our freedoms in Christ, our responsibilities to Him and to our brothers and sisters and to this world. But this is all very good news. The good news of grace and transformation. The news that God has stepped down into the world to deal with sin and death and that He can make all things new. God who can bring beauty from ashes and revolutionize not just one life or two, but whole generations by His power. Preach Good News.

Acts 15:32 – 32 Both Judas and Silas, who were also prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers and sisters and strengthened them with a long message.

Of course, their prophecy agreed with the written word. The same litmus should be used today when people speak a word of prophecy. We can avoid many missteps and burdens using this simple test.

Acts 15:33 – 33 After spending some time there, they were sent back in peace by the brothers and sisters to those who had sent them.

We see a likeness and a cooperation and a similarity. These two churches, Antioch and Jerusalem were very, very different. And yet we see them filled and guided by the Holy Spirit and that brings unity. They were brothers. They were a family. And just as the 11 had sent out Judas and Silas to the brothers, so those in Antioch were sending them back. We don’t know how long they stayed, some think it could’ve been a whole year. But, however long it was, it was long enough for Silas to make a great impression on the Apostle Paul. He would become a faithful traveling companion on his next missionary journey.

If you’re reading in the NLT, the ESV, the NIV or the CSB (like I am), verse 34 is omitted. In the NASB it’s bracketed. In the King James and New King James you’ll probably have a note saying that verse 34 is not found in some of the manuscripts.

Some Biblical scholars think that it was, at some point, added as a marginal note. Altogether, the argument is inconclusive. Luckily, what verse 34 contains is not consequential when it comes to anything like doctrine. Here’s how it reads in the New King James:

Acts 15:34 – 34 However, it seemed good to Silas to remain there.

And then we have verse 35:

Acts 15:35 – 35 But Paul and Barnabas, along with many others, remained in Antioch, teaching and proclaiming the word of the Lord.

There was a great teaching ministry in Antioch. We’re told that there were “many others” there doing God’s work. That work is, first and foremost, the planting of seed. The sowers go out to sow. And we’re told that the seed is the word of God that we are sent to scatter all over the earth that receptive hearts might take it, believe and be saved. That is our most essential business. There are others things we can and should be doing, but if you’re a farmer, the most important thing you do is plant.

Psalm 68:11 – 11 The Lord gives the word, and a great army brings the good news.

That’s us. A band of brothers. Sent out to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus by grace through faith. Bringing liberation to a world trapped and desperate. Let’s ride in and save who we can.

The Law Don’t Go ‘Round Here (Acts 15:1-21)

Who is allowed access? That’s an important question, but not one we think about very much. We all know the old list: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” But, sometimes it takes a little more than that. Did you know that, according to an ordinance in Atlanta, Georgia, “smelly people” are not allowed to ride public streetcars? The stinky among us aren’t only in danger of missing the bus. In 2014 the city of Burien, Washington passed an ordinance with said people could be excluded from parks or even city hall for a “variety of behaviors, including hostile language, not enough clothes covering the body and [smell]. The law allows Burien Police to bar the offender from the public space for up to a year.”

Many of us here probably aren’t deep students of the historic church councils. There were lots of them over the centuries. Some of them were more significant than others. The decisions at the Third Council of Constantinople don’t really have a meaningful impact on our Biblical faith today. But there’s one council that makes a huge difference for us, the very first one in Jerusalem.

In fact, our ability to do church the way we do is a result of what was decided in Acts 15. It was clear that Gentiles were allowed to join the Church, but the question was: How were Gentiles to come in? What do we have to “wear” or how do we have to “smell?” As Gentiles, do we have to first convert to Judaism and then receive salvation in Jesus Christ? Is obedience to the Levitical Law the ship that takes us to the new world? These are important questions. We are able to take them for granted now that it’s been decided, but in the first decades of the Church’s history, this was a fierce debate.

As we see the Jerusalem council in our text we can notice a couple of important spiritual themes. One is that of God’s providence, working itself out, despite obstacles and opposition and all the odds stacked against grace. Another is that, even though God will have His way, we as individuals still have a duty and a responsibility to go submit and go along with Him. To be a part of providence, instead of resisting God’s work. This was the choice presented to Esther. God would accomplish His purposes. But, would Esther cooperate and allow herself to be a part of it, or would she refuse to cooperate and be set aside? We’ll see examples of believers who choose one way and believers who choose another and we’ll see the potential outcomes of either choice.

As we begin, we find ourselves in Antioch of Syria. Paul and Barnabas have been spending time in the healthy, growing church there. And then we read verse 1:

Acts 15:1 – Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

It’s hard to be sure of the timeline, but it seems that what we’re reading here lines up with what Paul talks about in Galatians 2. Piecing it together, it seems that Peter had come to Antioch at some point, had enjoyed his time there among the mostly-Gentile disciples. Then these guys come from Jerusalem and start teaching that Gentiles must become practicing Jews. Peter, we’re told in Galatians 2:12, was afraid of their criticism, so he pulled back from these Gentile Christians and acted in implied agreement with the Judaizers. And Barnabas was led astray for a time.

Who were these guys? Luke doesn’t name them, but from the context and comparison it seems they were associates of James, the Lord’s half-brother, who had become a primary leader in the church at Jerusalem. They must have claimed to be official representatives, because later, in verse 24, the elders of the church feel it’s necessary to say, “We did not send or authorize these guys.” If these were just random guys, there wouldn’t have been such a big fuss over their pocket teaching.

Let’s take a look at what they said. They weren’t saying, “This would be a best practice,” but, “You can’t be saved if you don’t do these things.” They were adding pre-requisites and requirements to the Gospel. Now, this passage and many other in the New Testament make it clear, that’s always a no-no, but it still happens today. Not just from cults or other religions, but from within the church itself. There are traditions which say you cannot be saved if you are not water baptized. There are those who say to be a Christian you must speak in tongues. There are those who say you must keep the Sabbath. These debates continue despite the clear teaching of Scripture. This is why we’re warned so often about false teachers. Jesus warned us, Paul warned us, Peter warned us, John warned us, Jude warned us, Hebrews warns us. There are false teachings that try to work their way into the Church at large and we need to be able to spot them and throw them overboard.

How do we spot them? First, by being well-versed in the teachings of the Bible, once for all delivered. We can spot them when we see people playing fast and loose with details of theology. For example: These guys boil down their argument saying “circumcision was prescribed by Moses.” Actually, circumcision predated Moses by hundreds of years. It was given to Abraham.

Second, we’re given a description of false teachers in 2nd Timothy, where Paul says:

2 Timothy 3:5a – [False teachers will] hold to the form of godliness but denying its power.

That’s exactly what these Judaizers were doing. They denied the testimony of what God had been doing in Antioch, in Cyprus, in Galatia. They cancelled all of that and said, “Nope, you have to follow this form of ours.”

Acts 15:2 – 2 After Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, Paul and Barnabas and some others were appointed to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this issue.

Paul must have brought Barnabas back over to the grace side after his slip into legalism. And they stand together, willing to die on this hill. This would be a battle Paul would have to fight again and again, but it was worth it.

I do commend the church at Antioch for this: They were willing to submit if necessary. These Judaizers had street cred. They probably made some strong arguments. And the Gentiles in Antioch were humble enough to say, “Well, let’s get this decided, and if we need to become Jews, we’ll become Jews.”

What arguments could these guys have made that would’ve had any convincing effect? Dr. H.A. Ironside points out that a variety of passages like Isaiah 60 and Zechariah 8 indicated that the Gentile nations would come to God through Israel. Wouldn’t that mean circumcision and all the rest?

Acts 15:3 – 3 When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they brought great joy to all the brothers and sisters.

A tell-tale difference between legalism and grace is seen right here. Legalism brings burdens, grace brings joy. In a few verses Peter’s going to say to these legalists, “You’re weighing people down!” Look what happens when Paul goes somewhere with the Good News of God’s grace: They’re brought great joy. As a simple point of application, as you travel the roads of your life, whether they be the 198 or on the information superhighway, bring joy. Not anger. Not bitterness. Bring joy.

It seems likely all these guys travelled together. If so, that would’ve been an interesting road trip.

Acts 15:4 – 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.

As a church, we want to be welcomers. Even if there is friction that needs to be resolved, we can still extend care and compassion to those we disagree with. We should be the warmest, most welcoming place in town. Not always easy, but always part of God’s call in our lives.

Acts 15:5 – 5 But some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”

It wasn’t just a few guys in verse 1 who felt this way about things. There was a whole party of Christians in the church at Jerusalem who felt the same. They had been biding their time and now were ready to launch their attack on salvation by grace through faith. What a sad thing that, having heard all that God had done, they saw no reason to celebrate, no reason to thank the Lord, no reason to be excited or want to be a part of it themselves. No, their party politics demanded that they exclude all of that and all those people until they conformed their lives to this Pharisaical model.

We’ve got to be careful we don’t become like this. Not in regard to following the law of Moses, I doubt there’s much danger of that. But, think about it this way: If we heard from a reliable source that our Governor converted to Christianity, was born again like the Governor of Cyprus had been, I hope we would celebrate and honor God. I hope our first response wouldn’t be to demand that he start doing what we wanted him to do. See how these guys were demanding that the apostles command the Gentiles not just to be circumcised, but to keep ALL the law. Enforce it!

This is what legalism does. It excludes. It demands. So far in Acts the church really hasn’t been in the “command” business. They’ve been in the conversion business, the communion business, the community business, but they haven’t been issuing laws and regulations. Let’s put this isn’t plain, practical speech: If your church demands that you sign some agreement in order to be a member in good standing, that is Pharisee behavior, not grace.

Now here we can see some of the fantastic providence of God. At the moment this all breaks out, threatening the future of the Church, who is there but the Pharisee of Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus. And the apostle Peter who God had specifically used to break down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile.

Acts 15:6 – 6 The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter.

Take note: These were all Jews. In the modern way of doing things, there wasn’t fair representation. But, once again, we find that if people are obedient to the Lord and are full of the Spirit then God breaks down obstacles, overcomes our deficiencies and is able to do the impossible.

Acts 15:7 – 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe.

Much debate. They really struggled with this. It seems crazy to us, but it wasn’t so easy then.

Peter stands, with great courage, and reminds them of what God had done in regard to Cornelius and all the Gentiles he represented. Again we see providence in action. Had it only been Paul standing for grace he could’ve been delegitimized. The guys in Jerusalem weren’t all that excited about him anyway. But Peter himself was there and was willing to do his duty toward grace.

Peter points out that its as God’s express purpose from the early days that Gentiles be saved. It was an act of adoption, not immigration, if that makes sense.

Acts 15:8-9 – 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.

Salvation is a heart issue. It is not about merit or behavior or effort. It is accomplished in the heart. Now, it’s obvious that once a person has surrendered their life to Jesus Christ they are then responsible to obey the many things He has commanded. But what we’re talking about here is salvation: How can a person be saved from the penalty of their sins. And that is done at the heart level, by grace, through faith plus nothing.

If circumcision or anything else was necessary, God had no problem directing His people in the time of the Acts. Think about the many, detailed ways He revealed His truth and His desires and His directions and how they were able to grab hold of those things and run with them.

Faith is the way. Faith plus nothing.

Acts 15:10-11 – 10 Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”

Notice that Peter calls them “disciples,” not “Gentiles.” I think that’s great. And notice how he puts them first in verse 11 in a wonderfully unexpected reversal: “We’re saved the same way they are.” That’s a heart of grace.

Peter also gives these Judaizers a humbling talking to. He is a better student of their history then they are themselves. He says, “Your ancestors couldn’t do this. We couldn’t do it either.” And that’s the crux of the matter. Not only has God revealed that salvation is by grace, through faith, not of works, but it’s also been proven again and again that no one can live up to the Law. Not the Law of Moses, not the Beatitudes, because these are perfect standards. Any legalism that people try to put on you is impossible. That’s why we’re told in Proverbs 30 and in Titus 3 that self-righteousness is of no benefit. We cannot wash ourselves. Only ONE Person could fulfill the law and that was Jesus Christ. After all the millennia of human history, finally there was Someone who could satisfy the requirements of the Law. And Paul would later explain in Romans 8:4 that He did it FOR us, because we cannot do it for ourselves. And Peter points out this is not just a difference of style or opinion, no, legalism puts an impossible, cruel burden on people that should not be there.

Acts 15:12 – 12 The whole assembly became silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Another way to spot a legalist: A legalist goes to other Christians and complains that they’re not doing it right. A true servant of God goes into the world and is used to rescue. You look at Paul and Barnabas and you see God actually did something with them. What did the legalists do? They went to a healthy church and started hacking away at it.

Acts 15:13-18 – 13 After they stopped speaking, James responded, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has reported how God first intervened to take from the Gentiles a people for his name. 15 And the words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written: 16 After these things I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. I will rebuild its ruins and set it up again, 17 so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles who are called by my name— declares the Lord who makes these things 18 known from long ago.

James shows great submission to Jesus here. Because James was deeply Jewish. He was a strict law follower. And yet, he bowed to his Lord and said, “Lord, it doesn’t make sense to me to cast the nets on the other side of the boat, nevertheless at Your word I will.” And James acknowledges that this principle of grace wasn’t Paul’s idea or a Gentile idea, it was God’s idea and it was altogether Biblical. He references Amos chapter 9 here, which not only harmonizes with the work in the first century, but has a further fulfillment even future to us. A whole sub-theme we don’t have time for tonight is God’s plan for the end times brought out in this chapter. But here, we see God’s providence rolling along. He cannot be stopped or confounded. Our part is to join in and not stand on the wrong side of His will, even if it might cost us personally or challenge our traditions.

I think we can try to think the best of some of these Jewish believers. Perhaps they really thought they were being Biblical. But what we’re seeing here is that they were being selective in their approach to the Scriptures. They were cancelling out whole sections of prophecy, like Amos 9. Having read that and other passages, it should have come as no surprise to them that the door of salvation was flung wide to non-Jews.

We, too, need to be paying attention to Bible prophecy. I think we try hard to do that here. But a more modern example is how no one should’ve been surprised by the re-establishment of the nation of Israel. Before 1948 there were some who said “hey, this is going to happen.” But it was a big surprise to many in the Church, including theologians. It shouldn’t have been. So, we see that this wasn’t just a first century Pharisee problem, it’s one we want to be careful about too.

Acts 15:19 – 19 Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God,

If a tradition or a teaching makes it difficult for a person to step through the door of salvation then it isn’t Jesus. If a teaching demands a person dress a certain way, act a certain way, pay some price to be saved, it isn’t the Gospel. Plain and simple.

It’s been reported that in the Scientologist religion, if you want to be saved it’s going to cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s not Good News. That’s not Christianity.

But if you also say you must keep the Sabbath to be saved, it’s the exact same thing. Now, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cost anything to follow Jesus. Christians are definitely commanded to lay down our lives, take up a cross and count all as lost for our Lord. But the thief on the cross had no price to pay, it was being paid for him. All that was necessary for him to be saved from hell for heaven was to believe, and because of God’s grace he was rescued from the guilt of his sin.

Acts 15:20 – 20 but instead we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood.

If you were a pagan Gentile in that era, you were soaked in idolatry and sexual immorality. You didn’t know those things were bad. It’s like when you hear the testimony of cannibalistic tribes that are exposed to the Gospel. They didn’t know they weren’t supposed to eat each other! Gentiles needed to be told that sexual immorality was wrong.

But wait, didn’t we just establish that there was no ritual law to follow? And won’t Paul write a whole bunch of stuff about why a person has liberty when it comes to meat sacrificed to idols? Yes, he will. So what’s going on here? Well, let’s let James finish.

Acts 15:21 – 21 For since ancient times, Moses has had those who proclaim him in every city, and every Sabbath day he is read aloud in the synagogues.”

You see, all these Gentile Christians would be rubbing elbows with Jews and Jewish believers. It would be impossible for them to have communion together if they continued with some of these eating habits. The sexual immorality thing, that’s not Levitical, that’s God’s forever standard. What James is doing is providing a practical guideline to help Gentiles not offend Jews in such a way that they couldn’t have anything to do with one another. We live in a time and culture where there aren’t divides quite like this. But, for these folks in Acts 15, this was a deal-breaker. And the Jerusalem council was not only answering a theological question, they also needed to solve a very real relational divide within the church. As Warren Wiersbe points out: Proper doctrine leads to duty. Duty to God, duty to one another.

We are wonderfully benefited by what happened at the Jerusalem council. Now, God was set on accomplishing His work of grace and He, through providence, was sure to get it done. But in these scenes we see there was a Paul and there were Pharisees. There was Peter who spoke up and the rest of the 12 who perhaps didn’t. We want to orient our lives toward the truth, not only so that we’re “right” but so that we can be used to further the providential work of grace in the Church and in our world. Because, as we see here, it makes a big difference. And His work is a work of grace and truth. One that does not exclude, but welcomes in all who will believe then transforming their lives, washing the paganism from their hearts and replacing it with purpose, humility and joy.

Returning To The Scene (Acts 14:21-28)

You’ve probably heard about the tendency of certain criminals to return to the scene of their crimes. Arsonists, in particular, have been found to hang around to watch their work. One study showed that 28% never left the scene. Of those who did leave, 59% came back. Some immediately, some about a half hour later, some the next day. Which just goes to show you – if you’re hanging around a building that’s on fire, you might be considered a suspect.

Now, we know that Paul was no arsonist, but he had started a fire. He was no criminal, but he had certainly been treated like one. After a long trip through across the sea and through the Galatian territory, being led by the Holy Spirit, he realizes the mission is coming to a close. But then something remarkable happens: He and Barnabas turn around and head back through the very places where they had barely escaped with their lives. To Antioch of Pisida, where they had been run out of town. To Iconium, where there had been a plot to murder them. To Lystra, where Paul actually was murdered. There was no long interval of years in-between these visits. Maybe a few weeks or months. But here we see how the power of God and the leading of God can equip a Christian to walk in great courage. It’s a power that drives out fear.

Something else is worth noting. Bible Commentator Ivor Powell prods us to look at that map that most of us have in the back of our Bibles, which show the route of Paul’s 3 missionary journeys. In this case, looking at his first trip, notice the road not taken. When our text opens, Paul is in Derbe. Look a little to the east and what do you see? You’ll see Tarsus, Paul’s town. Probably full of family and friends. Look a little east of that and you’ll see Antioch of Syria. Paul’s new home, full of his family in the faith. But now, look at Paul’s trip “home.” He goes back (mostly) the way he came so that he could fan the flame of faith that he helped kindle in all those places.

Or, we might say he was going back to tend to the little saplings that had been planted. We talk about “church planting.” Your Bible may even have that as a heading over our verses tonight. Some tender, vulnerable young churches had been started through Paul’s ministry and he felt compelled to go and cultivate them, strengthen them, help them in their infancy.

Those of you who garden know how much care and attention and effort it takes to properly develop plants. It takes time. Time was not something Paul had a lot of on this particular trip. Good gardening also requires light and soil and some other supplies. Paul was also disadvantaged here. Not only were most of these believers living among hostile opponents of the Gospel, they also had no written New Testament. Some of them probably didn’t even have the written Old Testament. These were churches filled with baby Christians, now tasked with becoming the Body of Christ and taking up the Great Commission themselves.

What do you do in a situation like that? And, secondly, when you’ve been called to a specific ministry and you’ve dedicated your life to it and then it comes to an end…what then? These are questions that churches and Christians still face today. Some answers are on display for us in our text. We begin in verse 21.

Acts 14:21 – 21 After they had preached the gospel in that town [Derbe] and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch,

Luke doesn’t give us much detail in reporting on this part of the trip, but we know it was an effective time. We’re told that they made many disciples in Derbe. We also know that a man named Gaius was converted there, who later became a traveling companion of Paul’s. He would suffer persecution in Ephesus. But he would also be with Paul when he wrote Romans, acting as a host to the apostle and the whole church.

We note that the verse says they preached and made many disciples. The object of each is the same, and preaching is required first so that people might begin the life of discipleship. But it’s good for us to remember that our responsibility is to go and make disciples. That can’t be done without preaching, and so, the preaching of the Gospel must be primary and persistent. But if there was nothing for us to do beyond the proclamation of the Gospel, then most Christians could retire until the rapture. Because now we have radio and television and cheap printing and the internet. The Gospel is being proclaimed, in a general sense, 24 hours a day, all around the world. But the assignment given to us is to go and make disciples. That means we’re to go and teach people how to walk with God. It means we have to keep proclaiming God’s word and showing one another how to apply it. It means we join together and go out fishing for men and women who are still lost in sin.

The way Paul made disciples was by establishing local churches. This was, obviously, the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we see him doing it on this trip. He’d go to a place and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. People would be born again and then Paul would have them form a local church. A group of people, deeply connected by the love of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. And, together they would grow and develop and continue the transforming work of Christ in their city.

As we’ve seen, usually not long after Paul organized a church in a town, he’d get kicked out by unbelievers. But now, he decides to go back. Human reasoning would call this irresponsible. Paul saw it as necessary. What that shows us is that, sometimes, when we’re doing God’s work, we’re going to have to ignore danger as a factor. If Paul would have factored “danger” into his equation, he’d head east to Tarsus, not west, back to Lystra. But this wasn’t a man who was led by human reasoning. He was led by the Spirit and compelled by the love he had in his heart for people in need.

I’d encourage us, as individuals and a local church, to pray to God to give us an expanding love, not only for people in general, but a burden for some specific people that He would use us to minister to.

Acts 14:22 – [He went] 22 strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, “It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Interesting way to encourage people. We’re used to a…more syrupy form of encouragement.

In The Lego Movie, when the dad realizes that the villain is patterned after him, he’s hurt and demoralized, so he asks the son what the good guy would say to encourage and help the bad guy not be bad anymore, the speech goes like this: “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things, because YOU are the special!” Hey that makes you feel good.

Not Paul. Here’s what he says to these fledgling believers: “It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Wow. He didn’t say that because he was jaded or because he had been dealt a particularly rough set of ministry cards. He said it because it’s true. It was true for them, it’s true for us. But why is it that we must go through many hardships or pass through many troubles on our way to our glorious future in heaven?

There are a quite a few reasons given in the New Testament. But, fundamentally we remember that we live out this life in a fallen world, ruled by the enemy of God, who wants to extinguish God’s light.

Well then, why doesn’t God just exempt His people from suffering the way He did with some of the plagues in Egypt? The land of Goshen wasn’t subject to all those terrible things. Sometimes they had a supernatural shield blocking any ill effects.

God’s Word explains that suffering, though not caused by God, is useful in our development and sanctification. It can act as a refining work, purifying and strengthening us. Making us more able to do greater spiritual work. It can be used to prepare us to help others. It can be used to show God’s might and His glory.

We understand that strain and pressure and hardship can lead to an accomplishment that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise. You’re not going to beat Mario Brothers without jumping all the hurdles, smashing all the koopa troopas, and dodging fireballs. Or, here’s a more serious example: If you want to make a Marine, you can’t do so just by saying to a random person on the street: You’re a Marine! But take that same person off the street, put them through the rigor of training, the challenges of the crucible, and they come out as something they weren’t before.

Paul explained to these believes that, to operate as Christians behind enemy lines, they would need strengthening and equipment. He gave them supports to be able to continue living the Christian life. How? By continuing in the faith. It’s said quickly here, fleshed out more in passages like Colossians 1:23, where we learn that continuing in the faith means to believe the truth and stand firmly in it. To not drift away from the teach of Scripture. To not grow weary in doing good. And to rely on the grace of God, day by day. As each morning dawns, we rise to exercise our faith as active disciples.

Acts 14:23 – 23 When they had appointed elders for them in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

For individual Christians to grow and be discipled they needed a local church. It was true then, it’s still true today. Paul believed in the local church. Not just a general idea that I, individually, am part of Christ’s Body universal. We are, individually members of Christ’s Body. But Paul, with what little time he had, wanted these young Christians to know that they needed a vibrant, organized, local congregation, with leaders and responsibilities and a unified devotion to the Lord. He and Barnabas took this organization process seriously. They prayed and fasted. Sometimes, in other places, Paul would leave one of his companions (like Titus or Timothy) to pastor in a place where, apparently, there wasn’t someone else ready to take it on.

Having established an organized fellowship, he “committed them to the Lord.” There’s a sweetness embedded here. Another way to say it is that he “turned them over to the care of the Lord.” And what a tender care it is. Albert Barnes writes: “They were feeble, inexperienced, and exposed to dangers; but in [the Lord’s] hands they were safe.”
From Paul’s perspective there’s also a loving affection in the words. The term is one that can “implies the confiding trust of one who commits what is very precious to him to the keeping of another.”

The verse closes by saying that it was in Christ whom they had believed. Not a man. Not a method. Not a brand or a slogan. The Lord Jesus was their object and focus, their Friend and Shepherd.

This scene also demonstrates that when Paul set up a church, it was meant to function in an independent, self-sufficient, self-governing way. Of course, there was a brotherhood among the churches. We’ve already seen that when those in Antioch sent aid to those in Judea. And, next up, we’ll see the Jerusalem Council, which had implications for all believers, but as a congregation, they were localized.

And that makes perfect sense. Because if we compare Derbe to Lystra or Antioch to Jerusalem, there are completely different peoples and circumstances in each place. All are under the same Lord, all have the same ultimate goals and values. But the function, the operation, the emphasis and the forms are going to vary place to place, just like your hand compared to your stomach.

Acts 14:24-25 – 24 They passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 After they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.

Very little is reported here, although I’m sure a lot happened. We know that there had been some folks from Pamphylia at Pentecost back in Acts 2. Whether they had returned or not, we can’t say.

Acts 14:26 – 26 From there they sailed back to Antioch where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.

On the trip back Paul and Barnabas bypassed Cyprus. We don’t know why. It’s altogether possible that on this sea voyage from Attalia to Antioch they experienced one of the shipwrecks we know about in Paul’s life. One is at the end of Acts, but there were at least 3 others.

But now, after around 2 years, they’re finally back at home with their friends and brothers in Antioch, who had sent them out on this trip. We’re reminded here they had been commended to the grace of God. Paul and Barnabas had been commended to go, the believers in the Galatians churches were commended to stay. God has a lot of different kinds of work for his people. And that is a wonderful thing. Either way, they were commended to the loving grace of God.

But, wait a minute! Think back on what we’ve been reading. Apparently God’s “grace” for Paul included beatings and running for his life and being killed! That’s true. That was the job. That was the work he had been set apart for.

Years ago, the television show Dirty Jobs was a big hit. I remember watching it sometimes and, while being horrified at some of the incredible things people do, I was at the same time glad that someone was willing to do the work. Paul was willing, and for that we are thankful.

But now, we’re told, the work was “completed.” That’s an interesting thing to say. Weren’t there more people in Galatia? Weren’t there more towns without churches. Yes there were. But, as far as God was concerned, the specific assignment that He had set apart Paul and Barnabas for back in Acts 13:2 was over. That particular ministry was done. Paul could’ve stayed or pressed on to other cities, but it wouldn’t have been the Lord’s leading.

Sometimes particular ministries come to an end. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean we have failed or God has failed. Later, Paul will get a sequel to the trip. The Lord will lead him to head back to some of these places. And then, some places Paul really wanted to go to, God would say, “No. You may not.” But the example here, again, shows how much we need to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Not just the leading to start something, but also the leading of when to stop something.

Of course, even though this mission was over, Paul wasn’t done. He didn’t hang up his spurs. He simply started another chapter of ministry, once again in the calm and relief of Antioch.

Acts 14:27 – 27 After they arrived and gathered the church together, they reported everything God had done with them and that he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

Open door is a term you’ve probably heard in Christian circles. It was a phrase Paul would use a number of times, he seemed to like it. Jesus seemed to like it too, He used it in one of His letters in The Revelation. There are different ways the image is used. Here it’s that the door of faith was open to the Gentiles. The door to God’s house was open. Simultaneously, we know that God Himself had left heaven to knock on the door of the hearts of each man and woman, in hopes that they would open up their own doors and invite Him in.

What doors are open for us as Christians in Hanford? Using Antioch as an example, I think we can learn that by talking to one another about the things God has done for us, we might discover what doors have opened before us as a local fellowship of believers in this time and place.

There’s a sweet wording there in verse 27: They reported everything God had done with them. Not what they had done for God, but what they did together, as God walked with them as a Friend and Guide and Sustainer. We can also think of it as how they had been used by the Lord for glorious purposes. He, taking imperfect human vessels, and doing eternal work with them. That’s what the Lord wants to do with us, too. He wants to do it with us, together, in intimate communion, as we trust Him and operate in grace.

Acts 14:28 – 28 And they spent a considerable time with the disciples.

It’s good to see that Paul wasn’t discontent. He wasn’t guided by wanderlust. “Let’s just do something new and exciting.” He was content to be on the field or back at home base. And he made himself a faithful servant in each setting. He was as ministry minded in Antioch of Syria or Antioch of Pisidia. That is an admirable maturity. Because there’s always something else we could be focused on, some potential, some “one-day,” but, at the same time, there are opportunities and lives right in front of us that we can spend ourselves in.

There’s always plenty of gardening to do in God’s vineyard. It can be done when circumstances are stacked against us or if they’re favorable. It can be done whether we’re among friends or strangers. It can be done when we find ourselves in danger or in safety. Cozy at home or far away. Wherever God has led us, we can cultivate His work in our own lives and in those around us. We can fan the flame and be used for something special as we continue in the faith, with one another in the local church, finding open doors and passing through them.

Injustice, Gods Among Us (Acts 14:1-20)

The scene before us is one of uncertainty and unrest. In city after city we see the gathering of unpredictable crowds of people, stirred up by words or events, lashing out, sometimes violently. In the midst of the commotion we see some trying to speak the truth, while others try to keep people from hearing it. We see lots of different people. Some earnest, some confused, some vengeful. Above all, we see crowds of needy people, who find themselves caught up in a physical and spiritual chaos that human systems and ideologies cannot make right.

Am I talking about Acts 14 or our own present reality? The truth is, there is nothing new under the sun. What we see happening around us all has happened before – this is the way of the fallen world.

Many of us are wondering is: What should I do? What can I do for my city and for this ruined world and for the people around us who are so desperately in need? If you spend time on social media or watching the news, then you know that a lot of people have been telling you what to do. How you are ‘supposed’ to respond to the present dilemmas. The problem is, so much of that guidance simply leads down the paths of men, tried over and over by many well-meaning people, yet unable to overcome the obstacle. It’s like being led halfway up a mountain. It takes a great deal of planning, a great deal of effort, it’s hard and demanding. But, in the end, we need to get to the other side.

Luckily, we serve a God who moves mountains so that He can continue His work of redeeming and saving. He alone is the One who can bring beauty from the ashes of our world. We need to believe that Christ is our only hope. Not just for eternal salvation, but for the transformation of human hearts and the betterment of society. If we think that some method of man, some worldly wisdom, will be able to overcome the obstacles we face in our world today, then we’ll make the same mistake as those Israelites who trusted in Egypt to save them from Babylon rather than trusting the Lord.

But let’s assume that we’re all on board, trusting that God is the One who can bring help and healing to our nation and our messes. The question still lingers: What can I do? What is my part and place in the work? What is the way forward? The Holy Spirit wants to lead us and instruct us, using the example of two who have gone this way before. In Acts 14 Barnabas and Paul find themselves in scenes that aren’t all that different from the ones playing out in American streets today.

We begin in verse 1, where we read:

Acts 14:1 – In Iconium they entered the Jewish synagogue, as usual, and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.

Our heroes have made their way into the Galatian region of Asia Minor. Paul would later write a letter to churches here that we still read today. History remembers the Galatians as a vain and fickle people. We’ll see some of that legendary fickleness in this very text.

The apostles were in Iconium because they had been run out of Antioch. But, in this new city, they operated the same way as before. They had a usual method of ministry and life. Their hearts and behaviors were moored to certain principles. By way of application, it’s important that Christians develop a consistency in life. God’s word says it isn’t good for us to be blown about by winds of doctrine or different teachings. It isn’t good for us to be unstable people, jumping from one trend to another. We are to be steadfast. It’s not only so that we can have regular growth in our spiritual lives, but also so that when some rogue wave comes crashing on our side, we’re not knocked out by it. So that, “even if the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the sea,” we need not fear.

As Christians, we do a lot of different kinds of work among a lot of different kinds of people. But, generally speaking, there are certain consistencies in our life of faith. Gathering together. Worshiping God. Learning and applying His word. Preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Prayer. Being secure in our understanding of truth.

Following the winds and trends of this world will not only keep us unbalanced as we try to make progress in life, it can also become deadly.

So, Paul and Barnabas, as usual, went to the synagogue. But this “Jewish first” method did not exclude anyone. They had love and compassion for all people. And, we find in these stories that their regular method was met with a lot of different responses. Some believed. Some didn’t. Some laughed. Some asked questions. Some became violent. In Iconium, many believed.

Acts 14:2 – 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.

The source of all the problems of the world today is unbelief. We can’t even say anymore that the source is sin, because sin has been dealt with at the cross. The sin problem has been solved. It is unbelief which holds back the furtherance of the work of the Gospel. The Gospel which saves lives and changes communities. The Gospel which, when embraced, cures wickedness and makes all things new. We remember how, in Matthew 13, it was because of unbelief that Jesus could not do many miracles in Nazareth.

Unbelief not only holds back the work of God, it poisons the world. We see that explained by Paul in Romans 1. He says there that, because people refuse to acknowledge God, the result is all the mess we see in the world today. Fights and murder and greed and corruption and senselessness. We look around at the world today and are heartbroken by what we see. Communities being destroyed. Innocents dying. Countless numbers of people living in fear. But what we see playing out on our screens are the symptoms of the underlying problem that the world is full of unbelievers.

I always chuckle when I see those t-shirts that say, Ya’ll Need Jesus! But the fact of the matter is, it’s true. Now, we’re more hesitant these days to say, “Jesus is the answer” when it comes to some of these societal problems around us. But it really is true, and I can prove it. In Jericho there was a man named Zaccheus. He was a corrupt member of the 1% of the day. He oppressed his neighbors, using a broken system to enrich himself. But then he met Jesus! Then he believed. And immediately his corruption was gone. Not only did he stop oppressing people, he became one of the most socially generous people in the city. Giving four times back to those in need.

Zaccheus didn’t need sensitivity training. He didn’t need to have a hashtag directed at him to ruin his life. He needed an encounter with a God who not only wanted to save him, but then use him to do good in his community. Because when God takes hold of a life, He not only cleans it, He fills it with love. And love does what information or anger or politics never can.

The book of Hebrews says that, because the Israelites did not believe, they were not able to enter into the rest God wanted for them. Belief in the truth of God’s word leads to personal rest and societal rest.

Acts 14:3 – 3 So they stayed there a long time and spoke boldly for the Lord, who testified to the message of his grace by enabling them to do signs and wonders.

The apostles had a decision to make. Would they stay or would they go? They had been in Antioch just before. They could probably see the writing on the wall. What we find in the book of Acts is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to a situation like this. Even for Paul. Tension was mounting, how should they react? Well, this is their reaction: They spoke for the Lord and they did so boldly. Paul and Barnabas were gentle men, they were compassionate. But they were not timid. They weren’t compromising. They spoke boldly. And what they spoke was all about grace. God’s message to a hostile world is grace. And He was pleased when His servants spoke this way.

Acts 14:4 – 4 But the people of the city were divided, some siding with the Jews and others with the apostles.

How can you side against grace? It’s hard to believe, but it happens. Then again, some people like Microsoft. A war was once fought between France and Mexico because a French cafe had been ransacked during looting in Mexico City and the government wouldn’t pay for the damages. It’s known as ‘the pastry war’ and you can look it up on history.com.

Tension had morphed into division. But note that the apostles didn’t fuel the division. They were peacemakers. But, they didn’t compromise. They didn’t say, “Ok, we’ll stop offending you.” They held to their position, but their attitude, like Christ’s, was, “You may be against us, but we are for you.” Paul didn’t want a fight. Grace never does. But truth can’t be negotiated, even in an effort to make peace. All we can do is double down on the message and methods of grace. If people want to refuse that, fine. But we are still for them, because Christ is for them. He died for them. The Gospel is going to divide. Jesus said as much. But let division not be because of our failure to show grace.

Acts 14:5-6 – 5 When an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat and stone them, 6 they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian towns of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding countryside.

Satan was coordinating different divisions of his captive army to come against God’s work. He had tried to discredit them in Cyprus, drive them out in Antioch, now to destroy them in Iconium, but Paul heard about it. This happened a lot to Paul. At least 4 times that we know of. Once when he had to escape the city in a basket. Once here. Once when a plot is laid against him while in Roman custody. And once when he’s headed to Jerusalem and everyone keeps prophesying that he’s going to be arrested.

But, here he had another decision to make in this increasingly hostile situation. What would he do? Should he stay? Should he run? Should he try to defend himself? Sometimes he ran. Sometimes he appealed to the laws of the land. Sometimes he pressed on, come what may.

We may not be facing violent persecution, but we are in midst of some very strenuous times. Whether it’s COVID or the ongoing riots near and far, what should I do? There are a lot of options, a lot of them good. The right one is what we’re after, though. And to figure that out we must be led by the Holy Spirit. So be led. Not by instagram. Not by facebook. Not by pundits. But by your God.

Acts 14:7 – 7 There they continued preaching the gospel.

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. Paul and Barnabas aren’t insane. They know that wherever they go they’re going to face similar opposition. But they knew the Gospel was still the power of God unto salvation. It was the only hope.

If you want to solve racial turmoil in America, the answer is the Gospel. You can try to penalize or educate or incentivize or whatever other scheme humans try to come up with, but those are all bandaids on a cancer cell. It’s possible they do some good on some level. But if you want to solve racism you need to transform racists. And only the Gospel can do that. But it does. What stands in the way of progress are those people who will not surrender and humble themselves and believe.

Acts 14:8-9a – 8 In Lystra a man was sitting who was without strength in his feet, had never walked, and had been lame from birth. 9 He listened as Paul spoke.

We’ve seen a scene like this one before when Peter and John were used to heal a Jewish man at the temple. Suffering is the same in Jerusalem or Lystra. There’s need everywhere. But the good news is there’s grace no matter where, no matter when. The message is the same for governors or cripples.

Acts 14:9b-10 – After looking directly at him and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 Paul said in a loud voice, “Stand up on your feet!” And he jumped up and began to walk around.

What do we put our faith in? A man? A system? A human ideology? This man believed in Christ and his life was forever changed. And there was an automatic response. He immediately had the ability to start “walking around.”

We’re called to walk with God. All our learning is on-the-job training. But, from the start, God invigorates and strengthens us as we trust Him and exercise our faith.

Acts 14:11-12 – 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.

Satan had tried to discredit them and drive them away, even destroy them. Now he tries something new: Let’s deify them! But the apostles weren’t going to take the bait.

It’s sad to see the fog that lost people live in. These Galatians had a legend that Zeus and Hermes had come down once before and didn’t like how they were treated so they killed everyone except 2 people. So now they were trying to respond out of fear that it might happen again.

What a sad lie that the enemy had tricked them with. What was true? God had come down in the flesh. But He came to seek and to save. He came that we may have life and have it more abundantly. He came so that the world might have justice and peace. As we seek these things in our own communities, let’s not settle for less than the revelation of Scripture. We shouldn’t settle for stop-gaps or lesser of two evils or things like that, but rather we should embrace the full truth revealed in Jesus Christ through the Scriptures.

Acts 14:13 – 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the town, brought bulls and wreaths to the gates because he intended, with the crowds, to offer sacrifice.

We live in a world where things can change very quickly. That’s been made very plain in the last few months. As Christians we need to learn to think on our feet. We don’t always have a week to mull over our response. So, what can we do? We can live submitted to controlling principles of grace, humility, peace and truth. We are called to these things as God’s people and should always keep them in operation. What should Paul and Barnabas do in this situation? Operate in grace. Grace which doesn’t condone sin, but deals with it.

Acts 14:14-15 – 14 The apostles Barnabas and Paul tore their robes when they heard this and rushed into the crowd, shouting: 15 “People! Why are you doing these things? We are people also, just like you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them.

The apostles were very distressed at what was happening. They tore their robes and these guys don’t have extra clothes to spare. But even though they sensed great danger, they didn’t respond aggressively or in anger. Still grace. But, in that grace, they point out that the ways of the world are “worthless things.”

You and I are being told over and over what we need to think, what we need to do, how we need to react to different situations. The Bible explains, clearly, that the ways of the world are worthless. And, finding himself in the midst of this mob, Paul wanted to make it clear that they were Christian. He didn’t say, “People we identify with you! We understand why you’re doing these wrong things!” No, there was an absolute difference and the apostles invited anyone who was willing to join in.

Acts 14:16-17 – 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own way, 17 although he did not leave himself without a witness, since he did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”

The grace of God. We don’t need to apologize for Jesus Christ. Perhaps if we have aligned ourselves with other groups or banners we do, but not for our Lord, the Helper and Sustainer of all things. Paul spoke to them not as a Jew, not as a Roman, but as a living witness of the Living God. He pointed out that creation displays the grace of God. Christians should display that grace too, without condoning evil and without withholding the truth.

Acts 14:18 – 18 Even though they said these things, they barely stopped the crowds from sacrificing to them.

A lot was happening. There were some earnest people in the crowd that day, caught up in a frenzy, but what they were doing was wrong. The Christians in the situation could simultaneously love these people and show them grace while calling out their wrongdoing. Paul was not going to participate in their demonstration that day, but he did make it his goal to lead these people out of their wrong and into God’s way.

Acts 14:19 – 19 Some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and when they won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead.

Satan had sent anti-missionaries from town to town. For these enemies of the Gospel, it wasn’t enough that Paul had been driven out of their cities. They wanted him dead. This startling turn of events drives home the warning that we should beware the crowd. Those who worship you one day may kill you the next.

Why didn’t they kill Barnabas, too? All we can say is that God’s people each face different sufferings and trials. We should empathize and comfort one another, but not demand everyone experience the same struggles I do before I legitimize them in my mind.

Paul’s stoning triggers a powerful flashback for us, when he himself stood in agreement as Stephen suffered the same fate. Paul had been a cold and calculating killer. A butcher and terrorist. What did he need to become a better “person?” He needed to believe in Jesus Christ. When he did, everything changed. The whole world changed. And, there was still more for him to do.

Acts 14:20 – 20 After the disciples gathered around him, he got up and went into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe.

In Disney’s Aladdin, after trying to strand him in the cave of wonders and trying to drown him and blasting him to the ends of the earth, Jafar says in exasperation to Aladdin, “How many times do I have to kill you, boy?!?”

Satan must’ve felt a similar frustration. Paul stands up and goes right back in to the city. To those people who just murdered him. On the one hand, it seems he was fully healed, at least enough to walk and travel a long 60 miles starting the next day. On the other hand, Paul would later say in his letter to these Galatians, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Some of those marks, perhaps, left by the very readers of the epistle.

Paul, we know, had once been used to work a miracle of judgment against the enemy of the Gospel. He struck Bar-Jesus blind. I suppose he could have here, but that wasn’t his leading. Instead, just more grace.

We are being bombarded with messages about what we all “need” to be doing to respond to the strains and situations and unrest plaguing our communities right now. But the majority of it is generated from the minds of men who cannot fix what is really wrong in the human heart and therefore in human societies. What we all actually need to be doing is walking with God. Being led by Him in grace. He shows us how to proceed and then strengthens us to do it.

Our world is hurting. It’s on the brink. It is desperately in need. The cure is the Gospel. That is what gives sight to the blind. Moves men from cheating to charity. Transforms Saul into Paul.

We aren’t sent into the world to condemn it, but to help disentangle people trapped in darkness and sin. We do so through unfailing grace, indiscriminate love, and uncompromising truth, keeping to God’s path, speaking boldly for the Lord, continuing, as usual, as Christians.

Saturday’s Alright For Fighting (Acts 13:44-52)

In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman must face off against Bane to save the people of Gotham. He studies his opponent’s background and fighting style, but in their first confrontation, he’s nowhere near ready for his enemy. After toying with Batman for a bit, Bane says, “You fight like a young man with nothing held back. Admirable, but mistaken.” In Captain America: Civil War, Cap and Iron Man are in a battle against each other. Iron Man’s AI assistant, F.R.I.D.A.Y. implores with Tony, saying, “You can’t beat him hand-to-hand!” After scanning Cap’s fighting style, Iron Man is able to gain the upper hand in the melee, at least for a little while.

Paul was a man who frequently found himself in spiritual brawls. Not because he was looking to hurt anybody, he was on a mission of mercy. But, he was so often under attack and in the middle of serious altercations that, eventually, he described his entire life of faith as “fighting the good fight.”

Already in the book of Acts we’ve seen him (a few times) in danger and in disagreement with the enemies of the Gospel. But tonight we’ll see a spiritual street fight from start to finish. From it, we can learn about how we can carry ourselves as ministers of grace, bringing the Gospel to a world that might respond with aggression. And we’ll find that, even when it seems like God’s enemies get the upper hand, the Lord still wins, His Kingdom still advances, and we are still the victors.

In the last set of verses Paul and Barnabas had gone into Asia-Minor (known today as Turkey) and preached the Good News to a full synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Some had believed, others wanted to hear more. So, they were invited back to speak again the following Sabbath.

Acts 13:44 – 44 The following Sabbath almost the whole town assembled to hear the word of the Lord.

We can be confident that Paul and Barnabas weren’t just sitting around all week. Verse 42 tells us that many already had believed and were being taught. Now, as the next Saturday rolls around, Paul and Barnabas return, not to find a Jewish congregation, but just about the entire city there to hear what they had to say. This would’ve been thousands of people. They came, we’re told, to “hear the word of the Lord.”

This is significant. They didn’t come to be entertained or see some gimmick. They weren’t hoping to catch a glimpse of celebrity. Their hearts had been sparked by the word of God.

How had all these people heard about this meeting? Well, we know there were “God-fearers” in the audience the previous week. Those were Gentiles who were seeking God and were allowed to attend synagogue. It’s probable that Paul and Barnabas had been busy preaching during the week. And the believers that had already converted were, no doubt, making quite a stir as they went into their Gentile communities, with changed lives, full of joy, telling people that there was a true and living God who had sent two heralds to the city to share a message of hope.

Faithful ministry, faithful evangelism, prioritizes the word of God over feelings or trends or pop culture. The way we outreach should be excellent and contemporary and well-crafted, but it’s God’s word that has power. We need to believe that.

As a quick application: If you ever suddenly find yourself in a situation where a bunch of people are listening to you, find a way to give them the word of God. That doesn’t mean you need to recite an entire book of the Bible or have a Masters Degree in Theology. But give them God’s word, because God’s word never returns void.

Acts 13:45 – 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what Paul was saying, insulting him.

They were not only slandering Paul, but also blaspheming. Why? They didn’t like that all these people showed up to hear what he might have to say. Envy and jealousy are so destructive to our lives and our communities. Proverbs tells us envy rots the bones. James tells us that where there’s jealousy you’ll find disorder and every kind of vile practice.

There’s a terrible unreasonableness about envy. The Jews live it out for us here. They didn’t care about Gentiles. Gentiles were dogs, off-scouring. “But look at how many were there!” If you’ve been around small children you’ve seen this type of sin doing its thing. A little one is happily playing, then their brother comes to the toy chest, pulls out some little plaything that the first child didn’t care less about 5 seconds ago, now it’s war!

But, envy lurks at our door, day and night. Social media is an envy petri dish. We want to be careful. People going out to the story today are wearing masks, right? Well, when we wade into the bog of social media, get some personal spiritual protective equipment on and don’t let envy get a foothold.

So, the Jews start insulting and slandering Paul. Luckily, Paul was a man of honor and integrity. Their accusations wouldn’t stick. He wasn’t a charlatan or greedy. He wasn’t trying to get a following for himself. The Bible uses a term for this sort of character and it’s to be above reproach. This is an idea that comes up a lot in Paul’s letters, but David also speaks about it in Psalm 101:6. We can’t keep people from slandering us, but we can keep those things from being true.

At the same time, we can’t always keep people from contradicting what we preach about Jesus Christ. Anything can be contradicted. That’s why there’s still a Flat Earth Society. So, what did Paul do when they hit him with these slanders and contradictions?

Acts 13:46 – 46 Paul and Barnabas boldly replied, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first. Since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles.

It’s not always about arguing proofs and logic. The Jews weren’t fighting because they didn’t have proper evidence. We’ve already seen that it was a heart issue. They were jealous, not uninformed.

Biblical Christianity has great reasons, great evidence, great logic, great wisdom, because it’s true. But, sometimes our ministry isn’t about proving, it’s about preaching. Here’s what I mean: It would do no good, in this situation, for Paul to start a long lecture about the reliability of Isaiah and a 50 point seminar proving logically that Christ was the Messiah. Because, for his opponents that day, it wasn’t a problem in the mind, it was a problem in the heart. When Nicodemus came to Jesus, we see a man wrestling with a problem in his mind. And the Lord reasoned with him and preached to him, right? By the end of the Gospels we see Nicodemus is convinced. He’s there with Joseph of Arimathea anointing Jesus’ body for burial.

In our fight analogy, this isn’t a fencing match, where things are controlled and regulated and dignified. Paul and Barnabas are, figuratively, being mugged. They had been invited to come and share, but instead were being assaulted by these guys. But Paul and Barnabas don’t shrink. They respond with boldness. But they don’t counter with a defense of themselves, They don’t respond in kind, slandering the Jews. They share the hard truth that these people are in sin. They’ve heard the Gospel, they are standing against it, and therefore there’s really nothing left for them to talk about.

Boldness was a characteristic that the first Church was concerned about it. It’s something that they prayed for. It’s something that described the way they lived. What does it mean? Boldness, in the Christian sense, means to speak in an honest and straightforward way, without fear. It doesn’t mean going around without tact or not filtering anything. It means being willing to say what needs to be said, even when it’s difficult.

As ambassadors for Christ, sometimes we have to deliver difficult messages. Sometimes we need to lovingly but honestly tell people they’re in sin. Like our fellows here, we should embrace the boldness of the Spirit and not shrink.

Now, after the attack from the Jews, Paul and Barnabas counter with a powerful set of statements. First: why was it necessary that the word of God be spoken to the Jews first?

We must never forget that the physical descendants of Abraham, through Isaac, were and are God’s chosen people. In God’s order of things, it was the Jew first, then the rest of the world. One reason is because, whether Israel would receive the Messiah would determine when the earthly Kingdom was going to be established. And so, as Jesus said in Mark 7, the Lord had to go to the Jews first. But, from the beginning of their time as a nation, God explained that, as part of His outpouring of love, the Jews would be forever a special people in His plan. Even today, the Jews are God’s chosen people. Within the Church, when it comes to salvation, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free. But God still has a plan for the ethnic children of Abraham. A plan that we recognize as being on hold right now, but will engage again once the Church is removed in the rapture.

Second we read, “Since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles.” They didn’t get offended at the personal insults. They stayed on balance and said, “What you’re actually doing is pushing away God’s offer of everlasting life.”

You’ve heard of people acting as their own attorneys in a trial. Paul said, “In this case, you’re acting as your own judge!” And they had decisively rejected God’s mercy and justification.

When he says they were “unworthy” of eternal life, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t live up to some standard. There is none righteous, no not one. It’s God who makes us worthy. Jesus said those who believe Him and follow Him and obey Him are worthy of Him.

Acts 13:47 – 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: I have made you a light for the Gentiles to bring salvation to the end of the earth.”

Paul isn’t trying to sucker punch them here. He’s not saying this out of spite. To be sure, this is a tense situation and some hard things are being exchanged, but we remember Paul’s undying love for the Jewish people. But, despite how much he wished they would be convinced, he was faithful to follow the orders that had been given to him by his King. He said, “God has commanded us. We’re trying to help you, but now that offer is passing you by.”

He quotes from Isaiah 49, which speaks of the Messiah being a light to the world. Paul applies it to the work of the Church. We are Christ’s body. We continue His work. As individuals we want to be sure we’re participating. As Wyatt Earp says in the classic Tombstone: “The fight’s commenced. Get to fightin’ or get away!”

The work can be a struggle, but it is the highest endeavor: To bring salvation to the end of the earth. You hear stories of treasure hunters searching the farthest corners of the world, hoping to find gold or riches. You don’t hear the reverse – people taking riches to share them all over the globe. But that’s exactly what we get to be a part of as we continue Christ’s work.

Acts 13:48 – 48 When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and honored the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed.

In the Bible, when people had their lives changed by God, the response is instantaneous praise. What a great thing that, right from a beginning, even if someone doesn’t know the fine points of doctrine or doesn’t know what their spiritual gifts are or doesn’t know much about God’s call on their life, they still can worship. They are immediately able to give full-throated thanks and adoration to God. In Acts, over and over, Christians are described as being people who are full of joy and rejoicing. And so, we want to be people who continue to fan the flame of worship in our lives and in our church. We should be a group of people who are quick to rejoice in praise and not let that fire die, but in fact pile fuel on that flame.

But now we come to the big, bad second half of verse 48: “All who had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Alexander MacLaren wrote, “The din of many a theological battle has raged round these words.” Those who hold to a Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture say this text proves that God does, in fact, choose some for salvation, while choosing others for damnation. We reject the idea that God does not give mankind a genuine free will. So, what do we do with this verse?

Let’s look at this at 3 different levels. First, the grammatical level.

This Greek word for ‘appointed’ is used 8 times in the New Testament and comes to us via different English words such as: appointed, ordained, set, determined or even addicted. Some scholars suggest that the reading should be more like, “as many as had been prepared for eternal life believed.”

Now, arguments like that can be useful but really shouldn’t be the thing we run to. Because the grammatical argument, though it has value, always comes to the conclusion that the words says what I wanted it to say and, miraculously, doesn’t say what I don’t want it to say. So, it’s worth studying, it’s good to know, but we should be wary of doctrines that are built on specific renderings of Greek or Hebrew words.

So let’s go up a level and evaluate this phrase looking at the Biblical harmony. Does the Bible harmonize if this phrase means God appointed some to salvation and some to damnation? Well, again, the answer is no. Jesus says very clearly in Revelation 21:

Revelation 21:6b – I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.

God is not willing that any should perish and will give life to anyone who repents. Rather than mangle a multitude of passages in order to justify a certain doctrinal position in Acts 13:48, we should take the whole of what has been revealed weighed with the character and nature of God.

We look at a passage like the Parable of the Servants. The servant who did not obey the Master was appointed for destruction after he refused to obey and repent, not before. He had as free a chance as the other 2 servants. The Bible clearly teaches that men have a free choice to receive or reject salvation by grace through faith. God does not predetermine who will believe and who will not. Instead, through what is called “prevenient grace,” He frees the will of human beings so that they are able to respond to the Gospel one way or another.

And then the third level. We looked grammatical, we looked Biblical, now we should look situational. There is a juxtaposition here: The Jews had clearly, willfully, refused the offer of eternal life. And now we see some of the Gentiles willfully receiving it. These particular Jews, who were so confident that they were ‘chosen’ are being shown that they aren’t chosen instead of the Gentiles for salvation, but that salvation is for everyone. The message may have come to them first, but their assumption that they were fore-ordained for salvation was wrong.

So, it’s a difficult phrase given to us by Dr. Luke, but not an unsolvable one.

Acts 13:49-50 – 49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the prominent God-fearing women and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their district.

From one vantage point, it seems like the apostles were knocked out of the ring. They weren’t just run out of town, they were run out of the district. And yet, we see that even when God’s people are hit, the Lord still wins. The word spread. The Gospel cannot be contained. Not by persecution, not by anger, not by our own imperfections. It spread because of the power of the Holy Spirit, but also because each of those individual Jews and Gentiles who did believe not only became Christians, they also immediately became missionaries, like Paul and Barnabas. They too would go, down the road, full of joy, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, the apostles were headed elsewhere. How fast things can change. A few verses ago they were in Cyprus, working miracles as the governor of the whole island accepted Christ in astonished awe. Now, the local officials are running them out on a rail. We can’t predict the future, so we should make the most of any spiritual opportunities that are set before us.

Acts 13:51 – 51 But Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet against them and went to Iconium.

For the time being, the fight in Antioch was over. They’d be back, but for now, they didn’t sue to stay. They didn’t try to manipulate people the way the Jews had. In the spiritual war, this wasn’t the hill to die on. So they moved on.

Acts 13:52 – 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

What an amazing end to this altercation. On the human scorecard, the enemies of the Gospel had won. But when the bell rang, the Christians were the victors. Facing persecution, having been stripped of the apostles, the infant church there in the city was still full of joy and the Holy Spirit. And that was more than enough for them to not only survive, but thrive.

Don’t get me wrong, it would’ve been a hard start. How can you replace Paul and Barnabas? But, even with what little they had, they were vibrant and growing and able to take up the fight themselves, rejoicing as they went.

We don’t head out of these doors looking for a fight. Like Paul, we’re on a mission of mercy. We’re Doctors Without Borders, not Blackwater. But when the enemy brings a fight to our door, we can respond like these believers who came before us. With grace, truth, boldness and mercy. And we can trust that we’re already more than conquerers because of the power Jesus Christ and God the Holy Spirit working in us.

Grace To Grace (Acts 13:13-43)

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick was in the news last week after making an unusual announcement. He declared that he would pay the $7,000 fine and take the place under house arrest for Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther. Luther had been jailed for violating her state’s stay-at-home order.

There are a lot of layers to that story and, like everything these days, people are arguing about everyone’s motivation in the situation. But, as a story, the Lt. Governor’s move was certainly unusual. And that’s why it was a headline. It’s just not the sort of thing that is regularly done. That’s the kind of gracious action that makes the news.

Paul and his companions had left Antioch to go to the island of Cyprus, then to Asia Minor, bringing with them a story of grace. It was the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. They were taking this message to pagan Gentiles, whose temperamental gods were just as paranoid and debased and violent as the worst of humankind. The believers were also taking the Good News to the Jews of these regions, who were under the ruthless gladius of Rome.

To all these needy, beggared people, God sent the Christians with a message of grace. The true story they were telling is that God is full of grace and has made a way that anyone, anywhere, can be saved from the guilt of their sin.

This is a message that makes the news. This isn’t some little article buried deep in the Homes & Styles section of the paper. This is front-page material, as shocking as it is important. Tonight we see the story told in a Turkish synagogue, not that God had pardoned one criminal or committed one act of generosity, but that, from generation to generation, He has been acting with powerful, inexhaustible grace toward the most undeserving of creatures. He doesn’t do so for political points, but because of His lavish love toward us, even when that love is met with resistance and rebellion.

God’s grace, in all its immeasurable richness, is on full display in Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch. But first, we have to get there.

Acts 13:13 – 13 Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and went back to Jerusalem.

It’s clear that Dr. Luke is leaving a lot of incidents out when it comes to this long missions trip. But one detail he records is that John Mark, their assistant, left the group and returned home to Jerusalem. We don’t know why he left. We do know that this decision will have long and lasting consequences later on when Barnabas suggests bringing John Mark on another trip. Luke doesn’t tell us the why. We can only see what happened next – and that’s that Paul and Barnabas continued onward. I’m guessing things were a little harder. Certainly it could have been very discouraging to lose a member of the team, but Paul and company pressed on. What they didn’t do is act like some of these high-strung musicians who refuse to perform if their green room isn’t stocked with the right color of M&Ms or anything like that. No pouting. No quitting. The labor force may have dropped by a third, but there was still a field that needed harvesting. And they kept at it.

Acts 13:14 – 14 They continued their journey from Perga and reached Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.

Different Antioch. The one they had been sent out of was in Syria. This one is in Turkey. We note that the guys behaved in a calm and cordial way in each place they visited. There’s nothing ostentatious or self-important about their behavior or attitude.

Acts 13:15 – 15 After the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, you can speak.”

There you have the Apostle of Grace in attendance and the leaders of the synagogue ask, “So, do you have anything to say?” Boy, did he! On a devotional level there’s a lesson for us: We want to be people who have something to say about the Lord. Not a meme. Not clichés or buzzwords, but something encouraging. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean we just say things to make people feel good, that’s never what Paul did. Instead it means to deliver the kind of truth that will not only comfort and console those who need it, but also exhort them to some sort of action. In this case, the action of turning to God. As Christians we will do well to remember that speaking encouragement doesn’t mean to coddle people, but to lovingly build them up and urge them toward Christ. And God, in His grace, has made available to us everything we need to do that work.

Paul answers their question with a multi-exampled explanation of the grace of God, made available again and again to the people of Israel throughout their history.

Acts 13:16-17 – 16 Paul stood up and motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites, and you who fear God, listen! 17 The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors, made the people prosper during their stay in the land of Egypt, and led them out of it with a mighty arm.

The Exodus is a major theme in the Bible. We find it all over both Testaments, in narrative, in poetry, in prophecy. It makes sense because the exodus story demonstrates so much of God’s character and work. It speaks of His power over the greatest of world empires. It shows Him preparing and preserving the deliverer. It shows us God appealing to people that they might be saved and some people choosing to exercise faith in what He’s said. It shows us God mobilizing all of creation for His purposes and how He uses human servants to accomplish His work. It shows us that blood is required for atonement and God’s wrath against sin. But we also see His great long-suffering and that anyone is allowed into the family of God. It shows us that the Devil will try to counterfeit and come against God’s plan but that nothing can stand against the Lord. It shows us that, even when walking in victory, God’s people will have to endure difficulty and suffering. The Exodus is a big deal.

Unfortunately, despite all that God did on their behalf, the people still responded in sinful ways. To read some details of their resistance to the Lord, check out Ezekiel chapter 20, which catalogs their failure to embrace the grace of God. Paul touches on it briefly in verse 18.

Acts 13:18 – 18 And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness;

“Put up with them” is putting it kindly. What God “put up with” was idolatry, both in Egypt and in the wilderness. Rebellion against God and His deliverer. Resistance against the statutes He gave. He put up with their constant complaints, their immorality with the Moabite women, the way they profaned the Sabbath and how they, ultimately, refused to go into the Promised Land. And yet, the Lord poured out grace upon grace throughout it all. They had everything they needed. Even their clothes didn’t wear out. And the Lord kept making promises to them for their blessing and their benefit.

Acts 13:19-20a – 19 and after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. 20 This all took about 450 years…

In grace, God drove out nations much stronger than the Israelites. God gave them vineyards they didn’t plant and cities they didn’t build. Even while two and a half tribes said, “Meh. We’d rather stay over here.” Even while they continued to worship other gods they had brought from Egypt.

Acts 13:20b – After this, he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet.

If you want to talk about the immeasurably good grace of God, turn to Judges. In those chapters are some of the foulest histories of man’s dealing with one another. And yet, though God was ignored and rejected over and over by tribe after tribe, He kept sending heroes to save His people. Heroes filled with miraculous power to set the Israelites free from their captivity. Judge after judge after judge, bringing God’s grace with them until the time of Samuel, the last judge, when God started to do something new. That new thing was kicked off, not because the people had some great revival, but because they were resisting the Lord once again.

Acts 13:21 – 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years.

The Lord consoled a heartbroken Samuel, saying, “They haven’t rejected you, they’ve rejected Me.” This rejection is second only to when the Jews asked for Barabbas to be freed instead of Jesus. Saul, in the end, was not cut out for the job. But, at the outset, he was, in some ways, the best man in the nation. Tall and strong and willful. But what could the best man do to compare with the power and wisdom of God, their King? When Saul came to power, the army didn’t even have swords to fight with! When the giant stepped forward, Saul cowered in fear. This was what the people chose instead of having a Heavenly King, who could make the Red Sea part and stop the sun in the sky. But even for Saul, God gave grace. He filled him with the Holy Spirit. He gave him victory. He brought him with and honorable servants. More and more grace in the face of obscene rebellion.

Acts 13:22 – 22 After removing him, he raised up David as their king and testified about him: ‘I have found David the son of Jesse to be a man after my own heart, who will carry out all my will.’

The removal of Saul was even an act of grace. By the end of his reign, he had shown himself to be a terrible leader. He was willing to kill his own son to make one of his insane executive orders seem legitimate. He was tormented by fear and demonic activity and jealousy. Replacing Saul with David was like pulling out a dead and rotten tree and instead planting a great,mature fruit tree. This action was not only so that a toxin could be removed from Israel, but so that the Lord could send yet another deliverer. David, the giant slayer, the sweet psalmist. A king who wasn’t afraid to have those who were discouraged or desperate or in debt in his company. This was a man who showed the world the heart of God. God, who strengthens the weak and revives the spirit.

Acts 13:23 – 23 “From this man’s descendants, as he promised, God brought to Israel the Savior, Jesus.

More grace. More promises. To David, God made another covenant. A set of agreements that He was binding Himself to, not because David deserved it, but out of grace. God was doubling down on His policy, knowing all that the people had done before and all the resistance that still lay ahead. And yet, grace kept flowing from heaven to earth, not shrinking, but widening in scope and range.

As Paul continued his sermon, he spared the audience a reminder of the 400 years of rebellion under the kings after David and then the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew. Instead he leaps all the way to Someone greater than Moses or Joshua or Samuel or David, to Jesus, the Savior of the world. Never was there a leader more selfless, a judge more heroic, a prophet more discerning, a king more good than Jesus Christ, our Lord. He is the ultimate gift of grace, given by God to us.

Acts 13:24-25 – 24 Before his coming to public attention, John had previously proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 Now as John was completing his mission, he said, ‘Who do you think I am? I am not the one. But one is coming after me, and I am not worthy to untie the sandals on his feet.’

God didn’t send this Gift unannounced. All of human history had been leading and pointing to the arrival of the Messiah. The Lord even sent a forerunner to announce His coming. John the Baptist explained that this next Deliverer was not some temporary strongman or political figure. He was the Lamb of God who would, once for all, solve the problem of sin for those who repent.

John said that Jesus was “the One.” American cinema is full of sagas about “the one.” Whether it’s Neo in The Matrix or Harry Potter or John Connor, or even Po in Kung Fu Panda, we all know this theme about the “one” who is unlike all the rest. The “one” who can bring lasting peace to the broken system or finally destroy the greatest of enemies. That yearning deep within is not just for screenwriters. It is the eternity in our hearts drawing us toward The One, Jesus Christ. The One who came and lived and died and rose again. The One who was and is and is to come.

Acts 13:26 – 26 “Brothers and sisters, children of Abraham’s race, and those among you who fear God, it is to us that the word of this salvation has been sent.

Paul puts himself and his audience in the story now. God had spent long centuries sending warriors and prophets and seers and judges and shepherds. Now He was sending fishers of men. Spiritual field workers, to continue the work.

In passing, we note Paul’s ever-present distinction between real, ethnic descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people, who God has not forsaken or forgotten. His plan and promises to them will be fulfilled, just as He has said they would for thousands of years. His grace for them has not expired.

Acts 13:27 – 27 Since the residents of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize him or the sayings of the prophets that are read every Sabbath, they have fulfilled their words by condemning him.

It was hardness of heart that led to the rejection of Christ. They had seen the things He did. They knew the Scriptures which prepared them for HIs coming. Yet, out of rebellion they refused Him.

Acts 13:28-29 – 28 Though they found no grounds for the death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him killed. 29 When they had carried out all that had been written about him, they took him down from the tree and put him in a tomb.

God knew, from the beginning, what would happen. Jesus Himself had predicted and parabled all about it. This makes His grace all the more potent, His love all the more compelling.

Acts 13:30-32 – 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and he appeared for many days to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we ourselves proclaim to you the good news of the promise that was made to our ancestors.

The cross, the tomb and the resurrection are the climax of God’s grace. Not the end, for God still pours it out for us day after day. But there, in eternity past, as God looked through the ages at the rebels of earth, He thought, “How can I save them?” The answer: The cross. The resurrection. What a strange and terrible price to pay. Who would have suggested it? In what human meeting would anyone have signed off on this plan? And yet, like the Mandalorian would say, “This is the way.”

All of this, as Paul rightly pointed out, is good news! As Christians we never want to forget how good our God’s grace is. How good the message of the Gospel is.

Acts 13:33 – 33 God has fulfilled this for us, their children, by raising up Jesus, as it is written in the second Psalm: You are my Son; today I have become your Father.

God’s promises are fulfilled by God, fully and on His own. We benefit from them, and He may use human beings as vessels for His purposes (that, by itself, is another example of His grace), but it is His power and His ability which accomplish all these things.

Paul cites Psalm 2, showing how Bible prophecy demonstrates that the flow of history is under God’s charge. Therefore, we should keep ourselves interested in those prophecies which tell what is yet to happen in God’s gracious plan.

Acts 13:34-37 – 34 As to his raising him from the dead, never to return to decay, he has spoken in this way, I will give you the holy and sure promises of David.,u 35 Therefore he also says in another passage, You will not let your Holy One see decay.,v 36 For David, after serving God’s purpose in his own generation, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and decayed, 37 but the one God raised up did not decay.

These were true and literal promises and they will be truly and literally fulfilled, as truly as Jesus was raised from the dead. Not just the promises to Jesus, but to David and to Abraham and to the nation of Israel. These promises are holy and sure and God will not only bring them to pass, but has, through His astounding grace, included us in them!

Acts 13:38 – 38 Therefore, let it be known to you, brothers and sisters, that through this man forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you.

This is the biggest issue. What can a man do to deal with his sin? If a person was walking around during the bombing of London in the fall of 1940, something like “campaign finance reform,” or “school choice” wouldn’t really seem all that important, right? We need to have more of that mindset when it comes to people who are about to enter a Christless eternity. Sin must be dealt with. And if a person refuses to come to Jesus as Savior, they will be brought before Him as Judge.

Acts 13:39 – 39 Everyone who believes is justified through him from everything that you could not be justified from through the law of Moses.

By faith Abraham was made righteous. By faith the people were spared from the Death Angel on the first passover. By faith David defeated the Giant. This first audience of Paul’s, these Jewish individuals, thought that by following their interpretation of the Law they could earn God’s favor. All the while, God was freely pouring out His grace to deliver them. The Law could only condemn them. It couldn’t justify them. But the Lord made the way so that any and all of them could be saved.

Acts 13:40-41 – 40 So beware that what is said in the prophets does not happen to you: 41 Look, you scoffers, marvel and vanish away, because I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will never believe, even if someone were to explain it to you.”

As with each example from Moses forward, we see there was a choice to be made. Would the people believe God, turn to Him, and live in His grace or would they go their own way? The same choice was set before this group and is set before all listeners today.

Acts 13:42-43 – 42 As they were leaving, the people urged them to speak about these matters the following Sabbath. 43 After the synagogue had been dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who were speaking with them and urging them to continue in the grace of God.

Some made the choice. Paul told them, “having faced the grace of God and embraced the grace of God, now continue in it.” How were they to do that? Well, that’s what Paul would spend time explaining to them, but he also exampled it for them. Look at his grace toward these Jews. Or his grace toward John Mark. He didn’t try to ruin John Mark’s life or make sure he never got another ministry job again.

Rather, he behaved like God had, so many times over. Showing love and graciousness, even toward those who resisted him. But he didn’t compromise or quit when the going got tough. He continued in the tradition of David, who we’re told in verse 22: was “a man after [God’s] own heart and who [carried] out all [God’s] will.” That’s how a person continues in grace. The same grace that flows from heaven day after day, sending hope and help and everlasting life to all who will receive it as a gift.

Abraham and Moses and David and Samuel and Paul are gone from the scene. They’re home in glory, worshipping before the Throne of Grace. Now we continue in their place. We are the people God is raising up to do the work and deliver the message.

A few years ago there was a Colorado man who had won $1.9million in the lottery. But he didn’t find out for 5 months. The state wasn’t about to track him down so they could pay out. In fact, Americans forego about $2billion in unclaimed prize money every year.

God has awarded the greatest prize to those who will believe. But He takes the initiative to tell them about what He has done. We are assistants in that effort. We have the privilege of proclaiming the matchless grace of God. As we do so, we should do it graciously, mimicking our Lord and the many that have come before us, to the praise of the glory of His grace.

Mission Established (Acts 13:1-12)

If you could bring Billy Graham back for one more mission where would you send him? To a dark city like Dubai or Las Vegas? Maybe to the UN or a G20 summit? Maybe to Burning Man or Comic-Con? There are a lot of places for a lot of reasons. If we give our imaginations room to run, there aren’t enough pins for the map.

This is why the Church sends countless missionaries, both short-term and long-term, volunteer and ordained, to every corner of the earth. We can see in the book of Acts and through history that the targets of missions work have shifted and changed. Places that were once a hotbed of evangelism and revival give way to new destinations. That ongoing evolution can be seen in recent years by looking at who is sending missionaries and who is receiving them. The United States is still the number 1 exporter of missionaries, but, as of 2010, we also receive the most missionaries.

In fact, in 2013, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity started reporting on what they call the “reverse mission…where younger churches in the Global South are [now] sending missionaries to Europe…Nearly half of the top 20 mission-sending countries in 2010 were in the Global South, including Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Mexico.”

Where should Christians be “going” with the Gospel? It’s an important question. But, left to our own devices, there are innumerable answers. After all, what place doesn’t God want to reach with His Good News? His goal is every place, every heart. And, if we were to prioritize targets, it’s likely that a place like Costa Mesa wouldn’t make the top ten. Or Transylvania, where there was revival in the 19th century. Or Wales in 1904.

History shows that God the Holy Spirit has a lot of very specific and, often very peculiar places in mind when it comes to the spread of the Gospel. And not only does He have specific places in mind, He has specific people in mind who He wants to use in those places.

In Acts 13 we have the beginning of what we call Paul’s first missionary journey. After years of preparation and faithful service, he’s going to start doing one of the things that we most associate him with: going into the Gentile world to preach the Gospel to anyone who would listen.

He is launched, not by his own impulse, but by the specific call of the Holy Spirit. As he and Barnabas and the church in Antioch respond, we see some wonderful gains on behalf of the Kingdom, but we must also recognize the submission, the struggles and the sacrifices that are part of following the Lord.

Acts 13:1 – Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

As we embark on this first great adventure with Paul and Barnabas, we are first reminded that they were connected and moored to a local church – the church at Antioch. We hear all the time the sentiment that “the church is not a building.” And, of course that’s true. But there is a sentiment that “the Church” is only the universal aspect of belonging to Christ. Therefore, I don’t need to really connect myself, submit myself, to a local congregation, because I’m a Christian, and therefore I am ‘the Church’ no matter where I am or what I do.

The Apostles didn’t think that way. The writers of the New Testament didn’t think that way. While it’s clear that all Christians were part of a universal family, all one Body and Bride, yet it’s equally clear that local congregations of Christians, who met together, were a necessity. It was a given. Luke says here, “In the church at Antioch.” It was identifiable. It was a group of people who where involved with each other, regularly gathering for worship and instruction. It was a group that was independent from the church in Jerusalem, yet unified with them by love. When the Christians in Judea were suffering, Antioch came to the rescue. But when it was time to send out missionaries, Antioch didn’t wait for the go-ahead or a flow chart from Jerusalem.

Today, there are many Christians who, for one reason or another, don’t feel they need to be part of a local church. But, that’s like saying, “I’m an independent soldier. I’m generally part of the army, but I don’t belong to a platoon or a brigade. I’m my own guy and wherever I go, I’m the army.” There’s a term for that: It’s AWOL. And it’s an unacceptable form of service.

Now, in this local fellowship at Antioch, things were going great. The church was thriving. We’ve seen that they had effective evangelists, which led to great numbers of people being saved and joining in. They had incredible, apostolic teaching. They were full of grace and full of generosity. And here, in verse 1 we see that they were wonderfully diverse. There in the leadership you had older men and younger men. Men from all sorts of backgrounds and different nations. They were very well set up and doing incredible work in this important city. And they were a group of Christians who were intimately connected with one another. They were a real nickname crowd. That’s a trait carried over from Jesus’ style.

It says that some of these leaders were “prophets.” What does that mean? Well, from what we can tell, in these early years before the New Testament was completed, there was a church office of prophet, like there was the office of apostle. While the office no longer exists, we recognize that the gift of prophecy continues today. So what does it mean to be a prophet in this sense? Well, they did, at times, tell the future. We’ve already seen that happening in Acts and we’ll see it again. These prophets also had a gift for speaking forth the word of God. And, we would add that they had a special gift for understanding the Old Testament, in light of Christ, the cross and the resurrection.

Acts 13:2 – 2 As they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Where it says “they were worshiping the Lord,” your translation may say, “ministering to the Lord,” and that is a better sense of what was happening. The term Luke used is the one used for the Temple service in the Old Testament. When these believers went to church, they saw it as an opportunity for them to minister to the Lord.

Of course, in the church we receive help and encouragement and instruction and all sorts of benefits. But a verse like this reminds us that our gathering is not primarily for our benefit, but that the Lord might be glorified and worshiped and blessed by us. He is the object of attention. We will be benefitted as the Lord speaks to us and sings over us, but we’re here for Him.

In this case, it seems the church at Antioch was specifically looking for the Lord’s leading. They were fasting and listening for direction. Sometimes Christians argue about fasting, whether we need to do it or not. All we can say is: The Christians in the New Testament fasted. We should, individually and as a local church, explore it as a practice.

As they fasted and listened, the Spirit gave this very specific call. Now, how did this work? Was there an audible voice? Maybe. But it seems more likely that God spoke this message through one of the prophets listed in verse 1.

However they were led, what they were supposed to do was clear: Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work for which they were called. Does that mean they weren’t doing what God wanted them to be doing? Not at all. In fact, these guys had been really busy ministering to people and exercising their gifts. As they lived out their regular, Christian lives, that included a lot of service to the Lord. But now, God was setting before them a specific task, a specific mission, to go and accomplish.

Let’s take note of the fact that Paul and Barnabas weren’t just sitting around, waiting for the time when they’d be missionaries overseas. This is a sickness that sometimes plagues well-meaning Christians. They are convinced that God has placed a certain call on their lives or given them certain gifts. But, while they wait for their spiritual at bat, they refuse to do other ministry. They don’t serve. They don’t exercise other gifts or participate in what they think are the more menial, every day parts of Christianity. Paul didn’t act that way. He knew from the day he was converted that he’d be preaching to many, far into the empire. But, while he waited for his launch date, what have we seen him doing? Serving. Growing. Being a part of the church. Bringing relief to those who need it.

Now, on the other side, imagine what this would’ve meant for the church in Antioch. They were being asked to give up two of their most beloved and gifted leaders for years. This would be a significant sacrifice for them. But, God was asking them to willfully give up these guys for a time. When it says “set apart” there, the idea is “release them. Let them go free.” As always, the Lord wanted there to be a gracious unity in the church, not unilaterality.

Acts 13:3 – 3 Then after they had fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them off.

They fasted and prayed again. They were people who were full of faith, but not hasty. We’ve seen the laying on of hands quite a few times in the book already. We’ve seen in in healing, of course, but also it’s done to confer the Holy Spirit, to confer spiritual gifts, and to set people out to ministry. There’s nothing magical about it. We don’t want to make the same mistake that Simon Magus made back in chapter 8. It is simply a way that Christians can show affection for one another and show that we identify with each other and that we acknowledge what the Lord is doing in a person’s life.

The believers in Antioch are an inspiring example of generosity. They did not withhold the Gospel from their neighbors. They did not withhold their resources from those in need. And they didn’t withhold their Barnabas and Paul from the world at large. Can you imagine Paul, the apostle, being one of your pastors for years and then having someone say, “You wanna let this guy go?” I want Paul to minister to me! But they submitted, sacrificed and sent them off.

Acts 13:4 – 4 So being sent out by the Holy Spirit…

Let’s notice this, it’s very important. They were not sent by the design of the church or some strategic initiative or some demographic research. They were sent by the Holy Spirit. The whole world was in need of the Gospel, how could they know where to go? Some commentators suggest that they decided (on their own) to go to Cyprus since that’s where Barnabas was from. But that makes no sense. The Holy Spirit had a specific itinerary in mind. He’s the one that sent them.

Acts 13:4b-6a – they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 Arriving in Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. They also had John as their assistant. 6 When they had traveled the whole island as far as Paphos…

The island of Cyprus is about 130 miles long. As far as square mileage, it’s about twice the size of Kings County. It was a deeply pagan place, like most of the world at the time. It also had a large Jewish population, indicated by the presence of multiple synagogues.

Why did Barnabas and Paul make it a habit of going first to the synagogues? Paul was, after all, called to the Gentiles, right? He was, but not at the expense of Jews. Jesus had told him he’d speak to Gentiles, kings and Israelites. Paul preached to everyone. And these two men were, of course, Jews themselves. They had an undying love for their countrymen. Going to the synagogues was a natural and reliable way to start a preaching ministry in a given city. Because, as tradition would have it, visitors like Paul would be invited to share a message to the assembled group. They were able to quickly make connections and proclaim Jesus Christ. And, word would travel fast. We know that’s true from what we’ve already seen in the book, but in a moment we’ll see that, by the time they get to the capital on the other side of the island, the governor already knows all about their trip.

Luke gives us a piece of information that will become very important later on: John Mark came along as their assistant. This was no cushy job. He wasn’t dead weight. In fact, the term used means, “under-oarsman.” Think Ben Hur, but without the beatings! But John would’ve been helping with menial work. Or making travel arrangements. Perhaps he was involved in the ministry side, too, but there was a lot of hard work to be done.

Church work, missions work, requires a lot of effort. We’re so thankful that Calvary Hanford has always been a church full of hard workers, who are willing to do what needs doing.

It says there at the beginning of verse 6: They traveled the whole island! We’re not sure how long it took, but what a great testimony to be able to say that they were able to cover the whole area. It reminds me of those maps that Verizon and T-Mobile use to show everywhere their network can reach. I pray that the Lord would, by His sovereign will, increase our coverage of ministry.

There, in Paphos, we pick back up:

Acts 13:6b – they came across a sorcerer, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus.

This guy had a lot going on. The name he went by was “Son of the Savior.” He was involved in occult practices. He had Jewish heritage. And he had made his way into the capital building, where he wielded influence over the governor.

God had defeated one of Satan’s servants in the last passage, but the battle continues. There will always be additional opposition to the Lord’s work as long as we’re on this earth.

Acts 13:7 – 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God.

The governor of the island was thirsty for spiritual things. And we’re told he was a thoughtful, intelligent man. Unfortunately, being smart doesn’t guarantee that a person won’t be taken advantage of by the devil. As an aside, one of the great privileges we have as Americans is to vote for our leaders. When those opportunities come around, let’s remember that intelligence or worldly success isn’t enough. An intelligent man is susceptible to the Bar-Jesuses that the Devil sends their way. We want leaders who are people of wisdom and integrity. People like Daniel and Nehemiah.

Acts 13:8 – 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (that is the meaning of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith.

Matthew Henry wrote: “Satan is in a special manner busy with great men and men in power, to keep them from being religious, for their example will influence many.” A capital building is a perfect place for our enemy to attack. Look at our situation today. With all the freedoms we’re meant to have in this nation, suddenly a very few have almost limitless power. Imagine, during the time we find ourselves in, how different things would be if our leaders were Spirit-filled, Bible believing Christians!

Now, whenever I picture this interaction between Paul and Bar-Jesus, I always think of it as a quick thing. Like that scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Gandalf drives out Wormtongue, who was poisoning the mind of King Théoden. It’s a pretty quick showdown.

But that might not be how it happened here. In Paphos today you can visit with they call St. Paul’s Column. It’s a tradition and is extra-biblical, so we can’t be sure, but the story goes that Bar-Jesus used his influence to cause Paul to be tortured – scourged – while tied to this column. Paul, who won great territory for Christ’s Kingdom, who pioneered work into places no one else had ever gone, the great victor of the faith, nevertheless also suffered great injuries and made great sacrifices in his service to Jesus Christ.

Acts 13:9-10 – 9 But Saul—also called Paul—filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at Elymas 10 and said, “You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery, you son of the devil and enemy of all that is right. Won’t you ever stop perverting the straight paths of the Lord?

One of the terrific themes in Acts is that, if we’re in the will of God, you and I do not need to be intimidated by anyone. Not Herod. Not Elymas. Not angry silversmiths. Not Sadducees or soldiers. Paul could be sure of the power of God because he was walking in obedience to the will of God.

Paul spoke incredibly sternly, but lives were hanging in the balance. This guy was engaging in a campaign of opposition, in the hopes that Serius Paulus would not get saved! Paul rightfully calls him out. He says, “You act like you’re the son of the savior, but you’re a son of the Devil!”

Acts 13:11 – 11 Now, look, the Lord’s hand is against you. You are going to be blind, and will not see the sun for a time.” Immediately a mist and darkness fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand.

In wrath, God remembers mercy. Bar-Jesus wasn’t struck dead, though he deserved it. He wasn’t even made permanently blind. Rather, this physical judgment would be temporary, as it had been for Paul, himself. We hope that Bar-Jesus would see the darkness he was living in and turn to faith in Christ, as Saul of Tarsus had done. We don’t know if he did, but we do know that God has this kind of mercy, even for people like this.

Acts 13:12 – 12 Then, when he saw what happened, the proconsul believed, because he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

The message had power. The Gospel always has power, in every place. There’s nowhere the Gospel doesn’t work. But, one of the reasons that their message was so powerful was because they were in the will of God and in the place He had asked them to go. Eventually we’re going to get to Acts 19 where there are some guys, well meaning, wanting to do God’s work, and they take it on themselves to go cast out some demons. But it goes very badly for them. They hadn’t been set apart for that work. They were operating under their own initiative.

So, how do we apply this? Do we wait to do spiritual things until we get a nearly audible message from the Holy Spirit? No. That’s not what Paul did. He busied himself with spiritual service. He even made plans to go certain places like Asia and Rome and Spain. But he and the other Christians in this book were very sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. They wanted to be specifically directed and took it seriously. When they got an idea, they prayed about it and looked into it, but, if the Lord said “No,” which He often did, they didn’t force the issue. In the mean time they lived out their faith as fully as they could in the place where they found themselves, until the Lord presented them with some new task, some new opportunity, be it long or short term.

We began with the question of where we would send Billy Graham for one last mission. The truth is, we’re living out that question, but with ourselves as the Billy Graham in the equation! You and I are under the same commission, given the same Spirit, part of the same universal Body. And before us is a huge world that none of us could hope to cover on our own. So, am I supposed to go to Costa Mesa like Chuck Smith or Africa like David Livingstone? Am I supposed to stay in Antioch like Lucius or leave for a time like Paul? Does God want me to be a Barnabas or a John Mark? These are questions we can’t answer but the Spirit can. He has peculiar missions set apart for us and He invites us to discover them as we operate within a local church, living the regular Christian life, ministering to the Lord.

Dana Robert, author of the book Christian Mission: How Christianity Became A World Religion, assessed today’s mentality when it comes to missions. She says, “The current situation is almost a total free-for-all.”

Acts reminds us that God has a specific plan for His Church universal, for our church local and for each of our lives individual. We are free to line up with Him or go our own way. We know the better choice to make.

The King’s Speech (Acts 12:20-25)

Who was the first sitting president to visit California? The year was 1880, the man was Rutherford B. Hayes, our 19th president. Hayes was seen as a bit of a lame duck, so he packed up his family on a great tour of the west. They crossed the border on what was, at the time, California’s biggest holiday: Admission Day. September 9th. General Sherman was along for part of the tour. At one stop he said this of Hayes: “[He is] no longer president of the Atlantic States or of the Mississippi States, but of all States, and which are one, and will be forever and ever.”

The train carrying the president worked its way down from Oakland, through the valley en route to Los Angeles so he could attend 2 fairs that were being put on. “When the train reached Merced, Hayes was still asleep, but a brass band and crowd of shouting townspeople caused him to dress hastily, come out, and shake a dozen or so hands while the animated citizenry congratulated the sleepy chief executive.”

In our text tonight, another head of state takes a trip out of the capital to be seen and to make an appearance at a festival of games. Though Herod was not exactly a lame duck, he had just suffered a public embarrassment. Peter, a prized prisoner he was hoping to use for political gain, had just escaped and was nowhere to be found. Herod, thwarted and wanting a change of scenery, travelled up to Caesarea to preside over spectacles in honor of the Emperor. There, he was well-received, not because he was a good man or a great king, but because certain people were trying to curry favor from him and save themselves from his hatefulness.

This Herod, by the way, is Herod Agrippa. His grandfather, Herod The Great was the one who killed the babies of Bethlehem. Agrippa’s uncle, Herod Antipas was the one who killed John the Baptist. It is Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II, before whom Paul will preach on his way to see Caesar in Acts 26. Clear as mud, right?

Herod Agrippa is an interesting character. On the one hand, we see he was a base man, a political opportunist. He was vengeful and brutal. And yet, the Jewish ruling class loved him. In fact, Jewish historians and writings praise him. In our text he parades as a splendid and dominating king. He was installed by Rome, but the territory he governed was as large as that ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great. In fact, by 44 A.D., he had become one of the most powerful kings of the east.

On a spiritual level, we saw last time that Herod was a piece of heavy artillery in Satan’s war against the Church. But after a single volley the Lord responds in swift judgment.

Some Bible dictionaries define the term ‘Herod’ as meaning ‘the glory of the skin.’ And, tonight, we’ll see him decked out in human glory, receiving the worship of a crowd of people, who declare that he had the voice of a god. He certainly behaved as if his was the final authority. So, this evening, as we see this so-called ‘great king of the east,’ at the zenith of his power and prestige, I’d have us compare him with our Great and Coming King: King Jesus.

Side by side, whatever power, whatever splendor, whatever import Herod thought he had is shown as abject refuse in comparison to the might and majesty of the One True King of all kings. And, by contrasting the foul with the flawless, we can celebrate more and more just how great and glorious our King is and prompt ourselves to joy in serving and pleasing Him.

We begin in verse 20.

Acts 12:20 – 20 Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. Together they presented themselves before him. After winning over Blastus, who was in charge of the king’s bedroom, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food from the king’s country.

Tyre and Sidon were not part of Herod’s dominion. And we don’t know what they had done to get on his bad side. We speculate that it was something petty and inconsequential, as there is no historical offense or problem recorded.

We note that Herod was a man of unconditional hate. He killed Christians indiscriminately in 12v1, he hated the people of these 2 cities categorically. So much so that he was planning to decimate their very lives. When it says he was “very angry” it means he was contemplating war. Now, as a subject of Rome, he couldn’t actually send soldiers to lay siege to their towns. But he could start a trade war, turning off their food supply, thereby inflicting a terrible suffering on a great number of people.

Now turn and consider our Lord. The King of unconditional love. The One who never withheld compassion, not even for His betrayer. The One who, even after His crucifixion, sent His messengers again and again to the very men that conspired His murder. The King who, like a good Father, provides the daily bread that we need. The One who is our sun and our shield, who will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right.

The people of Tyre and Sidon sent a delegation to beg for peace. To do so, they had to cajole and scheme, probably through the bribery of Herod’s personal attendant, Blastus.

Consider our King. He left His throne, like a shepherd going after a lost sheep. He didn’t do so only once, but seeks to save each individual through human history. He knocks at our door, hoping we will invite Him in.

Agrippa went about in a hostile state of mind. He plotted wars in his heart and how he might harm those who slighted him. Christ Jesus sends His power and His people throughout the world to proclaim the message of peace with Him, despite the fact that our offenses toward God are unspeakably grotesque and treasonous. Human rebellion against the King of heaven and earth deserves total annihilation, and yet, the Lord made a way, with the Father and the Spirit, so that He could take our place and have God’s wrath for our sin poured out on Himself instead of us.

Acts 12:21 – 21 On an appointed day, dressed in royal robes and seated on the throne, Herod delivered a speech to them.

Josephus records that Herod’s garments that day were made wholly from silver. That he “was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked…upon him.”

But really, it wasn’t his robe. It wasn’t his throne. This impostor was no son of David. He was given charge over Judea because he had befriended Caligula and others in the Roman court. He was there because they allowed him to be. Earlier in life, he had to flee debtors he owed great sums to. Then he had to flee a different place after being convicted of taking a bribe. He was heard speaking to someone about how he hoped Tiberius would die, and so he was sent to prison.

Jesus Christ is a debtor to no one and lives in perfect righteousness. He is God, mighty and awesome and cannot be bribed. To Him belongs the earth and all that is in it. And, in His grace, He seeks not to enrich Himself, but to share His eternal inheritance with us, His children.

I will say, the silver robes worn by Herod that day must’ve been a sight to see. Did you know that companies are starting to infuse silver into garments? They do it, claiming that silver has antimicrobial properties and will cut down on odor. Doctors aren’t too keen on the idea. While the risks are small, some worry that wearing silver could eventually wear down a person’s microbiome to an undesirable degree. Others point out that “trace amounts of silver dislodged by washing them could leak into the water supply in a harmful way.”

But a robe of silver ironically illustrates the corruption of the king. The plating on the outside may have looked fine in the moment, but the impurities within were inevitably bringing the green tarnish of decay.

The Psalms declare that our Lord is clothed with a robe of light. In Him is no darkness at all. And by means of His light we see light.

We don’t know what Herod said in his speech, but we know that whatever it was could only have been boasts or platitudes. After all, we’ve seen that from his throne only issued malice and death. Here he is, the man who would starve a city, introducing a day of games as if he were some great benefactor.

Acts 12:22 – 22 The assembled people began to shout, “It’s the voice of a god and not of a man!”

It seems clear that Luke is suggesting this was part of the plan in the minds of the folks from Tyre and Sidon. They knew what kind of man Herod was. Why not get into his good graces through a little flattery and adulation?

As a side note: In the Bible, you almost never want to be part of a crowd of people shouting something. Certainly not in the New Testament. Going along with the crowd very quickly leads to things we don’t want to be a part of. We know why they were saying it that day, it was to save their food supply, but what an obscene thing to say.

If Herod Agrippa was a god, we’d have to say, like the Incredible Hulk: Puny God! This was a man who couldn’t pay his own debts multiple times in his life. A man who couldn’t keep hold of his prisoners. A man who got where he was by betraying his own uncle and getting him banished.

And yet, they praised him as a god. Unfortunately for Herod, there was someone else in the audience that day.

Acts 12:23 – 23 At once an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died.

I don’t usually think of angels being in attendance at Inaugurations or State of the Union Addresses, but the Bible gives us every reason to think they are. The angelic ministry may be unseen, but it is shown, by passages like this and by the famous story of Elisha and his worried servant, that it is all around us.

In this case, the angel had had enough of Herod’s pride and willingness to receive glory that belongs only to God. And so, he strode up to the platform and struck a single blow and the fight was over. Every now and then we get a scene like this in a movie. Some fighter, pompous and impressed with themselves, swaggers into the ring or onto the battlefield. And then the other guy comes in, quietly, without making a fuss. The bell rings and one punch later it’s over.

Josephus records this incident in detail. He says that Herod suffered in pain and agony for 5 days before finally dying. We remember that Luke was a doctor and so was probably being specific when he references the worms. Scholars try to decipher what he could have meant. Most of what they suggest is pretty horrifying. I’ll spare you their guesses. But, on the spiritual level we can’t help but connect Herod’s physical death with the eternal death that awaited him. But that pain and torment would not end in 5 days. In the Lake of Fire, the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

God is full of grace and mercy. He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But, along with that, He takes seriously the issue of His glory.

Isaiah says we are created for His glory, not our own. Jesus lived to glorify His Father. The Spirit operates in order to glorify the Son. We are to seek God’s glory and He will not share it with another.

Acts 12:24 – 24 But the word of God flourished and multiplied.

Herod’s words weren’t worth recording. But the word of God expanded and grew like an incredible vine, bearing fruit throughout the world. Not through men like Agrippa, but through humble servants like we read about in verse 25:

Acts 12:25 – 25 After they had completed their relief mission, Barnabas and Saul returned [from] Jerusalem, taking along John who was called Mark.

Herod was a divider. Christ unites. Herod had seen to it that his uncle was thrown off the throne. Believers like Barnabas and Paul were always bringing others along, including them, inviting them in. In this case, they brought John Mark, who we believe to be Barnabas’ cousin, with them from Jerusalem back to Antioch.

In a final comparison of the kings we note that Jesus set about the business of bringing relief to people, while Herod sought to hurt, to withhold, to destroy.

So, why did the Jews celebrate this wicked king? As I said, Josephus, the Jewish historian, remembers him fondly. The Talmud does as well. The general populous of the time supported him. How could this be? How could this wicked, non-Jew win the hearts of Israel?

One source writes this:

“The synagogue attendant took a Torah scroll and handed it to the synagogue president, who handed it to the High Priest’s deputy, who handed it to the High Priest, who handed it to the king…King Agrippa stood and received it and read standing, and the sages praised him for doing so. When Agrippa reached the commandment of Deuteronomy 17:15 that ‘you may not put a foreigner over you’ as king, his eyes ran with tears, but they said to him, ‘Don’t fear, Agrippa, you are our brother, you are our brother!’”

Agrippa is revealed to be yet another type, another precursor of that ultimate man of sin, the Antichrist. The foreigner whom the Jews will, for a time, rally behind during the Great Tribulation. Sometimes, when debating end times doctrine, people will say, “The Antichrist must be Jewish. The Jews would never accept a Gentile deliverer.” But, history has shown that isn’t true. They were happy to throw in their lot with Agrippa. One reason is that he had interceded for the Jews when his friend Caligula had wanted to defile the Temple in 41AD with a statue of himself. The Jewish people were excited about this intervention and welcomed Herod, this wicked, vile, blasphemer with open arms. The same will happen again after the church is taken up in the rapture and the Antichrist is finally revealed, carrying with him a promise to help the Jewish people.

What a comfort to reflect on the true King by seeing such a dismal counterfeit. What a glorious Lord we serve. Full of grace. Full of majesty. Full of kindness. Full of power.

There’s one more comparison we might make tonight. Look at those cowering beneath the throne of Herod, afraid of his anger. They could only hope to be spared from his hostility. But we who bow at the throne of Jesus do not live that way. We do not need to scheme to get into God’s good graces. He has poured it out over us, sending it in abundance with His peace and His presence. Instead of just hoping to be out of the line of fire, like the poor folks from Tyre and Sidon, we’re able to be full of fire. Full of the Holy Spirit. Going out to herald the greatness of our King and working to glorify His Kingdom. We get to continue to cultivate and multiply the word of God which is vibrant and powerful. We’re sent on mission to proclaim the King. The one, good, glorious King of all the ages: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Stranger Than Fiction (Acts 12:1-19)

Reality television shows draw in their audience with the promise of authentic coverage of incredible situations. Viewers tune in to see hilarious and shocking things happening on the screen, with the producers hoping you’ll spread the word about the show, saying “You can’t make this stuff up!”

Except they do. Whether it’s American Idol, Real Housewives, The Biggest Loser or Pawn Stars, the casting, the scenes, and the conversations are regularly manipulated in such a way to generate the most dramedy possible. On Cupcake Wars, contestants have been told beforehand what their “mystery ingredient” will be and are instructed to act surprised on film. On Duck Dynasty, extra bleeps are added in to make it seem like the family is swearing at each other more than they are. On House Hunters, there is no deliberation. The decision has already been made on which property to buy well before the cameras start rolling.

As Theophilus turned the page from what we call Acts 11 to Acts 12, he must have been astounded. Things more hilarious and shocking than any we see on reality television play out in rapid succession. And it was all true! But it wasn’t just fun and games. After reading about amazing triumphs in Jerusalem, Samaria, Syria and beyond, after seeing sorcerers brought down, eunuchs lifted up, centurions brought in, after seeing the world’s greatest enemy of Christ become a church leader and power going out all over the world, suddenly we see the empire strike back in a big way. In the midst of all the great work of God, the Church endures some heavy and painful blows.

What was Theophilus to think? What was the Church to think? What conclusions might they come to in light of the major developments that take place in this passage? Tonight, we can discover with them some of the realities at work in this Church age and find hope in these troubled times.

Acts 12:1 – About that time King Herod violently attacked some who belonged to the church

We begin with the phrase, “about that time.” Our memories are sometimes short, so what had been going on? Well, it was a time when the Gospel was going out to the Gentile world, with remarkable success in some places. It was around the time when Paul and Barnabas were in the area. In fact, it’s possible they were in Jerusalem at the time. They had come from Syria back to Judea to bring relief from the church in Antioch. Because it was also a time of severe famine in the region and the Christians are in great need. So, on top of real economic stress and hunger, they’re now facing violent persecution from the government.

When we study this section, the headlines are always about James and Peter. But we should pause to note that it wasn’t only apostles who suffered. There were multiple victims of the tyrant’s crimes.

Acts 12:2 – 2 and he executed James, John’s brother, with the sword.

It’s hard to imagine how much of a shock this would have been. On the one hand, the apostles knew their love for Jesus Christ would bring them trials and tribulations. But, we’re at about 44AD here. Not that far removed from the resurrection. And here he have James, one of the 12, one of the 3 in the inner circle of Jesus, suddenly taken away. No final words. No closing sermon recorded by Luke. No last minute rescue. How could such a thing happen?

There have been a few movies that surprise audiences by killing off a major star early in the film. Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh at minute 47 of Psycho. In Children Of Men, Julianne Moore’s character dies in the first 28 minutes. In the age of COVID, lots of people are re-watching the 2011 movie Contagion. In that movie, 6 characters die in the first 12 minutes. One of them being Gwyneth Paltrow, despite her prominent place on the movie poster.

Eusebius, a Christian historian living in the 300’s, gives us a story from James’ death that had been handed down from Clement. He reports that that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a Christian, and then was beheaded beside the apostle.

Despite the shock the believers must’ve felt, we commend the fact that they did not scatter when one of their shepherds was struck down. They weren’t part of a personality cult. They weren’t there to see some celebrity. James was merely an under-shepherd, and those that remained continued to fix their eyes on the Lord Jesus.

Acts 12:3-4 – 3 When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too, during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After the arrest, he put him in prison and assigned four squads of four soldiers each to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.

The way it’s written makes us think that Herod had begun his murderous campaign on a whim. “What should I do today? Let’s kill some Christians!” But then he saw it was winning him some points with the right people, and so he mobilized his efforts to maximize political profit.

Peter would spend at least a few days in jail, upwards of a week. Herod and the Devil were licking their chops, but the story’s setting clues us in that God is about to do something big. Passover, Unleavened Bread, these were all about commemorating how God had delivered Israel from her bonds, saved the people from the death angel, rescuing them in the night.

Now, Peter had already “escaped” prison once, back in Acts chapter 5, and he was a miracle worker. So, Herod wasn’t going to take any chances. Guards would be watching Peter on shifts at all times, until he could be paraded out before a bloodthirsty mob.

Acts 12:5 – 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was praying fervently to God for him.

The situation is bleak. The church in Jerusalem doesn’t have the strength it did back in chapters 2 through 7. They were hungry. They were helpless. One of their beloved apostles had just been killed and another was about to be. I’m sure they felt like the very ground beneath their feet was giving way. But, here we see an important spiritual reality at work: Even when we are helpless, we have prayer at our disposal. They drew up in formation to fight against the wiles of the Enemy. Satan had wheeled out his heavy artillery: Herod and his government. But, in response, the Christians armed themselves with corporate prayer. We’re told they did so fervently, meaning constantly and with great passion. One descriptor of the word is with “tension.” It was a muscle they were flexing, and kept flexing together, asking God to move and to intervene.

We find ourselves in an unstable time. It’s hard to predict what tomorrow will bring. But this is the reality revealed by God the Holy Spirit: We have this spiritual muscle – prayer – specifically corporate prayer, and we should flex it even when we feel helpless. Because God is always able.

Acts 12:6 – 6 When Herod was about to bring him out for trial, that very night Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while the sentries in front of the door guarded the prison.

I took comfort in something small here. It was such a strange thing that we all had to miss Easter in our regular way this year. As a church family, that’s always a Sunday filled with joy and expectation and celebration. Peter missed Passover that year. I’m sure he was discouraged by that. But the Lord was still with him, still mindful of him. And we see that he was ruled by peace. Could you sleep with 2 heavy, iron shackles on your wrists and big, burly soldiers tied to the other ends? I couldn’t.

But what a great demonstration of Godly peace this really is. Obviously Peter wasn’t worried about being executed. That would’ve kept him awake. But, it doesn’t really seem like he’s resigned to death either. If he was sure he was about to die, I’d expect him to be writing last minute notes, maybe making a few goodbyes. Some commentators suggest that he knew he would be delivered because Jesus had predicted he’d live to an “old age.” Maybe, but, even then, wouldn’t you expect him to stay awake to see the fireworks?

Instead, this seems to be a perfect representation of the kind of peace God wants us to have. One that passes understanding. One that is full of trust in the Lord, whether He deliver us or not. Whether He gives or takes away, peace ruling the heart.

Now, as we see Peter’s miraculous deliverance, we shouldn’t resist the urge to chuckle. It reads like a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis bit, as the angel has to spell out each motion for the groggy apostle.

Acts 12:7 – 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists.

There’s some interesting angel information to consider. It’s unrealistic for us to think that these guards were also asleep, as they were on either a 4 or 6 hour shift. So, it would seem that all of this was visible to Peter, but invisible to everyone else. We also see that the angel has power over material objects like shackles and gates without touching them.

The angel’s behavior reinforces the idea that they’re sort of grumpy from our perspective, at least when it comes to dealing with humans. Often, in movies like City Of Angels, angels are depicted as being very enamored and fascinated with how we do things. That does not seem to be the case when it comes to the Biblical record. When the angel lit up the dark room and Peter didn’t wake up, the angel gave him a big whack on the side and starts trying to get him out of his captivity, only to be met with persistent sleepiness.

Acts12:8-11 – 8 “Get dressed,” the angel told him, “and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Wrap your cloak around you,” he told him, “and follow me.” 9 So he went out and followed, and he did not know that what the angel did was really happening, but he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went outside and passed one street, and suddenly the angel left him.

There are a couple of things I found remarkable here. First, it’s an encouragement that sometimes even the apostles were confused about what was happening in their lives. I mean, Peter had even been delivered by an angel from prison once before and he was still not sure what the Lord was doing. Our part is never to understand everything, how could we? Our part is to trust the Lord, expect Him to be moving in our lives and obey His leading, whether we fully understand or not.

Second, whether you’re Peter, or the church, or Theophilus reading this later, you’ve got to think, “Wait, that’s it? You took him one block away from prison and then just left him?” I’d love a heavenly police escort not just out of the prison building, but somewhere safe! But there Peter is, on the street corner, bleary-eyed and slowing realizing that he had been brought out of his cell, which made him a fugitive, by the way.

Peter had his own exodus experience that night. And though he would be pursued, like the children of Israel were by Pharaoh, he could rest in the knowledge that he was going with God. We can wish God would “do more” to heal or to deliver or to defeat our enemies. But what we should rest on is the fact that God is about His business, He is mindful of our plights and our sufferings, and He has not deserted us. He is with us always, even to the end of the age.

Acts 12:12 – 12 As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark,, where many had assembled and were praying.

How did Peter know which house to go to? We don’t know and have to speculate, but I think it’s because that’s where they had gathered to pray previously for James. I’ve heard Bible studies on this passage that say the church had failed, refused to pray when James was taken by Herod. That, if they had only prayed, he would’ve been saved, too. Why think that? If anything, reading between the lines, Peter assumed there’d be a group ready to receive him at Mary’s house. We’ll see he’s not going to stay long, he needed to get out of Dodge, so he went to the one place where he could tell everyone he was ok.

For the believer’s part, we see that they were still awake, late into the night, praying for their friend. They might have done this for days. And, it would’ve been a scary time for them to be gathering. Remember: It wasn’t just apostles being targeted, but all sorts of Christians. Yet, in faith they put their lives on the line that they might pray.

Acts 12:13-14 – 13 He knocked at the door of the outer gate, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer. 14 She recognized Peter’s voice, and because of her joy, she did not open the gate but ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the outer gate.

If the previous scene was closer to slapstick comedy, this is more like the cringe humor of The Office. Here you have Simon Peter, on the run, if he’s found out he’ll be killed, and there’s going to be a drawn out argument over whether he’s actually at the door. Little Rhoda gets carried away in the excitement of it all and leaves him hanging there. At first, the angel could barely get him out of the cell, now he can’t get in to the house!

I just love this because it’s a great, candid moment. These were real people and real situations. Not scripted. Not punched up for TV. If you’re Peter, you must’ve been think, “What in the world is going on tonight?” And, we think that a lot, too, right?

Acts 12:15-16 – 15 “You’re out of your mind!” they told her. But she kept insisting that it was true, and they said, “It’s his angel.” 16 Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were amazed.

What did they mean, “It’s his angel?” Some point to the traditional Jewish belief that each person had a guardian angel. Others say they meant it was Peter’s spirit, that he must’ve been executed. But, if either of those were really what they thought, wouldn’t they have opened the door for that? It makes more sense to take the position that they were humoring little Rhoda. Clearly they didn’t believe she was right about someone being at the door, so they were probably just giving her a “there, there.”But finally, they heard the pounding, and there before them was the very man they had been praying for God to deliver.

Commentators make much out of their “lack of faith” in prayer. They say, “they were praying, but clearly didn’t believe.” They were surprised, to be sure, but is it fair to say that about these faithful Christians? When’s the last time any of us prayed round the clock for God to do something? Luke had assessed them as fervent and serious in their prayer. They didn’t have some sort of blind, prosperity doctrine in the way that they prayed. After all, God had allowed James to die. He had allowed Stephen to die. He had allowed others to be beaten, imprisoned and killed. It can be hard for us to maintain faith when we pray for big, miraculous things, But that doesn’t mean we should stop. It means we should continue and to supplement those prayers with that wonderful line from the Gospels: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” But we should also accept the fact that sometimes the Lord doesn’t give the kind of deliverance that we want. And that’s ok. In the end, what we want is what God wants. And so we try to balance all of that as we pray.

Acts 12:17 – 17 Motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. “Tell these things to James and the brothers,” he said, and he left and went to another place.

Peter wasn’t going to wait or waste time. He knew he was going to need to run for his life and go into hiding. There’s no command in Scripture for God’s people to categorically refuse to run and hide when persecution like this is coming. Sometimes we see Christians running, sometimes they do not run. The Holy Spirit guides.

There were a bunch of James in the New Testament. It seems that this one is James, the half-brother of Jesus Christ, who would later write the New Testament epistle. He had, apparently, become a leader in the church in Jerusalem. We’ll see him again in chapter 15.

Incidentally, we notice that when James, one of the 12, was beheaded, he was not replaced the way Judas had been. Now that the Church had been well established and the Gospel was going out, when James died, they retired his number, as it were. His personal, apostolic office closed up shop. There are no genuine apostles operating on earth today.

Acts 12:18-19 – 18 At daylight, there was a great commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had searched and did not find him, he interrogated the guards and ordered their execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

A prison break is always a black eye, but it was an especially bad one for Herod. He decided to go stroke his pride on vacation, but not before meting out some cruelty on these soldiers. This was the custom at the time. If you were guarding a prisoner and they escaped, you would take the punishment that was meant for him. This is a sobering reminder to all unbelievers that you do not have tomorrow guaranteed to you. Your life may be taken in the morning. What comfort it is to us to know that Peter, assuredly, had shared the Gospel with these men over the days of his imprisonment. Perhaps, as they were each in turn being led to the block, some or all of them called out to Jesus Christ for mercy, receiving it in full measure.

If we were the local church living through this passage, or if we were Theophilus reading it for the first time, we would be shocked at the developments. Once again, the reality was brought home that we are not promised ease, advantage, or even survival in this life. These Christians were hard-pressed, hungry, now were being hunted, and some were paying with their lives. But, what about the miraculous power of God? What about the advance of the Gospel? Well, as we read, we see that was happening too. While suffering was a reality, and continues to be, we see also some other realities at work: That God is still just as powerful as He ever was. He is mindful of His people and their plight. He is attentive to their prayers. He is able to change even the most dire of circumstances in a moment. But, He also allows us to experience His grace and power in the midst of suffering and weakness. When we ask, “Why, God, didn’t you save James also?” In a sense, it’s the same sort of question as “Will You now establish Your Kingdom?” Lord, let’s get to the part where there’s no weakness, no suffering, no struggle, no defeat of any kind.

That’s coming. But, for now, God is on a mission to save. And the reality of that mission is that His strength is made perfect in our weakness. We may feel unstable, helpless, discouraged, but this passage teaches and proves that we have one another for support, prayer is still powerful, peace is provided, and God is in charge. Let’s continue with Him, standing resolute with one another in the faith, fearing no evil for the Lord is with us.