Strengthening the Disciples

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Let me ask you a somewhat personal question to begin with this evening. How strong are you?

As you’ll see from my outline on the back of the service sheet, my title is ‘Strengthening the Disciples’. That’s a phrase that comes from Acts 18v18-28. Please have that open in front of you. Verse 23 tells us how the apostle Paul “travelled from place to place … strengthening all the disciples”. His concern is for strong disciples. Hence my question: how strong are you?

It’s a question that makes me think of the time when I had a go at one of those fairground strength tests. There’s a tall vertical scale with a bell at the top. You’re given a great big heavy wooden mallet. You have to swing the mallet and hit the plate at the base as hard as you can. That sends a marker shooting up the scale, and if it hits the bell you win a prize. If it doesn’t, you just get the satisfaction or otherwise of seeing where you come on the scale. Your strength is measured. Like any self-respecting man I was confident I’d go off the scale and ring the bell. How wrong I was. I don’t think my marker even got to the half way point. I realised I’m not as strong as I thought.

How strong are you? Now of course our concern this evening is not the power of our biceps. It’s spiritual strength. And this passage makes it clear that spiritual strength matters a great deal. So I have three headings reflecting that. First: The church badly needs to be strengthened. Secondly: Here are three case studies in how to strengthen the church. And thirdly: With God’s help we ourselves need to work hard to strengthen the church. So:

First, THE CHURCH BADLY NEEDS TO BE STRENGTHENED

The first concern of the apostle Paul was evangelism. He wanted to see people coming to faith and new churches established everywhere. But then his second great concern was for the state of those disciples and churches once they’d been established. He wanted them to get stronger and stronger.

Now it’s important for us to realise that this concern for strength runs right through the Bible. Paul gets his concern about strength from God. So Jesus himself just before his death warns and commissions Simon Peter with these words (this is Luke 22v31-32):

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22v31-32)

Jesus prays that Simon’s faith will be strong enough to survive the worst that Satan can throw at him, so that he in turn can strengthen the disciples – just as Paul is concerned to do in Acts 18.

Are you a disciple of Jesus? If not, then God is calling you to put your trust in Jesus and become one. If you are, then God wants you to be strong and to get stronger.

Now maybe you’re thinking: “Surely what we’re supposed to do is to recognise that we’re weak – and that it’s God who’s strong, not us?” And that’s half right. Which is always dangerous. Yes, God is the strong one. Yes, on our own we’re hopelessly weak. But the reason God wants us to acknowledge our weakness without him is so that with him we can be strong.

So Paul tells in 2 Corinthians 12 how Jesus said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He sums up his experience like this:

“… when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12v10)

And then he says to those troublesome disciples in Corinth:

“… everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening.” (2 Cor. 12v19)

That’s what it’s all about. Because when you’re strong, you can bring glory to God; you can stand firm against sin, the flesh and the devil; you won’t be knocked off course by trials and tribulations; you can be useful in God’s service; you’ll keep going to the end. Disciples and churches that are strong in the strength God provides are key to the Kingdom. Christ wants strong followers. That’s why for Paul, strengthening the disciples is so fundamental to his mission. And if strength is such a preoccupation for him, then it needs to be for us too. It needs to be our constant concern – for ourselves, for other disciples and for the church.

It mustn’t just be when we play games at fairgrounds that we ask: “How strong are you?” A spineless church nearly overwhelmed by a godless culture is no use to God. Strength matters. The church badly needs to be strengthened.

But how? How does God impart his strength to the church? Well, there’s nothing like seeing it in action. So that brings me to my next main heading.

Secondly, HERE ARE THREE CASE STUDIES IN HOW TO STRENGTHEN THE CHURCH

There’s the husband and wife duo of Priscilla and Aquila; the apostle Paul, of course; and Apollos.

First of all, Priscilla and Aquila. I’ve summarised what we can see in them as fruitful teamwork arising out of suffering.

Priscilla and Aquila first appear on the scene at the beginning of the chapter so just look back to 18v1:

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with this wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. (18v1)

Now there’s an indication from the Roman historian Suetonius that the reason for that Jewish expulsion from Rome may have been disturbances among the Jews as a result of antagonism towards those who’d become Christians. Whether that’s so or not, Aquila and Priscilla had been caught up in this expulsion. We only have to use our imaginations a bit to realise what a traumatic event in their lives that would have been. Like the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin in the 1970s, they would have had to abandon everything and make a new life in a new place after a difficult journey. But clearly their faith had not been weakened or destroyed. It had been strengthened through that testing time. After they met Paul, they quickly became trusted members of his ministry team. And clearly also they were ready to uproot again for the sake of the gospel. So 18v18-19:

Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken [by the way that’s probably a Jewish thing – don’t lose your hair worrying about that]. They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. (18v18-19)

And we’ll see in relation to Apollos how effective their ministry in Ephesus was. They’re a classic example of a couple with a radical commitment to Christ; to one another; to gospel ministry wherever it took them; and to working in a team. Because of that, they played a crucial role in the strengthening of the disciples.

I’ve known many like them. I think of a couple – a GP and his wife – who have committed themselves to supporting the ministry of a church in a socially deprived area in the East Midlands at great personal cost but with unfailing faithfulness. At one time in my life they were a vital, strengthening encouragement to me – as they have been to many others also.

Priscilla and Aquila are a case study in fruitful teamwork arising out of suffering.

The second case study is the apostle Paul himself. And what we see in him is simply irrepressible apostolic ministry. You can see what I mean in verses 20-23:

When they asked [Paul] to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. When he landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch.
After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. (18v20-23)

Note that this reference to strengthening the disciples in Acts 18 is one more in a long line. Again and again this concern for strength crops up. So for instance, Acts 14v21-22:

They returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. (Acts 14v21-22)

Acts 15v41,

[Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15v41)

Acts 16v5:

So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. (Acts 16v5)

And you can see there what kind of strength this is. Not biceps, of course, but strength “in the faith”. We are to be strong in the faith and all that flows from it. What Paul wants to see is strength in thought, word and deed. A strong understanding of God’s word. Strong faith, hope and love – in all that we say and all that we do.

To that end Paul is relentless in his apostolic travels and teaching. Apparently just in the space of verses 20-23 he travels 1500 miles or so. Well before Easyjet. Or the internal combustion engine. And that travel in itself is an expression of love and care. Paul is revisiting places where he’s previously evangelised and church-planted. The concern for these new believers and young churches that drives him on can be seen pouring out of the letters that he writes when he can’t visit in person. As he describes it to the Corinthians:

I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11v28)

Paul is a case study in irrepressible apostolic leadership.

His role as the apostle to the Gentiles was unique, but I’ve seen that same spirit reflected in the lives of other Christian leaders. He wouldn’t thank me for saying it, but, for example, I see it in the life of Bishop Martin Morrison of South Africa. He’s been willing to travel across the world to minister amongst us here year after year. His visionary zeal for the gospel and for the welfare of the church is an inspiration to me.

Then our third case study is that of Apollos. In him you can see the gifts of a teacher put at the service of the church. His story is told in verses 24-28:

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. (18v24-28)

Here is a man who has been equipped by God in a particular way for the strengthening of the church.

He is an intelligent and highly educated man. He has a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible – our Old Testament – as a result of long hours pouring over the parchments in the library. He’s come to believe in Christ and has been keen to grow in his understanding of his faith. What he learned he didn’t keep to himself. He passed it on carefully and accurately – but also with passion.

Because he’d learned from those with only a partial grasp of the gospel, his own understanding was incomplete. But for all his intellectual brilliance he was also humble, anxious to learn and ready to be taught by those who he recognised had themselves learned direct from the apostle Paul. So the faithful and hospitable ministry of Priscilla and Aquila had a profound impact for good on Apollos.

He’s keen to serve and to go wherever he’s needed – so he heads to Corinth. He’s ready to use his skills by vigorous engagement in public debate. And as a consequence of all of that, his life and ministry strengthens the disciples – or as Luke puts it, “he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.” Paul acknowledges his impact for good in Corinth when he says in 1 Corinthians 3: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” (1 Cor. 3v6)

He was an exceptionally gifted man who knew that his gifts came from God for the church, and he readily used them in the service of the church. He makes me think of men like John Stott and Jim Packer who’ve been greatly used by God in our time.

Apollos is a case study of the gifts of a teacher put at the service of the church. He is the third case study in how to strengthen the church. What, then, of us? We’re not apostles, nor are we as exceptional as Apollos. What are we to learn? Well that brings me to my final main heading.

Thirdly, WITH GOD’S HELP WE OURSELVES NEED TO WORK HARD TO STRENGTHEN THE CHURCH

There are three things we need to note here.

First, it is God, by grace, who provides what is needed for the church to grow stronger. We have to play our part. But if we’re going to be effective, we mustn’t ever forget that we depend totally on God.

So God converted, gifted and equipped Paul to strengthen the disciples. Through him Priscilla and Aquila were trained to do the same. Then they supplemented the education and gifts God had already used to train Apollos. And he in his turn was a great help to the believers. But it was all from God.

We live by grace. Without God’s grace, we’re weak and hopeless. Our strength comes from him. As we grow stronger with his help, so he also uses us to help others grow stronger too. But if we once lose sight of the fact that God is our strength, then we’ll cease to be useful. We’ll be a hindrance not a help. We must always be prayerfully looking to God to provide the people, gifts, experience and resources that are needed to strengthen the church. Then at the same time we must be ready to play our part.

So secondly, this section of Scripture is a challenge to our teaching and training as a church.

Apollos was useful because he was (I quote) “a learned man with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord”. That instruction was added to by Priscilla and Aquila who “explained to him the way of God more adequately.” They themselves had been trained in ministry by working alongside Paul. As a church we must make sure that kind of education, instruction and training are at the heart of all we do. The church is always one generation away not just from weakness but from extinction.

There is much that we already do, by God’s grace, to strengthen the church. That’s why we have sermons, children’s work, youth work, Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, Focus, GCF, Foundations, Transit, home groups, Moore Course seminars and many other opportunities to learn the way of the Lord and to learn how to impart what we’ve learned to others. We can thank God for what’s already happening.

But the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few, and the church is weak. In the years ahead we need to develop our teaching and training significantly, so that we’re constantly equipping people for a lifetime of effective ministry however and wherever God calls them. I’m speaking to myself as well as all of us when I say that if we neglect this, then we’ll be neglecting the heart of our calling. “Everything we do is for your strengthening,” Paul said. We need to be able to say the same.

And let’s not think that this is something we can leave to others. No, thirdly, every one of us needs to learn from these examples in our own individual ministry.

Education and training in the way of God isn’t just something that’s done to us. We must take responsibility for our own learning, and also for the way that we educate and train others. None of us is an apostle like Paul. Nor do we have the exceptional gifts of an Apollos or a John Stott. But we are all called to make the most of the capacity and the opportunities that God gives us.

We need the same spiritual fervour, diligent Bible study, humble teachability, availability for ministry, irrepressible stickability, willingness to go wherever we’re needed and readiness to give our time and energy for the sake of others. Then we’ll be growing stronger in Christ. And what is more, we’ll be helping others to grow stronger in Christ as well.

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