Strengthening the Disciples

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Tonight we carry on with our studies in the Acts of the Apostles. We have reached Acts 14.21-28 and the conclusion of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. My headings are, after some words of introduction, first, GENERAL PRINCIPLES and secondly, ONE THING VITAL

Before this first missionary journey, whenever apostles were sent out on a mission is was not to evangelise but to check up on more spontaneous evangelism that had already been going on. But here was a specific evangelistic mission to what today is central and southern Turkey, in those days the Roman Province of Galatia. Having set out for Cyprus Paul and Barnabas crossed over to what is now Turkey and made their way to Antioch of Pisidia, a main centre. Then they went onto Iconium, Lystra and, finally, Derbe. So look at verse 21 (referring to Derbe) where …

“… Paul and Barnabas preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples [our title for tonight ].”

Our subject, therefore, needs to be strong churches and disciples and what makes them strong. People have all sorts of ideas about that. But what do we learn about the Strong Church from our passage for tonight? Well…

first, some GENERAL PRINCIPLES

And number one is faithfulness to apostolic doctrine. Look at verse 22. We are there told that on this return visit to these newly planted churches Paul and Barnabas were

“strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.”

This “faith” is sometimes in the New Testament called “the tradition”, “the deposit”, “the teaching” or “the truth”. But what is that? Certainly it included the teaching of the Old Testament books these churches and disciples already had and that the Apostles had helped explain in the light of Christ. Biblical scholars, however, have analysed the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles and the teachings in the letters the Apostles sent to the churches.

They have reasonably argued that this faith or deposit includes the teaching about the one true and living God, the Creator of all, Jesus Christ his Son who died for our sin and was raised from the dead and now reigns and one day will return, and the Holy Spirit and other basic truths mentioned in the early Creeds. For the Creeds we say in church – the Apostles and Nicene Creeds – seem to be a summary of this teaching. Then this basic teaching was filled out later as necessary by Paul and the other Apostles in their letters to various churches. These letters were then read in other churches and collected; and the letters with the Gospels, Acts and Revelation came to form the New Testament.

So “remaining true to the faith” meant (and still means) remaining true to the Apostolic teaching which we now have in the Bible of the Old and New Testaments – the Apostolic book. And note too that Paul’s and Barnabas’ teaching was both positive and negative. They wanted “strong disciples” by both encouraging and warning them. They encouraged them (verse 22):

“… to remain true to the faith. [And they warned them that …] ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’"

The first principle, then, for a strong church is to have disciples – members – who are strong in the faith and remain faithful. That is exactly the same today.

So are you remaining true to the faith? Those basic truths have been over the centuries and still are today denied by false teachers who must be resisted. And that is why today hearing or downloading sermons and going to Home Groups and other small bible study groups is so essential.

The second principle is having strong and shared leadership. Look at verse 23:

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

Any organization needs to have first an agreed agenda – clear purposes as to what it is about – and then secondly it needs competent leadership. A strong church, therefore, needs not only to have the agreed agenda of learning and teaching apostolic truth. It also must have competent leadership.

Some churches and some Christian groups, however, think that they can do without formalized leadership. But what they fail to realize is this. Although they do not have a “formal” leader, they will undoubtedly be having a long drawn out fight (no doubt a very polite fight) going on as to who, in reality, is in charge! How much better for a clear decision to be made and everyone to know. True, in the history of the church there has been a wrong clericalism and with clergy unfaithful to Christ. Abuse, however, does not mean you should abolish the true use of something. So Paul and Barnabas (verse 23) “appointed elders … in each church”.

Note it was elders or leaders (plural) not just one. Yes, the senior leader should be strong but sharing leadership with other leaders. This helps avoid some of that wrong sort of clericalism. And note that the elders had Paul’s and Barnabas’ appointment. No doubt there was consultation or an element of “suggesting names” from the various local churches, as happened in Act 6 and the appointing of the seven. But the final authorisation for the senior leaders came from the Apostles who represented the wider Church or wider fellowship (as it was then) to help maintain Apostolic faithfulness. So these were not totally independent churches but churches “connected” to the wider Apostolic church. Look at verses 24-28:

“After going through Pisidia, they [Paul and Barnabas] came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.”

Paul and Barnabas were certainly “connected” to the wider church. And they saw their work as part of the wider church as represented in Syrian Antioch, now an ancient mega-church centre. So at the end of this first missionary journey they reported back to the church there.

And they reported, verse 27, what “God had done through them” and how God, not they, “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles”. This door had been opened by their God-empowered preaching, and people went through that door by God-given faith. Leaders, like Paul and Barnabas, seeing their work as God’s and the church as his (not theirs) are so vital for avoiding a wrong sort of clericalism. Strong and shared leadership, then, is the second principle for a strong church.

The third principle is disciples being strong in God’s strength and not their own and being praying people.

We read in verse 23b that Paul and Barnabas, after appointing elders in each church’ …

“… with prayer and fasting, committed them [presumably the elders and all the other disciples] to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”

Paul and Barnabas set an example in being pray-ers themselves. And because leadership is so important it is vital that you pray for the right leaders and that leaders are only chosen after “prayer and [if necessary] fasting”. A strong church will be a praying church with praying members. Do you believe that?

It is amazing what happens when you pray! Archbishop William Temple said, “when I pray coincidences happen, when I cease to pray coincidences cease.” How important we should pray on our own, in small groups, in these main services, at Prayer Meetings and on our Days of Prayer. And the prayer of Paul and Barnabas “committed” everyone (elders included), “to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” We know that Luke summaries sermons and prayers – giving just the gist of what was said. It is not unreasonable to imagine that Paul, if he took the lead, prayed something like he actually prayed for some other new Christians:

“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Eph 1.17-21).

These disciples will have been so encouraged after Paul’s prayer of commitment.

So, three principles for a strong Church, disciples strong in the faith; disciples having strong leadership (but shared and connected); and disciples strong in God’s strength through prayer. Let’s now leave general principles and come …

secondly, to ONE THING that is absolutely VITAL

Look again at verse 22. We read there that the Apostles were:

“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.”

This is the great lesson every new Christian must learn. But this is not just for “you” the new Christians at Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. No! It is for us all - “we” Christians – “we [not just you] must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” A failure to come to terms with this universal principle is why some do not remain strong and true to the faith. Jesus said in his Parable of the Sower the seed on the rocky ground represent people who …

“…receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8.13).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for opposing Hitler, said that “suffering … is the badge of the true Christian.” Martin Luther, another German, long before Bonhoeffer, reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church. This truth about suffering and persecution come home to Paul and Barnabas, and Paul particularly, in an appalling way at Lystra. For Paul was left for dead in Lystra after being stoned, as you read in verse 19 of our chapter – Acts 14. So some years later he could write to his young friend Timothy about his …

“… persecutions, sufferings - what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3.11-12).

But Paul is just echoing Jesus’ teaching recorded in Matthew 16, Mark 8 and Luke 9. It was at that watershed moment when Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ – God’s Messiah. But Peter got things wrong when Christ spoke about his coming death which Peter didn’t like. All those three Gospels tell us that Jesus had to teach Peter and all the disciples the hard lesson at that point that not only would he suffer and die (and be raised to life – which the disciples clearly did not then understand). He also said that (Luke 9.23):

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

If you confess Christ, this will be the consequence. And remember, the Cross was an execution by torture that was literally “ex-cruc [or crux] - iating” – (“crux” being the Latin for a “cross”). And execution sadly became a reality for a number of those actually hearing these words spoken. It was for Peter, it was for James the Son of Zebedee, the brother of John. He was beheaded, we are told in Acts 12.2, by Herod. Paul himself was also executed. Some of the other Apostles possibly were.

Yes, there will be a glorious future reality that puts any current troubles into perspective, as Jesus went on to say. But in the meantime the call to “take up our Cross” is a present reality. Last Sunday, in the Sunday Times magazine, there was a horrific account from survivors of when 46 Christians were murdered recently in a cathedral in Baghdad. In The (daily) Times there was another feature about Christian persecution two days before. It is common knowledge that there were more Christians killed in the 20th century than in all preceding centuries.

But why does God allow suffering whether involving the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life or lesser sacrifices? This was the question Job was faced with, as we have been studying in our Home Groups. There is no complete answer to suffering. For Job when he had a new vision of God the omnipotent creator of all things, his problems receded and so ceased to be a problem with a capital “P”.

But we can say at least two things about suffering.

One, some suffering is clearly due to sin. It was not God who invented cluster bombs, anti-personnel mines, racks and other things that cause untold suffering. If putting millions into concentration camps never resulted in anything negative to the perpetrators, we would think something wrong. Yes, some suffering is due to sin.

Then, two, God is able to use suffering and hardships to teach us important lessons. Heb 5:8 says that Jesus himself,

“learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Heb 12:6-7 says

“the Lord disciplines those he loves … [So] Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons”

Suffering can be educative. It can increase spiritual strength. This is how Paul saw what he called his “thorn in the flesh” – maybe an illness, maybe a person (it stands for any thing that puts you in a hard place). For when after his prayers the Lord would not remove it he wrote in 2 Cor 12:9-10 as follows:

“But he [the Lord] said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

This is the way to spiritual strength. I’ve learnt a great deal through those hard times. I know many of you have. The Christian life is not going to be easy. So don’t think success in the Christian life will mean an absence of suffering.

Paul at one moment is being left for dead in Lystra. The next he is seeing great church growth in Derbe, where (verse 21 again) he and Barnabas “won a large number of disciples”. The paradox is that if you are faithful to Christ you can expect to do well in a number of ways. That is the dangerous half truth of the prosperity gospel and gospels of cheap grace. On average Christians and those seeking to follow a Christian way of life, do better than others educationally, emotionally, in terms of health, in terms of family and marital satisfactions and, yes, economically. Social science has now proved that.

But individually that can go hand in hand with tough times and suffering and, for some, very hard times. So when Peter once said to Jesus:

"We have left everything to follow you!"

Jesus replied

"I tell you the truth … no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields - and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10.28-30).

I must conclude.

Who is going through a hard time tonight? Well, remember Heb 4:15-16 which says:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Who is weighing up whether to follow Christ tonight? Can I say, it is the only sensible thing to do. It is infinitely worth it because

“in all things [including those hard times] God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8.28).

Yes, you will “enter the kingdom of God” now and for all eternity. To do that, however, you “must go through many hardships” as Paul and Barnabas taught these young Christians. But it is infinitely worth it.

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