It’s clear from the Book of Acts that church growth ebbs and flows. There are different seasons, if you like. There are times of ferocious persecution and consequent scattering, when God’s people are tested, pruned and refined. And there are other times of rapid expansion – the summertimes of church growth, if you like. Well it’s summertime in our passage this evening. My title is ‘The Word Spreads’. And that passage is Acts 13.44-52. You’ll find it on p 1108, and please have that open in front of you.
Now, as Jonathan was saying a couple of weeks ago about the early part of this chapter, it seems to me that this section of Acts has a very direct relevance for us and for our own situation as a church. I think we should be profoundly challenged and spiritually stimulated by it. The issue for us that this passage addresses and clarifies can perhaps best be put in the form of a question. It is this. What should we expect when the Holy Spirit decides to move?
I think we can see an answer to that by tracking the work of God in this mission of Paul and Barnabas that takes place in Pisidian Antioch. I want us to try and see how that might work out in our own experience, God willing, in the coming years.
I identify three phases of this cycle of mission. The three phases are these. They make up my three headings. First, The Holy Spirit will challenge the church. Secondly, the Holy Spirit will stir the city. And thirdly, The Holy Spirit will reach the region. So:
First, THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL CHALLENGE THE CHURCH
Turn back to 13.1-3 for a moment. Think of this as revision. Acts 13.1:
1In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
What does that show us about God’s mission? There is a powerful impetus for mission here which proves in the end to be world-transforming. That impetus comes through a number of things.
The mission team is critical. Barnabas and Saul are ready to lay down their lives following their Lord who laid down his life for them. We need to be people like that.
Then there is the worshipping, fasting and praying. These are spiritually serious people. They’re in earnest. They’re urgent.
Then there is the work of the Holy Spirit in directing and sending the mission team. That’s there in verse 2, where the Holy Spirit tells them to set apart Barnabas and Saul. And it’s there again in verse 4, which says that the two of them were “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit”. This is God’s mission primarily. Not Barnabas’. Not Paul’s.
But also don’t miss the support that the church gives. They too (verse 3) “placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
So there’s a whole church committed to mission, there’s serious prayer, and there’s a dedicated team, all driven along by the Holy Spirit. That’s what provides this great impetus for mission - God’s mission.
What about the message that they took with them? What is God’s message to Pisidian Antioch and to us? Paul went to the synagogue on the Sabbath – relative home territory for him. He preaches by invitation to Jews and also to God-fearers – that is, Gentiles (non-Jews) who believe in the one God taught by the Jews. Paul’s message is that Jesus is the saviour long promised by God. 13.23:
… God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised.
The death and resurrection of this saviour Jesus are at the heart of the salvation he brings. Through Jesus people can find forgiveness and experience justification by faith. They are accepted by God and treated as if innocent. Verses 38 to 39:
38“Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”
And Paul issues what is both a stern warning and warm encouragement. He says that we have a choice. We can either scoff and perish, or we can believe and live. And last week David challenged us to make sure that we’re among the latter not the former. Believe and live. Don’t scoff and die.
In this New Testament context, then, the Holy Spirit challenges the church in Antioch and creates this great impetus for mission. And also the Holy Spirit challenges what you could think of as the traditional church of the time – the synagogue of the Jews and God-fearers. They believed in God, but they hadn’t yet got to grips with the gospel – the good news of Jesus. This radical message calling them to discipleship of Christ shook their world. They could no longer stay as they were. The status quo was not an option. Verses 42-43:
42As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
Our context is different, but you can see the parallels. When the Holy Spirit decides to move, he first challenges the church. That’s us. The status quo is not an option for us. We either go forward or we go backwards. We either choose life or we choose death. God wants us to be serious disciples, urgent, worshipping, fasting and praying. He wants us to be ready to form teams, and to send people out wherever the Holy Spirit leads. He wants us not just to pay lip service to our faith, but to believe it – trusting wholeheartedly in Jesus our Saviour.
Andy and Mei-ling Wilson are mission partners of ours in Taiwan. They’re going to be here with us soon for a few months and we’re looking forward to seeing them again. The other day I got Andy’s latest prayer letter. He works on the staff of Banner Church in Taichung (Taiwan’s second city.) This is a church that was planted about 15 years ago with just a few people. Andy and Mei-ling were among the first members. In his prayer letter he says this:
Growth has been a little slower this year than last year but in the first weekend of June attendance in Taichung went over 2,500 [when I was there last year attendance was 1800] … So in July we will start our fifth Chinese Service (2 on Saturday 3 on Sunday). One result of this has been the decision to close the English service and provide translation in all five services. …
Andy will be released to concentrate on the rapidly developing global mission emphasis of Banner Church when he returns at the end of the year.
When the Holy Spirit decides to move, the church is deeply challenged and changed. Let’s pray that will be true of us, and that we will see among us and in our own lives a new grasp of the wonder of God’s message of forgiveness through Christ, a new impetus to get stuck in to God’s mission, and growing numbers of people coming to faith and joining the church.
That’s the first phase of what God is doing here in Acts 13. The Holy Spirit challenges the church.
Secondly, THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL STIR THE CITY
What happens next? Look at verses 44-48:
44On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. 46Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47For this is what the Lord has commanded us: 'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.' 48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
This is an astonishing work of God. Do you see what happened? Just a week after Paul preached in the synagogue, the word has got around that something interesting is happening. So interesting that nobody should miss it. And, as Luke puts it, “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord”. Not everybody. Some stayed at home, sure. But there cannot have been a single person in that city who didn’t know something about what was going on. Everyone knew someone who had gone along and joined the crowds straining to hear what this visiting duo of Paul and Barnabas and their team had to say. And it was provocative stuff.
Ironically, the first opposition comes not from the pagans, but from their own people, some of the Jews from the synagogue. Perhaps they’d kept their mouths shut the previous week. But now they show their true colours. However they rationalise it, they’re jealous of the impact that Paul and Barnabas are having. They’ve shut their ears to the message of God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ that Paul and Barnabas are preaching. And they get abusive.
But Paul and Barnabas know that being on the receiving end of abuse is not a reason to stop evangelising. It’s only what they expected. So they keep right on. And not everyone reacted in that way. Many believed and began to follow Christ. Some of them were Jews. Many of them were Gentiles.
And don’t miss the marvellous, typically Biblical, portrayal here of both human responsibility and also divine sovereignty at work at one and the same time. Why do those abusers reject the gospel? Paul spells it out in verse 46:
“We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”
They reject it. They have shut themselves out of eternal life. It is their choice. They are responsible for their eternal fate, separated from the love of Christ. They didn’t want it. That’s human responsibility.
Then look again at the end of verse 48:
… all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
Why does anyone believe the gospel? After all, we’re all sinners, blind from birth and with hearts and minds dead to God. Those who believe do so because they were appointed to eternal life by God. Let’s be full-blooded in our doctrine of predestination, not only because it’s Biblical but also because it’s glorious. Ephesians 1.11:
In [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…
Thank God we contribute nothing to our salvation. If we had to, I for one would be sunk. No, it’s all from God, from beginning to end. Now I know this raises questions in our minds. And the Bible addresses those elsewhere. But before you get all tangled up in hard questions, take time to glory in the fact that if you believe in Jesus, the reason for that is that God chose you. He appointed you to believe. It’s all his doing. It’s all of grace.
Don’t let go of human responsibility. We’ve seen how clear Paul is on that too. But on the other hand, be full of wonder at God’s sovereign grace in salvation.
In his grace, God stirred that whole city. Let’s make it our prayer that God will use us to stir this city. It seems to me that God has placed us strategically at the heart of this city. That’s true geographically. But it’s also true in that God has grown this church to a thousand people with networks of acquaintance that spread all over Newcastle.
One in 250 people in this city comes to this church. Over the Christmas period, one in 50 comes to a service here. So pray that God will use us to stir this city. We can’t make the kind of impact that Paul and his team made in Pisidian Antioch. Only God can do that. But the promise of Jesus is that if we remain in him, and his words remain in us, we can ask whatever we wish, and it will be done for us. Let’s be asking him first to challenge and change us; and then to stir this city. God is sovereign. If he so decides, in answer to our prayers, and as we plan and prepare and plant, he will do it by his Spirit.
But even that isn’t all God did through Paul and Barnabas. There was more. Which brings me to my final heading:
Thirdly, THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL REACH THE REGION
Look at those last four verses of the chapter, 49-52:
49The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. 52And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
Amazingly, stirring the city was just the beginning. The word spread through the whole region. That generated more opposition. In fact you can see five different kinds of people in these verses. First, there are those who are jealous and abusive. Secondly, there are those who are interested and who want to know more. Thirdly, there are those who begin to follow Christ from among what we might call the ‘churched’. Fourthly, there are those who begin to follow Christ from among the ‘unchurched’. And fifthly, there is the hostile elite, who have social and political clout and who are incited to use that clout against the church and the gospel. That’s exactly the range of response we can expect to meet as our evangelism, God-willing, becomes increasingly effective.
The hostile elite get Paul and Barnabas chucked out of the city. But, typically of the way the Holy Spirit works, that just served to generate a fresh wave of evangelism and a new cycle of mission. And far from crushing the spirit of that fledgling church, it left behind in Pisidian Antioch a church “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit”. May that be true of us.
Remember that our God-given mission is to live Godly lives by trusting in Christ and obeying his word; to grow the church by telling the world and serving the church; and to change our nation by caring for needs and contending for truth, through God’s grace and power and for his glory.
Our vision is that in one generation we’ll grow to ten thousand people on mission with God – half in this city and half in new churches in this region and around the world.
Our mission is our lifelong direction. Our vision is our interim destination. We have to pray, plan, prepare and plant. But if we’re going to fulfil our mission faithfully, and if our vision is going to become a reality, then it will have to be a work of the Holy Spirit.
Here in these verses you can see the dynamics of effective evangelism, moving from church, to city, to region and beyond. Let’s make it our prayer that what happened in the pages of Acts will happen among us.
What should we expect when the Holy Spirit decides to move? Boldness will be required to keep on witnessing in the face of opposition. But many will believe and turn to Christ. This will be the work of God. The Holy Spirit will challenge the church, and change it; he will stir the city; and he will reach the region. Effective evangelism like this will only flow from a church filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. There is an agenda for our prayers for the coming months and years!
Heavenly Father, sovereign and gracious Lord, please challenge and change this church; stir this city with the message of the gospel; and use us to reach this region for the glory of Christ. Amen.