Acts Lesson Thirty-two

Acts Lesson Thirty-two: Acts 15:36-16:5 – A Broken Partnership and a New Partnership

36 After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord and see how they’re doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. 39 There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus. 40 Then Paul chose Silas and departed, after being commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers. 41 He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. 

16 Then he went on to Derbe and Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a believing Jewish woman, but his father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke highly of him. Paul wanted Timothy to go with him, so he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, since they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they traveled through the towns, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem for them to observe. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in number daily. (HCSB)

I’ll be dividing this lesson into two parts.

  • A broken partnership – verses 15:36-39.
  • A new partnership – verse 15:40-16:5.

A Broken Partnership

Once again, Luke uses a vague time reference to indicate a major division in the narrative. The phrase Luke uses, “after some time,” is generally thought to be about one year. This view supports the historical data that indicates about one year between the first and second of Paul’s missionary journeys. The second journey begins in verse 41. 

Paul’s vision was to revisit all the churches he established during the first missionary journey. Although Paul didn’t personally visit each church, all the churches were visited by either Paul or Barnabas. Barnabas traveled to Cyprus, and Paul visited all the other churches established on the first journey.

The main point in the first section is the split between Paul and Barnabas. It’s ironic that two dedicated men who had brought unity to the church couldn’t reach a compromise on their own disagreement. Over the years, there has been much scholarly debate about the reason behind the split. Although there has been much debate, there isn’t a definitive conclusion about the main reasons behind the split. Before we look at the possible reasons for the split, it is important to understand Luke’s reasoning for including the detail that a disagreement occurred. Disagreements that cause division are never a good thing in ministry. At the same time, we are all probably aware of splits that have occurred. Very likely, when both Paul and Barnabas looked back at this event later in their lives, they were embarrassed by what had transpired. However, God can turn that darkness into light even when believers act in the flesh. We’ll see why at the end of this section. Now, let’s look at possible reasons for the disagreement.

  • John Mark. 
    • Mark and Barnabas were cousins.
      • Family ties were strong in the cultural setting in which Acts occurred.
      • Barnabas was also known as the “son of encouragement” and was ready to give Mark another chance to serve with them even though he had left the previous missionary journey early.
      • Were the Judaizers in Jerusalem aroused to anger by Mark and his reports from Pamphylia?
      • It is also possible that Mark was a member, or at least agreed with, the Judaizers.
  • Paul was adamant that they not include Mark in the second journey.
    • Mark had abandoned the team on the first missionary journey.
    • In Paul’s mind, this was a sign of weakness. The ministry was too important and the work too demanding to include someone who had proven unreliable on the first journey.
    • Was Mark unrepentant regarding his decision to abandon the team on the first trip?
  • The Galatian’s incident – Galatians 2:11-13.
    • This event took place in Antioch after the Jerusalem Council.
    • Peter would eat with the Gentiles until Judaizers once again muddied the waters. 
      • They pressured Peter to stop eating with the Gentiles, and even though the Jerusalem council had made it clear that it was ok to eat together, Peter gave in to the pressure.
      • Paul was unhappy with Peter’s hypocrisy.
      • Even Barnabas followed Peter’s lead in the matter.
    • Although Paul had reconciled with Barnabas to the point that he wanted Barnabas to join him on the second journey, there may have been lingering wounds and possibly some differences with Paul’s Gentile outreach that precluded adherence to the Law.

Who was right?

When the facts are examined, it would seem that both Paul and Barnabas have grounds for their position.

  • Paul.
    • Paul remembered what happened on the first journey.
    • He knew the dangers that the team would face, and having team members who were unreliable was not a good thing.
    • As noted in Galatians, Barnabas had been swayed by the Judaizers who came from Jerusalem. Would this happen again?
  • Barnabas.
    • He was known as the “son of encouragement.”
    • Mark was only a young man on the first journey and had panicked when the situation got tough.
    • Mark may have settled and matured since that point and needed an opportunity to demonstrate that he would be a capable team member.
    • It is also possible that Barnabas felt some resentment since Paul had been Barnabas’ protege. 
      • Barnabas had introduced Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem after Paul’s conversion.
      • Barnabas went to Tarsus to bring Paul to Antioch and gave him a chance to be a teacher and preacher.
      • Barnabas had started as the lead during the first missionary journey, and at some point, Paul had taken over as the leader.
      • Maybe Paul owed Barnabas a concession on the issue of Mark.
  • This is an example of a classic confrontation.
    • Does one major mistake disqualify a person from a ministry role?
    • Should a person be restored to ministry work even if a major mistake was made?
    • Often it is the circumstances involving the mistake which determine the correct course of action. 

In the end, the two men went their separate ways. However, now we see how God can turn this “event of the flesh” into something good. Instead of one mission team heading out, there were now two teams that evangelized the lost. 

A New Partnership

With the partnership with Barnabas now broken, Paul needed a new partner to accompany him on the journey. The man Paul chose was Silas. Now, let’s take a closer look at Paul’s new partner, Silas.

  • As Paul, Silas was a Roman citizen – Acts 16:37.
  • Silas was a key member in the Jerusalem church – Acts 15:22.
  • Silas was chosen to represent the Jerusalem church as the decision of the council was taken to the Gentiles in Antioch – 15:27.
  • Silas was a prophet – Acts 15:32.
  • He was involved in the ministry with Paul in Antioch, allowing Paul to become familiar with him.
  • Silas was a co-author with Paul of the Thessalonian epistles.
  • Silas was the secretary for Peter’s first epistle – 1 Peter 5:12.
  • Since Silas was a leader from the Jerusalem church, this could prove advantageous on the upcoming journey.

Paul and Silas set out on their missionary journey, moving northward on foot through the Cilician gates to visit the locations where Paul and Barnabas traveled on the first missionary journey. On this journey, the party went from east to west, effectively traveling in reverse order from the first journey. Their first stop was at Derbe, and from there, they continued to Lystra, where another prominent New Testament individual is found, Timothy. Let’s take a closer look at Timothy.

  • Timothy was thought of highly by the believers at Lystra and Iconium.
  • It is quite likely that Timothy was a convert from Paul’s first missionary journey.
  • Timothy was from an ethnically mixed marriage.
    • His mother was Jewish.
    • His father was Greek.
    • According to rabbinic law, a child with a Jewish mother and a Greek father was considered to be Jewish. 
      • Therefore, Timothy would be viewed as a Jew.
      • Jews were required to be circumcised.
    • Paul used the local synagogue as a focal point for evangelism in his travels.
      • If Paul had a member of his party with a Jewish lineage who was uncircumcised, that would prove to be a stumbling block in their efforts.
      • Therefore, that is the reason Paul insisted that Timothy get circumcised. 
    • Timothy was a key companion involved in Paul’s missionary work.
      • Paul considered Timothy his “son.”
        • 1 Corinthians 4:17.
        • 1 Timothy 1:2.
      • Paul sent two letters to him.
      • Timothy was a co-sender in six letters.
        • 2 Corinthians 1:1.
        • Philippians 1:1.
        • Colossians 1:1.
        • 1 Thessalonians 1:1.
        • 2 Thessalonians 1:1.
        • Philemon 1.
      • Paul considered Timothy his “fellow worker.”
        • Romans 16:21.
        • 1 Corinthians 16:10.

The trio of Paul, Silas, and Timothy now continue on the journey. Luke doesn’t mention the towns visited, but it is safe to assume that Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, and any other village where a Christian community was planted on the first journey. The group shared the message from the Jerusalem Council as they traveled. All of the churches were in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia and not part of Syro-Cilicia, to which the message was addressed. It is very likely that these churches were included as they were the result of Paul and Barnabas’ journey commissioned from Antioch.

The final verse in this section is a summary statement. The result of their journey was churches that experienced strengthened faith and growth. Paul wasn’t just concerned with establishing churches. He was concerned with seeing what he and Barnabas had started to experience growth and produce fruit.

Applications

  • There is a lesson to be learned from the dissolved partnership between Paul and Barnabas. Although both sides had justification for their position, neither side was willing to compromise. We’ll never know what could have occurred if Mark and Barnabas had traveled with Paul on the second journey. Would Paul’s partnership with Timothy still have occurred? Regardless of what may or may not have happened, unity in the body of Christ is extremely important. Both Paul and Barnabas gave into fleshly actions, yet God still used both teams to advance the Gospel. We should do all we can to avoid these types of broken working relationships but also realize that if they do happen, God is able to turn them into good.
  • Choose your ministry partners carefully. Both Silas and Timothy were exceptional partners for Paul. We won’t all be blessed to have partners of this caliber, but having the partner God desires for us will make our trials easier.
  • As we are involved in evangelism, we need to remember that not only is the conversion important, the follow-up call for discipleship is essential for spiritual growth and a believer who produces fruit.

Acts Lesson Thirty-one

Acts Lesson Thirty-one: Acts 15:22-35 – Instructions to the Gentiles

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. 23 They wrote this letter to be delivered by them: 

From the apostles and the elders, your brothers, 

To the brothers among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: 

Greetings. 

24 Because we have heard that some without our authorization went out from us  and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts, 25 we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along with our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: 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. 

30 Then, being sent off, they went down to Antioch, and after gathering the assembly, they delivered the letter. 31 When they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 Both Judas and Silas, who were also prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers and strengthened them with a long message. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent back in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas, along with many others, remained in Antioch teaching and proclaiming the message of the Lord. (HCSB)

I will split this lesson into three parts.

  • The delegation from Jerusalem – verse 22.
  • The contents of the letter – verses 23-29.
  • The reaction to the letter – verses 30-35.

The Delegation From Jerusalem

First, let’s look at the people mentioned in verse 22.

  • Paul and Barnabas.
    • We’ve already looked at their backgrounds extensively in previous lessons.
    • Since Antioch was their “home church,” it made perfect sense that they would be in the delegation.
    • They also represented the Gentile position that was under fire from the Judaizers.
  • Judas Barsabbas.
    • Although the passage doesn’t specify, it was likely that he was an elder in the Jerusalem church.
    • He may have been related to the Joseph Barsabbas in Acts 1:23, but that is uncertain.
  • Silas.
    • A significant character in the New Testament.
    • He accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey.
    • Silas is a shortened form of the Greek name Silvanus, leading some scholars to believe he was a Hellenist.
      • He could be the same Silvanus who served as Peter’s secretary – 1 Peter 5:12.
      • He definitely seems to the Silvanus whom Paul mentions as a co-worker in several epistles; 2 Corinthians 1:19, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1.
    • He may have been a Roman citizen – Acts 16:37.
  • Apostles, elders, and the whole church.
    • The decision wasn’t made and endorsed by a few select people.
    • The entire church was unified and supported the decision.

Now, let’s look at the contents of the letter.

  • The general structure of the letter.
    • It was formal and written in the style of Greco-Roman letters.
      • It began with a salutation listing the senders and the recipients.
      • The customary greeting followed the salutation.
      • The formality is most pronounced in the long sentence that runs from verses 24-26.
      • It ends with an equally formal “farewell.”
    • Since the structure was Greco-Roman, we get the impression the Jewish congregation at Jerusalem was making a point to communicate clearly and in the style typical of their Greek-speaking brothers and sisters at Antioch.
  • The contents of the letter.
    • The letter was written in the name of the leaders of the Jerusalem church.
      • The apostles and elders.
      • It also indicates they consider the believers at Antioch their “brothers.”
    • It was written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia.
      • Although three locations are mentioned, it is quite possible that it is only one location.
      • Syria-Cilicia was administratively a single Roman province.
      • Antioch was a city within the province.
      • The debate began at Antioch, so it would seem that the response should go to Antioch.
    • The letter acknowledges that the Judaizers came from the Jerusalem church.
      • The leaders of the Jerusalem church were not happy with the Judaizers who unsettled the believers at Antioch.
      • The wording “troubled you” is a Greek military metaphor that means to plunder or loot a town.
    • Verses 25-26 basically reiterates what is contained in verse 22.
      • There is an additional commendation of Paul and Barnabas.
        • They had risked their lives for the name of Jesus.
        • The Greek word used here, paradidomi, can mean either devote or risk and in the context of the passage, either is applicable.
          • Their devotion to Jesus led them into many dangers.
          • The leaders of the Jerusalem church referred to Paul and Barnabas as “dearly loved.”
    • Verse 27 states that the Jerusalem church has also sent Judas and Silas as part of the delegation.
      • The inclusion of these two men is an important of the resolution to the dispute brought by the Judaizers.
      • The main church in Jerusalem is saying that these two men are the official representatives and speak on behalf of the head church.
      • They would provide an eyewitness account and a Jerusalem interpretation of the letter.
      • They would answer any questions that may arise from the congregation at Antioch.
    • Verse 28 shows that the authority for their decision comes primarily from the Holy Spirit, with the obedience of relaying the message falling on the leadership of the Jerusalem church. 
      • The inclusion of the Holy Spirit is significant. The Spirit was instrumental in the inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 15:8, 12.
      • In the conference, the Spirit led the Jerusalem church leaders in understanding and communicating the requirements for the Gentile believers.
    • Verse 29 lists the four requirements that James proposed in verse 20.
      • Abstain from eating food offered to idols.
      • Abstain from eating blood.
      • Abstain from eating anything that has been strangled due to residual blood in the meat.
      • Abstain from sexual immorality.
      • From historical documents, these requirements were common practices in large segments of the church in the Gentile world.
      • The Gentile believers are then encouraged that they will do well if they follow these instructions.
      • The letter then concludes with a formal closing.

The Reaction to the Letter

Now that the letter is written, the delegation sets off to deliver their decision to Antioch. Upon their arrival, the entire church is gathered together to hear the decision from Jerusalem.

  • The congregation at Antioch rejoiced at the contents of the message.
  • Gentile Christians would no longer be pressured to follow the requirements contained in the Mosaic Law.
  • Judas and Silas, prophets in the Jerusalem church, were able to encourage the Gentile believers further.
    • Old Testament and New Testament prophecy are different.
    • New Testament prophecy is primarily a gift of inspiration where an individual delivers a word from God that addresses a present need in the church.
    • Once again, Luke is vague regarding time, but Judas and Silas spent “some time” before returning to Jerusalem.
    • The Gentile believers found great encouragement through them, and when it was time for them to return, they were sent back with the traditional blessing of shalom, the peace of God.
  • The issues regarding Gentile believers have now been settled, and Paul, Barnabas, and many others spent time teaching and preaching, leading to the church prospering.
    • The phrase “many others” is important.
    • Paul and Barnabas would soon be leaving for mission fields elsewhere. However, the church would be left in good hands with the “many others” who would carry on the work started by Paul and Barnabas.

Depending on the translation you use, you may or may not have a verse 34. Scholars believe that a scribe added this verse after the original translation, and most modern translations do not include it.

When we summarize this passage, there are two main points to remember regarding the Jewish Christian leadership.

  • They were open to the leading of God.
    • Throughout the account, God’s leading is stressed.
      • Sending the Spirit on Cornelius – verse 8.
      • Signs and wonders worked through Paul and Barnabas – verse 12.
    • This was evidence of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles and led the Jerusalem council to accept the Gentiles without any further burden.
    • The Spirit was also present during the conference – verse 28.
  • The Jewish Christian leaders showed a concern for the church’s world mission that outweighed their particular interests. 
    • Their decision aided evangelism to the Gentiles.
    • To require circumcision and adherence to the Torah would have limited or ended the Gentile evangelism effort.

Applications

  • Any decision in the church needs to be a unified decision. This is especially true for a major decision, which applied in this case. The decision here weighed the arguments of both sides and then reached a decision that didn’t compromise yet allowed contextualization of the Gospel for different people groups.
  • When decisions are made and communicated to a congregation or group, it is important that those involved in conveying the message are known and respected by those receiving the decision. It is even better if those giving the message are involved with the group. If we are a member of the congregation, we must accept the decision of those placed over us.
  • When decisions are made, it is vitally important that God’s will and leading are the primary reason for any decision or course of action. We must always follow God’s direction and not our human desires.

Acts Lesson Thirty

Acts Lesson Thirty: Acts 15:1-21 – The Jerusalem Council

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!” But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, the church arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy. When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers. 

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. But some of the believers from 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!” 

Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. 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. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving  the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them,  cleansing their hearts by faith. 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 we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.” 

12 Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describing all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 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 the rest of humanity may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles 

who are called by My name, declares the Lord who does these things, 

18 known from long ago. 

19 Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God, 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. 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.” (HCSB)

When we look back at the end of the previous lesson, we’ll remember that about a year had passed between the time that Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and the beginning of Acts 15. I’ll be dividing this lesson into two parts.

  • The Dispute in Antioch – verses 1-3.
  • The Jerusalem Council – verses 4-21.

In previous lessons, I’ve addressed an issue about the enemy always being active against successful ministry endeavors. Here, we see this issue playing out once again. Paul and Barnabas returned from a successful missionary trip and were now engaged in teaching and helping the church at Antioch grow spiritually. Now, the enemy sets out to disrupt their work and discredit them. The greatest weapon of the enemy is lies. We saw that at the beginning of Genesis where Satan used lies to cause Adam and Eve to eat the fruit that was forbidden. We see lies being used in this passage. When we look at the world today, lies are still a favorite weapon of the enemy. The lie of relevant truth; what is true to me is true. The lie is that we should do whatever feels right or good to us. The lie is that having more will make us happy. I could go on and on.

The Dispute in Antioch

Although only three verses long, let’s look at some facts from this passage.

  • The men who came down from Jerusalem were of the camp of the Judaizers, which meant that they were previously Pharisees who became Christians.
    • They believed that circumcision was a requirement for salvation.
    • Christians still needed to follow the Mosaic Law.
  • It is not difficult to understand why these Jewish believers were confused.
    • The Old Testament taught that Gentiles could only be saved through Israel.
    • The only Gentiles that the Jerusalem church had seen saved were those evangelized by Peter, and that was a special act of God in Acts 11:18.
    • News traveled slowly, and they weren’t aware of all that God had accomplished through Paul and Barnabas.
    • It is also possible that once they became aware of the large number of Gentiles who were converted, they were either jealous or fearful of transition from Mosaic Law tradition to the New Covenant.
  • Paul and Barnabas engaged the Judaizers in debate, with the result being that they would go to the church in Jerusalem to have the leadership there judge the matter.
    • This didn’t indicate any hierarchy; instead it was a voluntary decision to go there.
    • God commanded Paul to go to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-2.
    • Jerusalem was still the “mother church” of Christianity.
    • The Apostles were at Jerusalem.
  • The journey between Antioch and Jerusalem was over 250 miles, likely taking a month or so to complete.
    • They evangelized along the way.
    • It is likely that most of the congregations and believers they met along the way would be on the side of Paul and Barnabas, not wanting to burden Gentile believers with circumcision and the Mosaic Law.
    • The congregations along the way rejoiced at the news of the success among the Gentiles.

The Jerusalem Council

Once the group arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the elders and Apostles. There are a few points to note regarding the first verse in this section, implied here but clarified as the passage continues.

  • Paul represented the position against circumcision and the Mosaic Law being a requirement for Gentile believers.
  • Peter represented the Apostles.
  • Jame represented the elders.
  • The Judaizers represented those who believed any Christian should be circumcised and subject to the Mosaic Law.

From the context of this section, it also appears that at least four separate meetings took place during this time.

  • A public meeting during which the Jerusalem church welcomed Paul and those traveling with him.
  • A private meeting between Paul and the key leaders is referenced in Galatians 2:2.
  • A second public meeting where the Judaizers presented their case is found in Acts 15:5 and Galatians 2:3-5.
  • The formal council meeting where the final decision was made is referenced in Acts 15:6ff. We can read Paul’s report on the issue in Galatians 1-2.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at the last two meetings mentioned above.

Let’s consider some facts from the second public meeting.

  • From the context of the passage, it appears that this meeting went on for a considerable period of time.
  • Sensing that not much progress was being made, Peter decides to intervene and stands to present his position on the debate. 
    • Peter endorses Paul on two occasions in Scripture.
      • Peter’s final act in Acts was to endorse Paul and his ministry.
      • Peter’s last written words, found in 2 Peter 3:15-16, also endorsed Paul and his ministry.
    • Peter reminds them that God allowed him to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles – Acts 10-11.
    • God had accepted the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as the Holy Spirit was given to the Jews at Pentecost.
    • They were saved by faith and grace.
    • Verse 11 is key.
      • “We believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”
      • The Law was no longer applicable to the Jews. Therefore, it was also no longer applicable to the Gentiles.
      • Salvation is “by grace, through faith” and not “obey Moses and be circumcised.”
  • Paul and his companions were the next to speak.
    • The church greatly respected Paul and Barnabas, and their words carried a great deal of weight.
    • They described God’s work among the Gentiles.
    • They emphasized the miracles that were done among the Gentiles. The miracles were proof that God was involved in the work among the Gentiles.
      • Mark 16:20 – And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the accompanying signs.
      • Romans 15:18-19 – For I would not dare say anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to make the Gentiles obedient by word and deed, 19 by the power of miraculous signs and wonders, and by the power of God’s Spirit. As a result, I have fully proclaimed the good news about the Messiah from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum. 
    • Their astounding report of numerous successes of evangelizing the Gentile locations was evidence that couldn’t be refuted.
    • The opponents were effectively silenced.

The transition from the second public meeting to the formal council decision occurs between Paul’s address and James giving them the final decision.

  • James is the brother of Jesus and had become the leader of the church in Jerusalem in place of Peter.
  • He didn’t become a believer until after Jesus’ resurrection.
  • James had a strong leaning towards the Law. There are at least ten references to the Law in his epistle. This would have made him acceptable to the Judaizers in the Jerusalem church.
  • The key theme in James’ address is agreement.
    • He agreed with Peter that God was saving Gentiles by grace.
    • It must have startled the Judaizers when James said the Gentiles were “a people for His name.”
      • The Jews believed they were the people for God’s name, not Gentiles.
      • The New Testament church is a church for all people.
      • The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means a “called out assembly.”
      • If the Gentiles are called out, then their salvation is from grace and not through the keeping of the Law.
      • The Judaizers didn’t understand how the Jews and Gentiles related to each other in the church or how the church fit into God’s promise to establish a kingdom for Israel.
        • They were jealous for both the future glory of Israel as well as the past glory of Moses and the Law.
        • To them, accepting the Gentiles as spiritual equals jeopardized the future of Israel.
    • The prophets also agreed with this conclusion.
      • James cites Amos 9:11-12 to back up this point.
      • Amos’ prophecy agreed with the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas.
      • Amos also prophesied that the fallen tent of David would be raised up again. We know that is fulfilled through Jesus.
    • The future Israel is the restored Jews and Gentiles who have placed their faith in Jesus.
    • What they were witnessing was the beginning of the promises foretold in Amos. The promise included the Gentiles.

The decision.

James advised the church to write to the Gentile Christians and inform them of the decision of the conference. The decision addressed four items.

  • Two were commands.
    • Don’t be involved in idolatry.
    • Don’t engage in sexual immorality.
    • Neither presented any particular problem as they have always been wrong in God’s view.
  • Two were concessions.
    • Abstain from eating blood.
    • Abstain from eating meat from animals that have died by strangulation.
  • The two concessions revolved around the fact that the early church often met together and shared meals. Most of the churches met in homes, and some likely held pot luck dinners in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper. If the Gentiles ate food that was considered “unclean,” it would cause division within the church.
    • God gave the prohibition against blood before the Law in Genesis 9:4. Moses repeated it in Leviticus 17:11-14 and Deuteronomy 12:23.
    • The prohibition against eating an animal that has been strangled is because some of the blood will remain in the body and make it unfit for a Jew to eat. 
    • Kosher meat comes from a clean animal that has been properly killed and all the blood drained from the body.
  • What we see in the decision is a position of unity between two groups of people who are debating and defending their position.
    • The Judaizers gave up their insistence on circumcision.
    • The Gentiles accepted a change in their eating habits.
    • It was a compromise that didn’t affect the truth of the Gospel.
    • Not all compromise is good, but this was a situation where compromise brought two disagreeing sides to a middle ground.
  • The seemingly out-of-place reference to Moses is probably a reference to the requirements outlined in the law to avoid eating blood and should be no shock to the Gentile believers who would have heard the passages read in the synagogues. It is also possible that the Gentile believers should be sensitive to their Jewish counterparts and not offend them in this manner so that the lost Jews could also be reached with the Gospel.

Applications

  • If you encounter people teaching a false Gospel or a Gospel with “extra” requirements, make sure you challenge them, but do it in a Christian manner. If the false teachers are members of your church and they won’t stop the false teaching, you should bring it to the attention of your church leadership. If your church leaders are engaged in false teaching, they should be confronted. If they won’t stop, you should find a new church. Also, make sure that those who received the false teaching know what portions were false.
  • Don’t miss an opportunity to share the Gospel, even in your travels. In Acts 15, we see Paul and Barnabas taking advantage of their journey from Antioch to Jerusalem to share along the way. It would have been easier for them to travel quickly so that the matter under dispute could be solved. Instead, they turned their trip into an evangelism event.
  • Any theological debate should be done in an orderly manner and with sufficient witnesses. It helps to have all sides represented so that any decision will be acceptable to all parties. 
  • Unless your church leaders are false teachers, you should always respect their decision. God has placed them in that position for a reason, and you should honor God by honoring those He has chosen.

Acts Lesson Twenty-nine

Acts Lesson Twenty-nine: Acts 14:1-28 – The First Missionary Journey Completed

The same thing happened in Iconium; they entered the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brothers. So they stayed there for some time and spoke boldly in reliance on the Lord, who testified to the message of His grace by granting that signs and wonders be performed through them.  But the people of the city were divided, some siding with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to assault and stone them, they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian towns called Lystra and Derbe, and to the surrounding countryside. And there they kept evangelizing. 

In Lystra a man without strength in his feet, lame from birth, and who had never walked, sat and heard Paul speaking. After observing him closely and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 Paul said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet!” And he jumped up and started to walk around. 

11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the form of men!” 12 And they started to call Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the main speaker. 13 Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the town, brought oxen and garlands to the gates. He, with the crowds, intended to offer sacrifice. 

14 The apostles Barnabas and Paul tore their robes when they heard this and rushed into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Men! Why are you doing these things? We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. 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 satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.” 18 Even though they said these things, they barely stopped the crowds from sacrificing to them. 

19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and when they had won over the crowds and stoned Paul, they dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. 20 After the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. 

21 After they had evangelized that town and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, “It is necessary to pass through many troubles on our way into the kingdom of God.” 

23 When they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. 24 Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 After they spoke the message in Perga, they went down to Attalia. 26 From there they sailed back to Antioch where they had been entrusted to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 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. 28 And they spent a considerable time with the disciples. (HCSB)

This lesson will be divided into three sections.

  • The work in Iconium – verses 1-7.
  • The work in Lystra – verses 8-20.
  • The return trip to Antioch – verses 21-28.

The Work in Iconium

Before we dig into this section, let’s look at some background information on the city of Iconium.

  • It was located about 90 miles southeast of Antioch.
  • It was located on the main route that connected Ephesus with Syria and Mesopotamia.
  • It was located on a plateau about 3,300 feet in elevation.
    • There were forests and plains to the south.
    • There were mountains to the north.
  • It contained a strong Greek emphasis.
  • It also contained a heavy Roman influence. 
    • In A.D. 41, its name was changed to Claudiconium by the emperor Claudius.
    • It was considered an honor for a city to be named after the emperor.
  • Paul and Barnabas encountered a cultural mixture; native Phrygians, Greeks, and Jews dating back to the Seleucid period and Roman colonists.
  • From a geographical standpoint, it was an ideal place in an otherwise unattractive location.  

Paul and Barnabas followed their standard pattern.

  • They first went to the city synagogue.
  • They evangelized to the collection of Jews and Gentiles who were gathered there.
  • A significant number of both groups believed in Jesus.

However, just as in Antioch, they met opposition to the message of the Gospel.

  • The Jews who chose not to believe incited the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas.
  • In contrast to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas “stayed for some time.”
    • Luke is often ambiguous in assigning a specific period of time to various events.
    • Here, the amount of time they spent was likely weeks to months.
    • Regardless of the amount of time they stayed, they relied on the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to speak boldly to the people.
  • They performed “signs and wonders” while they were there.
  • However, the populace was still divided; some believed, and some were in opposition.

Those who opposed Paul and Barnabas decided to take action.

  • The opposition grew stronger, and they decided to take deliberate and strong action.
  • The group contained three elements.
    • The Jews who opposed the Gospel.
    • The Gentiles who were incited by the Jews.
    • The rulers, which likely refers to the civil authorities in the city.
  • From the context of verse five, it would appear that the action taken was not through deliberate legal action. Instead, it would appear that a riotous mob mentality had consumed those in opposition to the message, driving them to take drastic action.
  • Once Paul and Barnabas learned of the threat to their lives, they left to the Lycaonian region and the towns of Lystra and Derbe.
    • Lystra was approximately twenty miles south of Iconium.
    • Derbe was approximately sixty miles southeast of Lystra.
    • Since there were no other significant towns in the area, the phrase “surrounding countryside” may refer to smaller pockets of people they met on their journey. 
  • As they traveled from Iconium to the Lycaonian region, they evangelized along the way.

The work in Lystra

Before we start digging into this section, let’s look at some information regarding the town of Lystra.

  • The remains of the city were found only recently, in 1885, near the modern village of Khatyn Serai.
  • It was located about eighteen miles southwest of Iconium.
  • It was in the hill country and surrounded by mountains.
  • In Paul’s time, it was a small country town.
  • Its primary significance was as a Roman military outpost, and because of that, it was given the status of a colony in 6 B.C. 
  • A Roman military road connected it to Pisidian Antioch, about 100 miles to the northwest.
  • The population consisted primarily of Roman military veterans.
  • There was no synagogue in the town.
  • The residents followed pagan idolatry and knew neither Jewish religion nor Greek philosophy.
  • The setting required Paul and Barnabas to “contextualize” the Gospel to the people of Lystra.

We’ll now look at this passage, divided into four sections.

  • The lame man’s response to the Gospel – verses 8-10.
  • The crowd’s response to the lame man – verses 11-13.
  • The Apostle’s response to the crowd – verses 14-19.
  • The disciples’ response to Paul – verse 20.

Verses 8-10.

Just as in Acts 3, Paul here cures a man who had been lame from birth. This is a key discriminator. If he had become lame because of an injury or sickness, the healing, still significant, would not have carried the same weight as someone who was born lame and is now able to walk. 

The word “speaking” means ordinary conversation in the original Greek. We can infer that the lame man heard Paul evangelizing the crowd and something in his demeanor convinced Paul that the man had at least some measure of faith in the message being preached. Hearing the message produced faith, just as is written in Romans 10:17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ. One difference from the earlier miraculous healings is that the name of Jesus wasn’t proclaimed, although we know that is the power through which the lame man was healed. However, the people at Lystra, being pagan and without any exposure to the living God, react in a way that was not expected.

Verses 11-13.

This is the first time in Acts that a crowd reacted in this way to a miraculous sign. However, we shouldn’t be surprised by this at would be normal for those who are accustomed to worshipping false gods. A key point that Luke mentions is that the residents of Lystra spoke in their own language, Lycaonian, which was not understood by Paul and Barnabas. If they had understood what was being said, there is no doubt they would have stopped their wrong understanding of the healing immediately. Let’s look at a few points about this section.

  • The residents believe the “gods” have visited them.
  • They even identified which gods they were.
    • Barnabas was identified as Zeus, possibly because of his physical stature.
    • Paul was identified as Hermes, the Greed god of oratory and the inventor of speech. Since Paul was doing the majority of the speaking, this connection makes sense.
  • Zeus was the patron deity of the city, which afforded the priest of the temple a great opportunity to become important and lead the people in honoring their “god.”
  • There was also a localized ancient legend that said that Zeus and Hermes once descended to earth in human form.
  • Paul and Barnabas may have been initially unaware of the details of the reaction of the residents. However, once the priest of the temple arrived with oxen and garlands, along with a crowd, to sacrifice, the situation became clear. The residents thought that Paul and Barnabas were “gods” and intended to honor them.

Verses 14-19

At this point in the narrative, both Paul and Barnabas are fully aware that the crowd believes they are worthy of worship and the priest, along with the crowd, plans on honoring them with a sacrifice. However, the reaction of Paul and Barnabas likely surprised the crowd as much as two missionaries were surprised.

  • Paul and Barnabas rush into the crowd and tear their robes. The tearing of their robes is found in numerous places in the Bible.
    • It could indicate a state of mourning – Genesis 37:29.
    • It could express great distress – Joshua 7:6.
    • It could be a protest against a perceived blasphemy – Mark 14:63.
    • The tearing of their clothes represented a strong protest and was designed to stop the intended sacrifice.
    • They were not going to accept adulation, equating them to god-like status.
  • We remember earlier in Acts where Herod Antipas was exalted as a god, accepted the adulation, and subsequently died.
  • It seems that our human nature wants to be able to reach out and touch our gods, gods in the likeness of men.
  • The same temptation occurs today. Religious leaders fall to the temptation of being revered instead of allowing God to be glorified through their ministry. All ministry leaders would do well to remember the example of Paul and Barnabas.

Once Paul and Barnabas got the attention of the crowd, they explained their protest in the form of a mini-sermon. This is the first sermon in Acts to an entirely pagan group, who believed in many gods and had no prior knowledge of the God of the Jews and Christians. Here are the points in their message.

  • They needed to start with the very basics.
    • The theological assumption of monotheism.
    • God is one – Deuteronomy 6:4.
  • This message has parallels with the message Paul gave to the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-31.
  • The introduction points to the vanity of their worship.
    • Any religion which focuses on the idea that men are gods is an empty religion.
    • The pagan polytheism was vain, empty, worthless, and idolatrous worship of a god who wasn’t a god.
      • Jeremiah 2:5 – This is what the LORD says: What fault did your fathers find in Me that they went so far from Me, followed worthless idols, and became worthless themselves?
      • Romans 1:21-23 – For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.
    • Paul exhorts them to turn from idol worship and turn to the living God. Paul makes three points in his message.
      • God is the creator of all life.
        • On the earth.
        • In the seas.
        • In the heavens.
        • Exodus 20:11 – For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. 
      • God has patience and mercy.
        • In the past, God allowed the Gentiles to go their own way.
          • They acted in ignorance.
          • They experienced no revelation.
          • They didn’t know the true God.
        • Now, God was using Paul to reveal Himself to them.
          • They now had a revelation.
          • They now had knowledge.
          • They now were accountable.
      • God always had the means to declare His power and majesty.
        • In the past, it was His works of providence; rain, harvest, and bounty.
        • In the present, it was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
        • The pagans often spoke of the benevolence of the “gods.” 
        • Paul’s message declared that there was one God, who was the source of all creation.
  • Even after presenting the Gospel, they were barely able to stop the pagans from going ahead with their sacrifices.
  • We also see Satan at work trying to prevent the spread of the Gospel.
    • Enemies came from Antioch and Iconium to dispute with Paul and Barnabas and turn the pagan crowd against them. 
      • They were able to convince the crowd that Paul and Barnabas were two ordinary men with no special qualities about them.
      • Since Paul was the main speaker, the brunt of their wrath was directed at him.
    • There is some debate in theological circles as to whether Paul was actually dead or the crowd thought he was dead. From the context, the latter view seems to be the correct one.
    • However, it is safe to say that a miracle occurred. Paul was saved from the actions of an out-of-control mob who wanted to kill him.
  • The disciples who were there were able to protect Paul and bring him into the city, likely to be treated and get some rest.
  • Realizing it was no longer safe to stay in Lystra, they begin their journey to Derbe, about sixty miles southeast of Lystra. 
    • The journey would take several days on foot.
    • Derbe was the easternmost church established by Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey.

The return trip to Antioch

Paul and Barnabas definitely didn’t choose the easiest path to get back to Syrian Antioch. This could have been easily accomplished by traveling about 150 miles to Paul’s hometown of Tarsus and, from there, back to their sending church. Instead, they decided to retrace their steps and visit each of the congregations they established on this mission trip. The return visit would allow them to follow up and assist each of the locations with any issues that might have arisen. Looking ahead, Paul will visit each of these congregations on his next mission trip in Acts 16. Here are the key points about their return leg as they visited the previously established congregations.

  • Even though they had been threatened in the previous locations, they felt the need to return and solidify their work.
  • They were engaged in evangelism on their journey.
  • They strengthened and encouraged the faith of the young congregations. 
    • This was likely done through further teaching and preaching.
    • They were told to expect troubles as a follower of Christ but to stand firm in their faith.
    • Paul and Barnabas may even have used their experiences on this missionary journey to illustrate what the new believers could face.
    • The idea of suffering is one that Paul often used in his epistles; we must be willing to suffer with Christ if we expect to share in His glory. 
  • They organized the churches by ordaining spiritual leaders and placing responsibility for the care of the congregation on them. An elder had the same role as the modern-day pastor; they are shepherds over a flock.
    • Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for each congregation.
    • It is possible that each congregation then affirmed these elders, although the wording in the original Greek doesn’t make that point clear.
  • They prayed and fasted with each congregation before moving on.
  • Although Perga wasn’t mentioned at the beginning of the trip, they spent some time evangelizing that town.

Finally, Paul and Barnabas completed their journey back to their sending church in Antioch. The church at Antioch had commissioned them, committed them to the Lord through prayer, laid hands on them, and sent them on their journey. Now, the missionaries have returned, and they will present a report on their journey.

  • The entire church was gathered to hear the report.
  • Paul and Barnabas related how the Lord had opened the doors to Gentiles, a subject that would  be the main topic of the Jerusalem Conference in the next chapter of Acts.
  • The entire missionary trip took just over a year to complete. The phrase “a considerable time” indicates about the same amount of time.
  • Therefore, Paul and Barnabas spent about a year in Antioch before the events of the next chapter unfolded. During this year, they were hardly idle.
    • Undoubtedly they did take a period of rest after their return.
    • They were likely involved in teaching the congregation at Antioch.
    • Paul likely wrote Galatians during this period.
    • Paul also refined and clearly communicated his theology on salvation during this time.

As we look back on Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey, here are several key points they followed.

  • They worked primarily in the key cities and instructed the believers to carry the message to the more remote areas.
  • They used one approach in the synagogues and another with the Gentiles.
    • In the synagogues, they referred to the Old Testament Scripture.
    • When preaching to the Gentiles, they emphasized the God of creation and His goodness to the nations.
    • Their starting point was different, but they always finished with the need for saving faith in Jesus.
  • The establishment of local churches was critical. This aligned with the Great Commission.
    • Making disciples – evangelism.
    • Baptizing – the responsibility of a local church.
    • Teaching the Word of God.
  • Paul and Barnabas were involved in extensive teaching to the congregations. This never included the idea of an easy or prosperous Gospel.
  • They did all this without modern communication and transportation.

Applications

  • Before beginning any ministry work, make sure that it’s God’s plan and not your plan. Everything we do in ministry should be for His glory, not our ego. If you align with God, your work will prosper and last.
  • Make sure you have a clear plan for your ministry work. During our five years in the mission field in Thailand, we ran across some who just “winged” it. It wasn’t a surprise they didn’t experience much success in their work. The God of the Bible is an organized God. When we do God’s work, there should be some level of organization to what we do.
  • Expect resistance as you are involved in ministry. Some of the opposition may be mild, but some may be strong. Hopefully, none of us will experience a stoning, but Scripture makes it clear that as we evangelize the Gospel message, the world will hate us.
  • Always truthfully report your ministry work to those who sent you and support you. While in Thailand, I ran across some missionaries who “embellished” the work they were doing. Be truthful about your results. On the flip side, if you support any missionaries, realize there will be dry times. Evangelism can be a lengthy process. God works in His time, not ours.

Acts Lesson Twenty-eight

Acts Lesson Twenty-eight: 13:13-52 – Paul’s Message in Antioch Pisidia

Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and went back to Jerusalem. 14 They continued their journey from Perga and reached Antioch in Pisidia. On the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 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 message of encouragement for the people, you can speak.” 

16 Then Paul stood up and motioned with his hand and said: “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen! 17 The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors, exalted the people during their stay in the land of Egypt, and led them out of it with a mighty arm.  18 And for about 40 years He put up with them  in the wilderness; 19 then after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, He gave their land to them as an inheritance. 20 This all took about 450 years. After this, He gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, so God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for 40 years. 22 After removing him, He raised up David as their king and testified about him: ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man loyal to Me, who will carry out all My will.’ 

23 “From this man’s descendants, according to the promise, God brought the Savior, Jesus, to Israel. 24 Before He came to public attention, John had previously proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 Then as John was completing his life’s work, he said, ‘Who do you think I am? I am not the One. But look! Someone is coming after me, and I am not worthy to untie the sandals on His feet.’ 

26 “Brothers, sons of Abraham’s race, and those among you who fear God, the message of this salvation has been sent to us. 27 For the residents of Jerusalem and their rulers, since they did not recognize Him or the voices of the prophets that are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled their words by condemning Him. 28 Though they found no grounds for the death penalty, they asked Pilate to have Him killed. 29 When they had fulfilled all that had been written about Him, they took Him down from the tree and put Him in a tomb. 30 But God raised Him from the dead, 31 and He appeared for many days to those who came 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. 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.  

34 Since He raised Him from the dead, never to return to decay, He has spoken in this way, I will grant you the faithful covenant blessings made to David. 35 Therefore He also says in another passage, You will not allow Your Holy One to see decay. 36 For David, after serving his own generation in God’s plan, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and decayed.  37 But the One God raised up did not decay. 38 Therefore, let it be known to you, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, 39 and everyone who believes in Him is justified from everything that you could not be justified from through the law of Moses. 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.”

42 As they were leaving, the people begged that these matters be presented to them the following Sabbath. 43 After the synagogue had been dismissed, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who were speaking with them and persuading them to continue in the grace of God. 

44 The following Sabbath almost the whole town assembled to hear the message of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to oppose what Paul was saying by insulting him. 

46 Then Paul and Barnabas boldly said: “It was necessary that God’s message be spoken to you first. But since you reject it and consider yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles! 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: 

I have made you 

a light for the Gentiles 

to bring salvation 

to the ends  of the earth.”

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and glorified the message of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed. 49 So the message of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the prominent women, who worshiped God, and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their district. 51 But they shook the dust off their feet  against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. (HCSB)

In this passage, we see Paul’s first detailed sermon in Acts. In it, we see many similarities with Peter’s sermons to the Jews. It also contains a feature that Stephen included in his defense before the Sanhedrin, a lengthy introduction of Jewish history. Later, when Paul focuses on the Gentiles, his sermon outline will change.

There are four main sections to this passage.

  • A Historical Foundation – verses 13-25.
  • A Universal Gospel – verses 26-37.
  • An Explanation of Biblical Forgiveness – verses 38-43.
  • Paul’s Evangelism Shift from Jews to Gentiles –  verses 44-52.

Before we get into the passage, let’s look at some information regarding the two main locations where the events take place, the cities of Perga and Antioch of Pisidia.

  • Perga
    • It was located about twelve miles inland from the coast.
    • It was between the Taurus mountains and the Mediterranean Sea.
    • Lycia was to the west and Cilicia to the east.
    • The province of Pamphylia became a separate Roman province in 25 b.c.
    • It could be reached by traveling seven miles up the Cestrus River from the Mediterranean port of Attalia and then fives miles west on foot.
  • Antioch of Pisidia
    • It was located 100 miles north of Perga.
    • It required the crossing of the Taurus mountain range.
    • The route was barren and often was flooded by mountain streams.
    • Bandits often attacked the route, and even the Romans had difficulty keeping security along the route.
    • It was located about 3,600 feet above sea level.
    • It was one of sixteen cities established around 300 b.c. by Seleucus Nikator in honor of his father, Antiochus.
    • It was located in the Roman province of Galatia.
    • It was the leading city in the southern part of the province.
    • It had the status of a colony city, which enjoyed the privileges of local autonomy and exemption from paying imperial taxes.
    • There was a large Jewish population located there.

One other issue brought up in the first verse needs addressing, John Mark leaving them and returning to Jerusalem. There are many possible reasons for his return. Here are some that scholars think are possible.

  • He may have become homesick.
  • He may have become unhappy because Paul had assumed the mantle of leadership that his cousin, Barnabas, had previously occupied.
  • John Mark was a devoted Jew, and he may have become uncomfortable with the idea of Gentiles receiving salvation. Coupled with this thought, his return to Jerusalem helped fuel the opposition of the legalistic Judaizers who later opposed Paul.
  • The fear of danger as the group moved into new and challenging areas.
  • He may have contracted malaria in the Pamphylian lowlands.
  • In the end, we don’t know the reason or reasons.

A Historical Foundation – verses 13-25

It was customary for Paul and Barnabas first to visit the local synagogue when visiting a city. For the Jews scattered during the Diaspora, the synagogue was more than a place of worship. It was the focal point for the local Jewish community; a house of worship, a center of education, a judicial center, a social gathering place, and a general “civic center.” If contact with the Jewish community was intended, this was the place to start. It was also the place to begin evangelism. Since Jesus was the expected Jewish Messiah, it was natural to share Him first with the Jews. It is also possible that the synagogue leaders extended an invitation for Paul to speak.

Let’s compare Paul’s sermon with others found in Acts.

  • It has much in common with Peter’s sermons.
    • The emphasis on the Jerusalem Jew’s responsibility for Jesus’ death.
    • The contrast between the death on the cross and the triumph of the resurrection.
    • The apostolic witness.
    • The Scripture text proofs.
    • The call to repentance.
  • It also has a feature in common with Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin.
    • The long introductory picture of Jewish history.
    • However, the two have very different functions for the history lesson.
      • Stephen used Old Testament history to illustrate the rebellious nature of the Jews to their divinely appointed leaders.
      • Paul used Old Testament history to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to His promises for Israel that were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
        • God chose Israel – verse 17.
        • God exalted Israel during their time in Egypt – verse 17.
        • God led them out of Egypt – verse 17.
        • God displayed patience – verse 18.
        • God gave them Canaan as an inheritance – verse 19.
        • God gave them Judges – verse 20.
        • God gave them a king – verse 21.
        • God raised up David – verse 22.
          • “Raised up” is an expression for bringing forth a prophet or ruler to serve the people.
          • It is also an expression for Jesus’ resurrection.
          • The promised descendant of David was Jesus.

Here are some facts to note about the sermon.

  • Paul understood there were two main groups in attendance.
    • Men of Israel – the Jews.
      • The primary group being addressed.
      • The group who ultimately rejected the message and became hostile.
    • You who fear God – Gentiles who worshipped Yahweh.
      • The secondary group who is being addressed.
      • The group that would respond favorably to the Gospel message.

A Universal Gospel – verses 26-37

For the second time in Paul’s sermon, he addressed those in attendance as “brothers.” Since both Jews and Gentiles were gathered, it is clear that anyone is a brother if they are united in faith in Jesus regardless of ethnicity. 

A supporting idea to this section of the passage is that just as David was Jesse’s son, Jesus is God’s son. Because of this connection, Paul’s message stresses the crucifixion, resurrection, and eyewitness testimony of Jesus being alive to confirm the truth and meaning of the Gospel. Paul presents a fourfold Christian confession that is strikingly similar to 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • He was buried in a tomb.
  • God raised Him from the dead.
  • Many witness saw Him.

Paul quotes three passages of Scripture in this section.

  • Psalm 2:7 – referring to the resurrection of Jesus.
  • Isaiah 55:3 – referring to the covenant God made with David.
  • Psalm 16:10 – the same passage Peter quoted in Acts 2 and considered a messianic psalm, indicating it applied to Jesus and not to David.

An Explanation of Biblical Forgiveness – verses 38-43

For the third time, Paul addresses those in attendance as “brothers.” He now turns to the most essential part of his message, a call to repentance. Paul had illustrated God’s continuous acts of grace and mercy throughout his sermon. Now, Paul directs the listeners to the greatest act of mercy, the forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial atonement of Jesus. In verse thirty-nine, Paul reaches the pinnacle of his message, “everyone who believes in Him is justified from everything that you could not be justified from through the Law of Moses.” 

Several points to note about this section.

  • Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the sole requirement for salvation.
  • We are justified when we place our faith in Jesus. Justification is understood as being acceptable to God.
  • We could never be justified by following the Law.
  • Paul concludes his call to repentance with a warning taken from Habakkuk 1:5.
    • The original intent in Habakkuk was a warning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s rise to power and threat of invasion if Israel failed to repent.
    • In the context of Paul’s message, God would again bring judgment on His people if they failed to accept the mercy and forgiveness found in Jesus.
    • If the people continued to reject the offered mercy, they would also be rejected.
    • This warning quickly proved true as the Jews in Antioch Pisidia rejected the message, and Paul turned to the Gentiles.

This section concludes with the people leaving after Paul completed his sermon. Those in attendance were impressed with what Paul had said and “begged” for the message to continue on the next Sabbath meeting. As they were walking, both Paul and Barnabas encouraged them to continue down the path they had started. At this point, it would appear that both the Jews and Gentiles were looking forward to the following week’s meeting. However, things will change significantly once the meeting begins on the next Sabbath.

Paul’s Evangelism Shift from Jews to Gentiles –  verses 44-52

As we begin the discussion on this final section, it is important to remember that Antioch Pisidia was a predominately Gentile city with a Jewish component. When verse forty-four says that “almost the whole town assembled,” that would indicate the crowd was predominately Gentile. Because of this, the Jews in attendance became jealous. We see here how the unity in Christ is challenged and that a rift will cause a group, the Jews, to reject the message because of a jealous heart. We also see how the enemy works. The previous week, Paul and Barnabas enjoyed great success in their message. Now, as they gathered again, hopeful of more souls being saved, the enemy crashes the party and sows dissension among those in attendance. 

Let’s look at some details in this section.

  • The “devout proselytes,” Gentiles, understood that the message of salvation through Jesus was also available to them.
  • This message would have spread quickly among the Gentile population, resulting in their large turnout on this Sabbath.
  • The Jews were filled with jealousy. 
  • The Jews began to oppose the message Paul was delivering. It is possible they were even speaking against the Gospel message.
  • In the minds of the Jewish population, it was blasphemy that in Jesus, God would accept the Gentiles as equals with the Jews.
  • This effectively ended the Jew’s acceptance of Paul as an evangelist.

Verses 46-48 outline a pattern that Paul would follow on his missionary journeys. We often hear or read that Paul only evangelized the Gentiles, but this would be incorrect.

  • At the very beginning of chapter fourteen, Paul begins in the local synagogue.
  • He repeatedly was rejected by the Jews in any given city. Once that occurred, he turned to the Gentiles.
  • Paul could never believe that God had completely turned from the Jews.
  • Paul’s greatest success in evangelism was with the Gentiles, but he never turned his back on the Jews.
  • Paul includes a section from Isaiah to support salvation to the Gentiles.
  • When the Gentiles heard this, they rightly rejoiced.
  • From this, we see an example of how the modern church should approach evangelism. We should never adopt a mission policy that only targets those who are most receptive to the Gospel message. All people groups should be evangelized, regardless of the previous success or failure in reaching them.

The chapter ends with a summary of what had transpired in Antioch Pisidia.

  • The success.
    • The message spread throughout the whole region.
    • The Gentiles understood that they were included in salvation by faith.
    • The Gentiles were equal with the Jews before God.
    • Those who placed their faith in Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy.
  • The opposition.
    • The Jews, in their jealousy, stirred up opposition and persecution against Paul and Barnabas.
    • Paul and Barnabas were expelled from the  area, likely with threats.
    • Paul and Barnabas pronounce judgment by shaking “the dust off their feet against them” as they leave the region and travel to Iconium.

Applications

  • Are you willing to share the Gospel where God leads you? This past week I gave a message at a Word of Life high school camp here in South Korea. The message was on the topic of “Grow” as it applied to the life of each disciple. I shared that all of us are either missionaries in some sense, or we are false followers of Jesus. The crux is that we can be missionaries to our neighbors next door; we don’t have to go to another country. Of course, if God leads you to another location, obedience is required.
  • The Gospel message is for everyone. There are no longer any special groups of people when it comes to sharing the message of Jesus. Jesus died for each of us, regardless of race, color, gender, socio-economic status, education, or age.
  • If a group rejects your message, concentrate on those who do respond. However, never give up on a group just because some choose to reject or even become hostile to the message.

Acts Lesson Twenty-seven

Acts Lesson Twenty-seven: Acts 13:1-12 – Missionary Work Begins

In the church that was at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch,  and Saul. 

As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.”  Then after they had fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them off.

Being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they came down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. Arriving in Salamis, they proclaimed God’s message in the Jewish synagogues. They also had John as their assistant. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came across a sorcerer, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and desired to hear God’s message. But Elymas the sorcerer (this is the meaning of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 

Then Saul—also called Paul—filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at the sorcerer 10 and said, “You son of the Devil, full of all deceit and all fraud, enemy of all righteousness! Won’t you ever stop perverting the straight paths of the Lord? 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.” Suddenly a mist and darkness fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 

12 Then the proconsul, seeing what happened, believed and was astonished at the teaching about the Lord. (HCSB)

This lesson will be split into two sections.

  • Missionary preparation – verses 1-3.
  • Missionary journey – verses 4-12.

Missionary Preparation

As the narrative in Acts has progressed, there has been a shift from Jerusalem and the Jews to Antioch and the Gentiles. As a reminder, the Antioch referred to here is along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and not in Syria. A few things to note from these first few verses.

  • Prophet – this is a reference to a New Testament prophet. These prophets spoke for God and were led by the Holy Spirit. They spoke an inspiring word from God for the edification and direction of the community.
  • Teachers – these individuals taught what was contained in Scripture (still Old Testament) and what Jesus taught.
  • The New Testament program for the sending of missionaries.
    • God calls those whom He chooses.
    • The church certifies the call.
    • The church and the Holy Spirit sent the missionaries out, backing them with support and prayer.

Let’s look at the men listed in verse one.

  • Barnabas – We already know about Barnabas from earlier sections of Acts. It appears that he was the leader of the Antioch church.
  • Simeon the Niger – His first name is Jewish, and his other name is Latin. In Latin, “Niger” means dark-complexioned or black, and some believe he was of African descent. Some also believe he was the Simon of Cyrene, mentioned in Luke 23:26, who carried Jesus’ cross, and he had two sons, Alexandria and Rufus, who were Christians in the church at Rome (Mark 15:21 and Romans 16:13).
  • Lucius of Cyrene – He is often associated with Luke amongst scholars, but no solid evidence supports this.
  • Manaen – The Greek term for “close friend” indicates someone who grew up with another individual. This indicates that Manaen was of a relatively high social standing and had at least a childhood relationship with Herod Antipas.
  • Paul – We already know about Paul, and from this point forward, he becomes the main human focal point in Acts.

A couple of things to note about Barnabas and Paul.

  • Throughout Acts, they fell under the authority of the congregation at Antioch. 
  • They were commissioned, not ordained, for specific missionary projects.

Missionary Journey

Before we begin breaking down this next section, it would be wise to review what Jesus said in Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43. In those passages, Jesus warns that wherever His believers are, the enemy would plant false believers. We see that occur in this section of the passage.

A few facts about John Mark before proceeding.

  • He was the cousin of Barnabas – Colossians 4:10.
  • His mother’s home in Jerusalem was a place where believers gathered – Acts 12:12.
  • It is likely that Peter is the one who evangelized and led him to faith in Christ – 1 Peter 5:13.
  • It is safe to infer that he helped both Barnabas and Paul in numerous ways, allowing them to concentrate on their call to evangelism.

The first stop on their journey was Cyprus, the home of Barnabas. Not much detail is given about their initial work in Salamis, the main commercial center on the eastern part of the island. As they continued their missionary journey, they traveled about ninety miles to Paphos, located on the western end of the island and the capital of Cyprus. It was there that they met their first opposition.

Now, let’s look at the people, outside of Barnabas and Paul, involved in the narrative.

  • Sergius Paulus.
    • The chief Roman official on Cyprus.
    • He was an intelligent man.
    • He was part of a family, Pauli, that was an influential Roman patrician family who produced many officials throughout the Roman empire over an extended period of time.
    • He desired to learn more about God from Barnabas and Paul.
  • Bar-Jesus.
    • His name means “son of Jesus.”
    • He was also called Elymas, which means either sorcerer or wise man. 
      • The same word is used in a positive light for the magi in Matthew 2.
      • However, it was often used to describe someone who was a charlatan, trickster, or falsely claimed to have special powers. 
    • Finding a Jew who was both a false prophet and sorcerer was unusual, as the Jews traditionally were not involved in sorcery.

Roman belief system on mystical powers and Bar-Jesus’ influence on Sergius Paulus.

  • They placed great stock in powers of divination.
  • They often had their personal oracles.
  • Charlatans were highly skilled and smooth in their trickery.
    • They were knowledgeable about the beliefs of their targets.
    • They practiced a form of pseudoscience.
  • Bar-Jesus’ credentials aided him.
    • The Jews had a high reputation among Romans for their depth of religious knowledge.
    • Josephus, in his writings, mentioned a number of Jewish sorcerers who experienced great success among the Gentiles.
  • Bar-Jesus likely offered his services to Sergius. It is likely that the agreement was lucrative for Bar-Jesus. In a way, this is similar to the events of Acts 8 and Simon, with the major difference being that Simon duped a large number of people while earning his false wages.
  • Bar-Jesus sees Barnabas and Paul as a serious threat to the arrangement he has with Sergius.

Paul, empowered by the Holy Spirit, then goes on the offensive against the false teacher.

  • He calls him the “enemy of all righteousness.”
    • Righteousness is a primary attribute of God throughout the Bible.
    • Elymas had positioned himself as an enemy of God.
    • He was filled with deceit and fraud.
    • He had deceived Sergius with his false claims.
    • Now, he was attempting to undermine the message of the Gospel.
  • In Acts, punishment could come immediately or after a period of time. Here, the punishment was swift.
    • Paul declares that the “Lord’s hand is against you.”
    • Paul declares that Elymas will be blind for an unspecified period of time.
      • Paul experienced blindness as a sign of the Lord’s presence in his conversion experience.
      • Elymas was struck blind as punishment.
      • Some scholars believe that Paul used blindness as a way to lead Elymas to conversion.
      • Others believe that the blindness was symbolic of Elymas’s spiritual state.
    • The blindness immediately strikes Elymas. From this point on, he needed assistance to move about.
    • We don’t know how long it lasted or whether it had any effect on Elymas, as he is never mentioned again.
    • The effect of the incident also had an immediate impact on Sergius.
      • The fact that Paul made a declaration and it immediately happened made a profound impact on Sergius.
      • He was also impacted by the teaching of Barnabas and Paul about Jesus.
      • Looking back on Acts, we see similar events occurring.
        • The healing of the lame beggar in Acts brings the crowds to the Apostles.
        • The teaching of Peter resulted in conversions in Acts 4.
    • This single event is the main point of the Cyprus narrative.
      • No other conversions are mentioned, although it is safe to believe there were other conversions.
      • Luke details one major conversion, a prominent Roman official.

Two last points to note about this narrative. This is the official point where Saul becomes Paul. Saul was preferred when dealing with the Jews. But now that the emphasis has switched to the Gentiles, his Roman name will be more helpful. Second, up until now, it has been “Barnabas and Paul.” Now, it switches to “Paul and Barnabas.” Later, it will be “Paul and his companions.” The shift in leadership for missions to the Gentiles was complete.

Applications

  • In your personal ministry endeavors, are you following the lead of the Holy Spirit, or are you “doing your own thing?” Over and over in the gospels and Acts, we see ministry success that aligns with God’s plan and the power of the Spirit. Outside of that, results do not last or don’t even occur.
  • Do you counter false teaching? This can occur either inside or outside of your church. We see Paul quickly going on the offensive against the false teaching of Elymas. We may not experience the exact same situation. It is more likely we may encounter subtle deviations from Scriptural truth. Regardless, deviations from the truth must be countered with the truth.
  • Are you ready to share the Gospel at any given moment or under any circumstances? Conversions can occur with either signs or teaching. We have no control over miracles other than praying for them. Still, we can make sure that our theological understanding of Scripture and the Gospel is firm, allowing us to teach in any given situation. 

Acts Lesson Twenty-six

Acts Lesson Twenty-six: Acts 12:20-25 – God’s Wrath and Power

20 He had been very angry with the Tyrians and Sidonians. Together they presented themselves before him. They won over Blastus, who was in charge of the king’s bedroom, and through him they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food from the king’s country. 21 So on an appointed day, dressed in royal robes and seated on the throne, Herod delivered a public address to them. 22 The assembled people began to shout, “It’s the voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 At once an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give the glory to God, and he became infected with worms and died.  24 Then God’s message flourished and multiplied. 25 After they had completed their relief mission, Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem, taking along John who is called Mark. (HCSB)

The narrative in this lesson can be divided into two parts.

  • The Power of God’s Wrath – verses 20-23.
  • The Power of God’s Hand – verse 24-25.

The Power of God’s Wrath

As we take a look at this section of the passage, let’s look at the background of Tyre and Sidon to understand their significance to this passage.

  • The relationship between Tyre, Sidon, and Israel goes back to the days of King Solomon as found in 1 Kings 5:9ff.
  • They depended on Israel for food – Ezra 3:7.

Now let’s look at the events in the passage since we understand the background between the parties in question.

  • In some manner, both Tyre and Sidon had angered King Herod. 
  • They were in danger of losing the support and assistance they had been accustomed to from the Jews.
  • In typical political maneuvering, they enlisted one of King Herod’s trusted servants, Blastus, to obtain a chance to plead their case before the king.
  • This meeting would serve a dual purpose.
    • It would enable the king to display his authority and glory.
    • It would enable the delegates from Tyre and Sidon to stroke his ego with flattery.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, provides much greater detail about the meeting.

  • The meeting took place during a festival honoring Claudius Caesar.
  • Herod wore a magnificent silver robe that glistened in the morning sun in honor of the occasion.
  • Because of the sun shining off the robe, the people began to shout, “the voice of a god and not of a man.” Josephus also recorded that the people responded that Herod was more than a mortal.
  • Herod neither affirmed nor denied the accolades from the crowd.
  • Then, looking up, Herod saw an owl.
    • Earlier in his life, when imprisoned in Rome, Herod had seen a vision of an owl and was told by a fellow prisoner that it was a sign of good news.
    • This proved true as he was subsequently released and installed as king in Israel.
    • However, the prisoner also told him that if he saw a vision of an owl a second time, he would only have five days to live.
  • Because Herod accepted the accolades and didn’t give God the glory, an angel of the Lord struck him with an affliction.
  • Herod was then taken to his residence and died five days later.

There is no discrepancy between Luke’s account of being struck at once with an affliction and Herod dying five days later. The angel of the Lord did strike Herod immediately, but the resulting death occurred five days later. One can imagine that Herod suffered for those five days before finally dying.

From this narrative, we can see several points that directly connect to the world we live in today.

  • The Tyrians and Sidonians were only concerned about obtaining food.
  • However, in the quest to obtain the food, they were willing to flatter the ego of a megalomaniac.
  • In this narrative, King Herod is a form of the future “man of sin” who will some day rule the world and persecute God’s people. The antichrist will make himself a god and demand all worship him.
  • Today’s world lives for praise and pleasure. Today’s world lives for the physical and ignores the spiritual. It lives by force and flattery instead of faith and truth.

The Power of God’s Hand

Although this section is only two verses long, but it presents a simple and strong message.

  • The spread of the Gospel message flourished and multiplied. In various places, Luke gives progress reports on the advancement of the Gospel and the state of the church.
    • Acts 6:7
    • Acts 9:31
    • Acts 12:24
    • Acts 16:5
    • Acts 19:20
    • Acts 28:31
    • From its humble beginnings in Jerusalem, the church will spread throughout the known world.
  • At the beginning of Acts 12, it appeared as if Herod was in control. James was executed, and Peter was in prison awaiting execution. By the end of Acts 12, Herod is dead, and the church is very much alive and growing.
  • The secret to the early church was prayer.

Acts 12 concludes with the return of Barnabas, Saul, and John Mark. Some things to note about this verse.

  • It likely occurred a couple of years after the death of Herod.
  • This would agree with the dating of the famine requiring the relief mission by Barnabas and Paul.
  • Evangelism to Judea and Samaria was now well established.
  • The message to the Gentiles had been spearheaded by Philip, Peter, and the church at Antioch.
  • Now, the focus will shift to Paul as he takes the Gospel to the Gentiles and the “ends of the earth.”

Applications

  • Do you focus on the temporal or the eternal? In the case of the Tyrians and Sidonians, the focus was on temporal to the point that they elevated a man to the status of an idol in place of God. This was an indication of faith, or lack of, in not trusting their needs would be provided. 
  • Do you elevate a person to an unhealthy status in your mind? We all have our favorite athletes, singers, actors, etc., but when we put them on a pedestal, we display an unhealthy attitude towards them. Our equality with the most famous or powerful person will be proven when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
  • How do spiritual storms affect you? Regardless of the trials or tribulations that we face, we need to stand firm in the calling God has placed on each of our lives. It isn’t easy, but as a follower of Jesus, that is the path we need to follow.

Acts Lesson Twenty-four

Acts Lesson Twenty-four: Acts 11:19-30 – The Church in Antioch

19 Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 Then the report about them was heard by the church that was at Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with a firm resolve of the heart, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And large numbers of people were added  to the Lord. 25 Then he went to Tarsus to search for Saul, 26 and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. 

27 In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine throughout the Roman world. This took place during the time of Claudius. 29 So each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea. 30 They did this, sending it to the elders by means of Barnabas and Saul. (HCSB)

I’ll split this lesson into two parts.

  • The church at Antioch – verses 19-26.
  • The Gentiles provide aid to the church at Jerusalem – verses 27-30.

The Church at Antioch

Before we dig into this passage, let’s take a look at the city of Antioch, the focus of the first part of the passage. Here are some facts, historical and cultural, that are pertinent to the understanding of the passage.

  • Founded in 300 b.c. by the first Seleucid ruler, Seleucus Nicator.
  • The population was approximately 500,000 people.
  • There was a sizable Jewish population, estimated between 25,000 and 50,000 people.
  • It was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria.
  • It was known as “Antioch the Golden, Queen of the East.”
  • It was a planned city, laid out in a grid pattern.
  • Its main street was over four miles long.
    • Paved with marble.
    • Lined on both sides by marble colonnades.
    • It was the only city in the ancient world at the time that had its streets lighted at night.
  • It had a busy port.
  • It was a center for luxury and culture.
  • It attracted a multitude of different people, including wealthy retired Roman officials.
  • It was a wicked city.
    • Possibly only Corinth was worse.
    • Greek, Roman, and Syrian deities were honored.
    • The local shrine was dedicated to Daphne, whose worship included immoral practices.
  • Despite all the challenges, it presented an exciting opportunity for evangelism.

The persecution that the early church faced, in this passage linked to Stephen, we see that instead of suppressing the advance of the Gospel, it actually enhanced its spread. The believers who were spread across the region weren’t shy or restrained in speaking about Jesus. This opportunity for evangelism led to “a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” 

The news of the large numbers of converts made its way back to the main church in Jerusalem and its leaders. They understood and accepted their responsibility to lead and shepherd the flock, wherever they might be scattered. In this case, it was the church at Antioch. The Jerusalem church commissioned Barnabas to go to Antioch and oversee the believers living there. If we remember back to the lesson that covered Acts 4:36, we’ll recall that Barnabas was nicknamed “son of encouragement,” the perfect choice to encourage and shepherd this new congregation.

How did Barnabas encourage this new church?

  • He was glad about what he saw. Whether or not they worshipped in the same way as the church in Jerusalem isn’t known, nor is it relevant. What Barnabas did see was a group of believers who were genuine in their love and worship of God.
  • He emphasized their “heart condition” as he taught them. To remain “true to the Lord” includes the following:
    • Loving God.
    • Walking as He walks.
    • Obeying what is contained in His Word.
    • Selflessly serving Him.

What were the results of Barnabas’ shepherding efforts?

  • The evangelism and witness of the believers made a significant impact in the city of Antioch.
    • Large numbers of people were added to the Lord.
    • When believers are firmly rooted in the Word, their witness will have an impact. Each church needs to have balance.
      • Between edification and evangelism.
      • Between worship and witness.
      • Between teaching and testifying.
  • The growth of the church meant that Barnabas needed help in shepherding the flock.
    • However, he needed someone to help with a Gentile congregation.
    • Barnabas immediately thought of Paul.
      • We recall that Barnabas had befriended Paul in Acts 9.
      • Barnabas knew about Paul’s commission to the Gentiles, Acts 9:15.
      • We can safely conclude that the two discussed Paul’s calling to the Gentiles on numerous occasions during their time together.
    • About ten years had passed from the point Paul had been converted to the time Barnabas brought him back to Antioch. Scripture doesn’t tell us precisely what he was doing, but we can infer some events.
      • He was likely evangelizing both Jews and Gentiles.
      • He may have founded the churches in Cilicia during this time; Acts 15:23, 41 and Galatians 1:21.
      • He may have experienced some of the sufferings listed in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.

What we see Barnabas do is something all churches should do. Leaders and mature believers placing newer/less mature believers in positions of serving. This enables them to grow in their maturity and take on more significant roles in the future. Instead of the pastor/elder or deacons doing the work in the church, it is the responsibility of each member to contribute to their local congregation.

The first section of this week’s passage includes the term “Christian.” This term is found in only three places in the New Testament.

  • Here in Acts 11:26.
  • Acts 26:28.
  • 1 Peter 4:16.

Some things to note about the term “Christian.”

  • The term was not originally used by Christians to describe themselves. They preferred other names.
    • Believer.
    • Disciple.
    • Brother/sister.
  • The first extensive use of the term by a Christian writer was by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, around the beginning of the second century.
  • It was actually made as a derisive label, combining two words.
    • The Latin suffix “ian” means “belonging to the party of.” 
    • Some of the pagan citizens of Antioch joined this with the Hebrew name “Christ” and came up with Christian.
  • The use of the new label would indicate a third group apart from Jews and Gentiles. 
  • This indicates that Christians were no longer viewed as a segment of Judaism. Instead, they had now become a distinct and separate group in the region.
  • This presented two problems.
    • Christians would lose the protection Rome gave to a religio licita or a legitimate and legally recognized religion. While under the umbrella of Judaism, they enjoyed this protection. Now, it had been removed.
    • How should Christians view the hope of Israel and the promises of Jewish Scripture?
    • These two problems would loom over them as the Christian mission moved increasingly onto Gentile soil.
  • The term itself has lost most of its meaning to those who allegedly are followers of Jesus.
    • It no longer means that a person has turned from sin and trusted in Jesus.
    • It no longer means that they’ve received salvation by grace.
    • Many call themselves Christians:
      • Even though they’ve never been born again.
      • Because they don’t view themselves as pagans.
      • Because they were born into a Christian family.
      • Because they attend church.
      • Because they volunteer at church.
      • Because they give to the church.
    • The only authentic way to become a Christian is to repent from sin and place your faith in Jesus.

Gentiles Provide Aid to the Church in Jerusalem

Let’s look at some things we can discern from this small section.

  • The prophets mentioned in verse 27 were Christians ministering to the local assemblies, teaching and revealing the Word of God. 
  • Because they made the trip from Jerusalem to Antioch, not a short journey at that time, we can infer that there was some type of close relationship between the two churches. 
  • We are introduced to Agabus.
    • He had the gift of foretelling, predicting the famine in this narrative.
    • He also manifested this gift again in Acts 21:10-11 when he prophesied that Paul would be arrested in Jerusalem.
  • There was a widespread famine.
    • This occurred during the time of Claudius, who was the emperor from A.D. 41-54.
    • The Jewish historian Josephus recorded that many died because of a lack of food.
    • The impact of the famine on the church underscores a shift that has occurred in the Jerusalem church.
      • In Acts 2-7, the church at Jerusalem didn’t have any needs; they were blessed.
      • Now the Jerusalem church needed outside assistance.

When we look back at the pattern for giving in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:31-35, we see a spirit of giving that was descriptive for that time. In verse 29, we now see a pattern of giving that I believe is prescriptive for the New Testament church.

  • The believers didn’t have “all things in common.”
  • Each gave according to their ability.
    • In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul says that if anyone doesn’t provide support for their own, they are worse than a pagan.
    • In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul says that we should give as our heart leads us, not out of compulsion.
    • Everyone contributed.

We also see a transition in leadership structure in verse 30. In previous sections of Acts, the gifts were laid at the feet of the Apostles. Now, we see the relief aid being given by Barnabas and Paul to the elders of the Jerusalem church. Let’s have a quick look at the term “elder.”

  • The Greek term is presbyteros
  • It is a person of responsibility and authority in socio-religious matters.
  • This is the first time the term is used in Acts.
  • They were mature believers who had spiritual oversight of the ministry.
    • 1 Peter 5:1.
    • 2 John 1.
  • Comparing Acts 20:17, 28 to Titus 1:5, 7, we see that an elder and bishop are equivalent.
    • They were the pastors of the flocks.
    • They were assisted by deacons.
    • The qualifications for both are found in 1 Timothy 3.

Applications

  • Although we may come from different denominational backgrounds and may worship differently or have different doctrinal beliefs, we should have grace and acceptance on the “minors” of the faith (method baptism for believers, style of worship, song choices, etc.) while having unwavering unity on the “majors” (salvation by faith, Jesus as the Son of God, lived a sinless life, born of a virgin, raised on the third day, etc.). 
  • Don’t try to do it all yourself; enlist the aid of qualified helpers. We see that in Barnabas’ actions. If he was selfish, he could’ve tried to oversee the church at Antioch himself. Instead, sensing a great work of God, he went to get Paul to help him. Whatever ministry we are involved in, we need to remember it’s not ours, it is God’s ministry.
  • We should be generous according to our ability to help our brothers and sisters in their time of need. This is an obligation clearly laid out in Scripture. We need to examine our heart and make sure we are giving freely and cheerfully, not out of some motivation of selfishness or attempt to gain attention by the size of our gift.

Acts Lesson Eight

Acts Lesson Eight: 4:32-37 – Unified Believers

32 Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common.  33 And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs. 36 Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas, which is translated Son of Encouragement, 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (HCSB)

Although this is a short passage to study, four main themes will be discussed.

  • Unity of believers – verse 32.
  • Evangelism – verse 33.
  • Generosity and care for each other – verses 34-35.
  • Introduction of Barnabas – verses 36-37.

What we see in these six verses is a snapshot of what the early church looked like.

Verse 32 – The unity of the believers.

In a previous lesson covering part of chapter two, we studied how the early church was involved in studying Scripture and prayer, both corporate and personal prayer. Now we see that the church was unified in thought. I believe that because of the characteristics outlined in chapter two, we see the characteristic of unity in this passage. When a group of people dig into Scripture together and spend large segments of time in prayer together, it leads to a spirit of unity and togetherness that would not be found if study and prayer were absent from the corporate body of Christ. 

What makes the description of the early church even more remarkable is that it was made up of sinners, just like you and me! They were no different than any modern follower of Jesus. We may think this level of unity and trust is impossible in today’s world, and honestly, that thought challenges my faith, but Scripture proves that sinners, albeit redeemed, can be unified in thought, deed, and word towards each other. That thought alone should give us hope as we see the world around us becoming increasingly chaotic. 

The phrase “were of one heart and mind” is deeper than the surface understanding of the phrase. The original Greek reads, “one in heart and soul,” and leads to a couple of conclusions regarding the phrase. 

  • They were united in heart. They had unbreakable emotional bonds with each other. They loved each other with unconditional love.
  • They were thinking in unity. They had the same theology. There was no discord or disagreement with activities or practices within the fledgling church. They concentrated on what was important; evangelism and loving each other with agape love.
  • They were experiencing what Jesus prayed for before His crucifixion. John 17:20-23 2I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. 21 May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. 22 I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. 23 I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.

Not only were they unified, but they were also generous to and cared for each other. This is an extremely rare quality in the world today, even in Christian circles, where many are only looking out for themselves, either implicitly or explicitly. Often to get something done, the cooperation of others is required. Cooperation requires that people are treated well; otherwise, they probably won’t cooperate. It’s also important to keep them happy. Happy people who are treated well are often more cooperative. However, often the underlying motivation is not generosity; it is selfishness. We want something to happen, so we “use” others to that end. As a Christian, we should never forget what God has done for each of us, we’ve been forgiven, and our nature has been changed. The early church realized that God had been generous to them, far beyond what they deserved, and they extended that generosity to those around them. 

Verse 33

Now we have a sudden shift from the unity and generosity of the church to evangelism and teaching. We should ponder why this shift occurs. I believe it signifies a critical element of what is expected of the church, evangelism and spreading the Gospel.

Evangelism, as understood in biblical characteristics, is a concept that seems to be fading in some segments of the modern Christian church. The focus of the early church was on going and spreading the Gospel message. Too often today, the focus is on “come and see” the church. To make this method effective, the church needs to devise ways to attract people to church. The labels attached to these types of churches are “attractional” or “seeker sensitive.” The church tries to find ways to make the church “attractive” or cater to the whims of those they are trying to bring into the spiritual body of Christ. When looked at honestly, the Gospel is not an “attractive” message as it is challenging. It doesn’t promise anything except for persecution. Oh wait, it does promise eternal security, but we need to be faithful through the persecution. It’s not a message that sinners would be excited to follow until they’re brought to their knees by the weight of their sinful nature and realize they need redemption.

Francis Chan, in his book Letters to the Church, conducts a simple exercise with church leaders. He asks them to list all the things that people expect when they come to church. The list often includes:

  • A really good service.
  • Strong, age-specific ministry.
  • A certain type of music/volume/number of songs.
  • A professionally polished sermon.
  • Convenient parking.
  • A clean building.
  • Coffee, maybe even a cafe within the church.
  • Childcare.

He then asks them to list the commands that God gave to the church from Scripture.

  • Love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12
  • Visit orphans and widows. James 1:27
  • Make disciples. Matthew 28:19.
  • Bear one another’s burdens. Galatians 6:2.

If we asked the same question to those we know in church or even ourselves, would our answer look like the first list or the second?

The early church knew what God commanded it to do. The modern church too often resembles what we want in church and not what Scripture commands. The church needs to have an outward focus if it is to be a biblical church. The “country club” mentality church is not a church that honors God or follows His commands.

At the conclusion of the verse, we see how the church was blessed for its faithfulness. It says, “and great grace was on all of them.” I don’t know about you, but I always want to be part of a church that experiences great grace. There is no church without evangelism. Jesus didn’t command His followers to plant churches. He commanded them to make disciples. A church was a natural outgrowth of effective evangelism. We see the same concept in Paul’s missionary journeys. He would go to a town and share the Gospel. As people would come to faith, he would spend additional time there, often raising up leaders (elders) for the new flock before moving on. His primary focus was on making disciples. Once that was complete, a new church was birthed.

Verses 34-35

When we read these two verses, we need to understand that selling all of one’s possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the Apostles are descriptive and not prescriptive. This means that although they describe a characteristic of the early church, they are not a specific command for us today. There are other passages in the New Testament that outline the principles of Christian giving, with 2 Corinthians 8-9 being one good example. Now that the discussion of descriptive versus prescriptive is finished let’s look at these two verses in some detail.

The first part of verse 34 illustrates an Old Testament concept found in Deuteronomy 15:4a There will be no poor among you. If Israel would keep God’s commands, then God would bless them, and there wouldn’t be any poor among them. The early church viewed the passage in Deuteronomy as describing the ideal final age when Israel would be entirely faithful to God, and there would be no poverty in the land. The early Christians viewed themselves as the people of God in the final times, seen in Acts 2:17, they were experiencing God’s blessings, Acts 4:33, and were striving to reach the ideal of the people of God with no poor in their midst. 

The land and houses described as being sold were not their primary residence or plot of land. This may not be readily apparent, but when looked at in the context of the passage, it would make no sense if it was referring to their only house. If they sold that, then they would become one of the needy. Instead, they liquidated their “extra” resources and used that to help those in need. 

Clarification is needed for the phrase, “laid them at the apostles’ feet.” This was not some act of worship towards the apostles or payment for the leaders of the church. But it was a gesture of submission to each other. The twelve apostles were appointed by Jesus to continue His mission. The submission and giving of funds were not to them but to the one they represented. To lay the gifts at the feet of the apostles was to give them to Jesus. This was likely a role that they didn’t relish, and we read later in Acts 6:2, where the financial responsibility in the church was handed over to a new position created by the Apostles. We would know that position today as the role of a deacon.

There are some who have labeled the practices described here as “Christian Communism.” However, that is completely misunderstanding the nature of how the church worked and the evil of political communism we see in the world today. Let’s compare the two.


Political CommunismChurch in Acts
Required actionsMandated by the state.Completely voluntary.
MotivationPower and greed.Love.
OwnershipState owned.Private ownership.

Private ownership continues in New Testament Scripture, with another example in Acts 12:12, which mentions the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. Throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament Epistles, there are numerous accounts of churches meeting in the homes of believers. A proper understanding of the early church would dispel any notions that it resembled political communism in its design and practice.

Verses 36-37

The final two verses in chapter four may seem out of place with the introduction of Barnabas. However, there are several reasons for Luke to introduce him at this point. 

  • Barnabas’ action of selling one of his properties and bringing all the proceeds to the Apostles was a demonstration of the widespread activity of the church described in the preceding two verses.
  • His action could have produced envy in Ananias and Sapphira, leading them to make a show of their selling land and giving a portion of the sale while secretly keeping the rest for themselves. 
  • Barnabas plays a significant role in the early church and is mentioned repeatedly in Acts as well as in Colossians. 
    • Barnabas was an encouragement to and supported Paul. After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, many of the Christians didn’t believe his conversion was genuine. They thought he was still plotting to arrest and kill Christians. Barnabas interceded and became an advocate for Paul’s acceptance into the early church.
      • Acts 9:26-27 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. 27 Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.
      • Acts 11:25 Then he  went to Tarsus to search for Saul, 26 and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
      • Acts 13:2 As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.”
    • Barnabas also encouraged John Mark after his failure on a missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas.
      • Acts 15:36-39 After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord and see how they’re doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. 39 There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus.
      • Colossians 4:10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you, as does Mark,  Barnabas’s  cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him).

As we reflect on this passage, especially the ideas of selling and giving, we need to understand that these ideas are descriptive and not prescriptive for each believer. They describe general concepts or characteristics of Christians and black and white rules. It should be viewed in light of our attitude towards each other and our attitude towards wealth. If we understand that everything we have comes from God, then we also understand it doesn’t really belong to us in the first place. We have stewardship responsibility over it, and we are expected to use these blessings wisely. When a Christian brother or sister is in need, it should be second nature on our part to help when and where we can. 

When we place this idea side-by-side with cultural norms, we clearly see that the church needs to be countercultural. The church (people) need to be united in purpose, thought, and action. There are five biblical principles for a unified body of Christ.

  • Each member must crucify themselves. Philippians 2:1-11 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
  • Leaders should endeavor to make unity a priority. Ephesians 4:3 diligently keeping the unity  of the Spirit with the peace that binds us.
  • Believers should meet often and share openly. 1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
  • Christian fellowship is spiritual unity in Christ. Spiritual disciplines enable us to have spiritual unity in Christ.
    • Worship.
    • Reading Scripture.
    • Prayer.
    • Fasting.
    • Serving.
  • Strive for agreement over the course of action. See Acts 15 for an example of this. Don’t rush to reach a result. Reach the result in God’s time.

Applications

  • Do you strive for unity with your Christian brothers and sisters, or are you the type that looks for conflict? We should strive for unity in purpose while not letting the ways of the world seep into the church. Conflict should only be started when the church or members of the church are clearly against what Scripture says.
  • Do you consider your possessions, money/stuff/time, yours or Gods? Your answer to this question will shape your actions regarding your possessions.
  • Are you involved in evangelism, either directly or in a supporting role? In the midst of our often busy lives, we are still called to share the Gospel.
  • Are you known as a son/daughter of encouragement or one of discouragement? We can be a person who builds others up, or we can be a person that tears others down. We control our actions in this area.