Acts Lesson Forty-three

Acts Lesson Forty-three: Acts 20:17-38 – Paul Addresses the Ephesian Church

17 Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time — 19 serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and with the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews — 20 and that I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching it to you in public and from house to house. 21 I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God  and faith in our Lord Jesus. 

22 “And now I am on my way to Jerusalem, bound in my spirit,  not knowing what I will encounter there,  23 except that in town after town the Holy Spirit testifies to me that chains and afflictions are waiting for me.  24 But I count my life of no value to myself, so that I may finish my course  and the ministry  I received from the Lord Jesus,  to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. 

25 “And now I know that none of you will ever see my face again—everyone I went about preaching the kingdom to. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent  of everyone’s blood,  27 for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.  28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock  that the Holy Spirit has appointed you to as overseers,  to shepherd the church of God,  which He purchased with His own blood.  29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 And men will rise up from your own number with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them.  31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 

32 “And now  I commit you to God and to the message of His grace,  which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance  among all who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing.  34 You yourselves know that these hands have provided for my needs and for those who were with me.  35 In every way I’ve shown you that by laboring like this, it is necessary to help the weak and to keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus, for He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” 

36 After he said this, he knelt down and prayed with all of them.  37 There was a great deal of weeping by everyone. They embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 grieving most of all over his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they escorted him to the ship. (HCSB)

I’ll divide this lesson into four parts.

  • A review of the past – verses 17-21.
  • A testimony of the present – verses 22-27.
  • A warning about the future – verses 28-31.
  • A final blessing – verses 32-38.

A Review of the Past

Once the elders from the church in Ephesus arrived, Paul began his address to them. The opening section reminded them of how Paul had conducted himself during his time with them in Ephesus. Paul pointed to three basic characteristics of his ministry.

  • Humility.
    • The language Paul uses reminds us of the language in his epistles.
    • He often spoke of serving, douleuo, the Lord.
      • 1 Thessalonians 1:9 – “for they themselves report what kind of reception we had from you: how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.
      • Colossians 3:24 –  “knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.” 
    • Paul often described himself as a slave or servant, doulas, of Christ.
      • Romans 1:1 – Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and singled out for God’s good news.
      • Galatians 1:10 – “For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ.” 
      • Philippians 1:1 – Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.
      • The proper demeanor of a servant is humility, and Paul frequently pointed to that quality as a major indicator of the Christian life.
        • Philippians 2:3 – Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 
        • Colossians 3:12 – Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
        • Ephesians 4:1-2 – Therefore I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience,  accepting one another in love.
  • The openness of his proclamation.
    • Paul kept no secrets and held nothing back.
    • Whatever was true to the Gospel and helpful to the believers, he preached both in public and in the more intimate setting of individual homes.
      • The reference to public teaching reminds us of Paul’s time in the synagogue and the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
      • The reference to homes reminds us of Paul’s time in the house church meetings of the Ephesian Christians.
    • Paul’s methodology reminds us when we are faithful to proclaim the truth, there is nothing to hide.
  • The inclusiveness of his witness.
    • Paul preached to everyone.
      • He preached to the Jews.
      • He preached to the Gentiles.
      • Even though Paul recognized his special calling as being an Apostle to the Gentiles, he never abandoned the Jews.
      • Paul realized, probably more than anyone else, that God is the God of everyone.
      • Romans 3:29-30 – Or is God for Jews only? Is He not also for Gentiles? Yes, for Gentiles too, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 
      • There is no room for exclusiveness in the Gospel.
        • It is for Jews and Gentiles.
        • It is for slaves and free people.
        • It is for men and women.
      • However, the Gospel is exclusive in its claim.
        • Acts 4:12 – There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.
        • Salvation is only through faith in Jesus.

A Testimony of the Present

Paul now prepares the elders of the Ephesian church for his impending absence. Paul was getting ready for the next stage in his journey to Jerusalem, not fully knowing what would happen, yet understanding through the revelation of the Holy Spirit that persecution was in his future. Let’s look at some features from this section of the passage.

  • Paul and the team still had the offering they had collected and were transporting to the church in Jerusalem.
  • Paul knew there would be some type of trouble once he arrived in Jerusalem.
    • Romans 15:31 – Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, that the gift I am bringing to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.
    • Paul knew there was a personal risk from non-Christians.
    • Paul had at least some doubt about how the offering would be viewed by the Jerusalem Christians.
  • The Holy Spirit was warning Paul of the dangers yet was also directing him to go. There is no contradiction between these two facts.
    • God had a purpose for sending Paul to Jerusalem.
    • The warnings were to prepare Paul to face what was coming.
    • The message was also an assurance that regardless of what happened, God was involved in it.
      • Paul would face server trials in Jerusalem.
      • Through these trials, Paul would ultimately bear his witness in Rome, which he deeply desired.
        • Acts 19:21 – When these events were over, Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem. “After I’ve been there,” he said, “I must see Rome as well!” 
        • Romans 1:9-12 – For God, whom I serve with my spirit in telling the good news about His Son, is my witness that I constantly mention you, 10 always asking in my prayers that if it is somehow in God’s will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I want very much to see you, so I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, 12 that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 
  • In verse 24, Paul states the reason he was willing to travel to Jerusalem and face the dangers waiting for him there.
    • Paul was ready to give up his life for the sake of the Gospel.
    • Paul referred to his life’s ministry as “the race.”
      • 2 Timothy 4:6-7 – For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
      • The race Paul referred to was the ministry calling he received from Jesus.
  • Paul then gives his final farewell to the Ephesian elders.
    • Paul was on his way to Jerusalem.
    • Danger was waiting for Paul in Jerusalem.
    • Paul had completed the work given to him in the east.
    • His new mission would be in the west, Rome.
    • Paul then declares he is innocent of anyone’s blood.
      • Paul preached the Gospel wherever he went, never shrinking back from that calling.
      • There is a subtle reference to Ezekiel 33:1-6 – The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to your people and tell them: Suppose I bring the sword against a land, and the people of that land select a man from among them, appointing him as their watchman, and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows his trumpet to warn the people. Then, if anyone hears the sound of the trumpet but ignores the warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood will be on his own head. Since he heard the sound of the trumpet but ignored the warning, his blood is on his own hands. If he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. However, if the watchman sees the sword coming but doesn’t blow the trumpet, so that the people aren’t warned, and the sword comes and takes away their lives, then they have been taken away because of their iniquity, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.
      • The watchman blows the trumpet as a warning.
      • Once the watchman has warned the people, he is no longer responsible.
      • Paul had preached the Gospel and had called people to repent.
      • The responsibility now rested with those who had heard Paul’s message.
      • This is also the calling of all followers of Christ. We are to proclaim the message. Once we have done that, the responsibility rests with those who have heard the message.

A Warning About the Future

Now, Paul warns the Ephesian leaders of future threats, threats which we still face today. As we look at the structure of Paul’s warning, let’s note the features it contains.

  • It’s important to note the order which Paul uses in the warning.
    • The first area to guard is the elders.
      • Leaders are the most important element within any organization.
      • Attacking or eliminating leaders can often bring disarray or defeat to an organization.
      • This is especially true in ministry. Discrediting or causing ministry leaders to have moral or ethical failings can often have broad and far-reaching impacts.
    • Once the leaders have prepared (safeguarded) themselves, they can effectively guard the flock that’s been entrusted to their care.
    • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in verse 28?
      • It is likely that Paul appointed the initial elders of the Ephesian church.
      • However, as the church grew and Paul wasn’t there, the responsibility would belong to the congregation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
      • Those who were gifted as teachers and leaders would be appointed to the office of elder.
    • What is meant by “overseer?”
      • The Greek word is episkopos, which is translated as “overseer” in some translations and “bishop” in others.
        • A monarchial bishop that ruled over more than one congregation doesn’t make sense in this context.
        • The monarchial structure didn’t exist until the second century.
      • In the New Testament, when the term episkopos is used to describe a function within the church, the term is interchangeable with the term presbyteros, which is called an elder.
        • This is clearly the case here. The Ephesian leaders were called “elders” in verse seventeen.
        • However, the term may be better understood to describe a function, overseeing the flock, rather than an office.
      • The Ephesian leaders were elders whose function was to “shepherd the church of God.”
    • Whose blood was the church purchased with?
      • The reading of the text seems to point to God’s blood, and there are differing views by scholars on what is meant.
        • It could be a reference to the Trinity, but there isn’t anything else in the New Testament that corresponds to this phrase.
        • Some manuscripts read “church of the Lord,” but that doesn’t appear to be the original writing.
        • Some believe that Christ is implied in the passage.
        • Some recent translations and commentaries have taken the position that the blood is Christ’s, and since Christ is God’s own beloved Son, there is a connection.
      • The last position would appear to be the best solution to a difficult verse.
  • Now, Paul goes on to warn the leaders of a time when predators would attack the church.
    • Savage wolves describe those who will attack the church from the outside.
      • This would include false teachers or cults.
      • The term “wolves” is often used in Jewish apocalyptic and early Christian writings to describe false teachers and prophets.
      • Jesus warned the disciples of this danger in Matthew 7:15 – Beware of false prophets  who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 
      • There are several references to this fact in New Testament writings.
        • Ephesians 5:6-7 – Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient because of these things. Therefore, do not become their partners.
        • Colossians 2:8 – Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.
        • Revelation 2:2 – I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not,  and you have found them to be liars. 
      • However, the danger wasn’t just from outside false teachers. There were some within the church who would fall away from the true Gospel and lead others astray.
        • 1 John 2:18-19 – Children, it is the last hour. And as you have heard, “Antichrist is coming,” even now many antichrists have come. We know from this that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.
        • 3 John 9-11 – I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive us. 10 This is why, if I come, I will remind him of the works he is doing, slandering us with malicious words. And he is not satisfied with that! He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church. 11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.
  • Paul concludes with reference to the three-year ministry in Ephesus.
    • It wasn’t just a reminder of his warning.
    • It was an appeal for them to be faithful to the teachings he brought to them.
    • It was a warning to stay alert and not become careless.

A Final Blessing

The conclusion to Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders in Miletus included both a benediction on the elders and an exhortation to them, followed by a final farewell.

In some ways, the benediction also included warnings.

  • The sin of shallowness. We can’t build the church unless God is building our lives daily.
    • Time in prayer.
    • Time in studying God’s Word.
  • The sin of covetousness. 
    • A consuming and controlling desire for what others have and more of what we already have.
    • “Do not covet” is the last of the ten commandments. If we break this commandment, we will likely break all the other ones.
      • We will steal, lie, and murder to get what we want.
      • We will end up dishonoring our parents.
      • Covetousness is idolatry.
      • One of the qualifications for an elder is that he must not be guilty of covetousness.
  • The sin of laziness.
    • Paul worked as a tentmaker to support himself, even though he could have used his apostolic authority to justify support from the church.
    • When we work, we are able to help those in need.
    • However, we must remember that it isn’t wrong for Christian workers to receive a salary, as noted in Luke 10:7, but they need to earn their salary.
  • The sin of selfishness.
    • Gospel-centered living means to give, not receive.
    • It means following the example of Jesus.
    • Blessing comes from sharing what we have, not hoarding it for ourselves.
    • Those in ministry leadership positions are to be servants, a giver, and not a taker.

Paul then kneeled down to pray with them. Knowing it was the last time they would see each other in this life, they shed many tears as they parted ways. As painful as partings can be, as followers of Jesus, we have the assurance that we will be reunited in our eternal home!

Applications

  • Leadership within the church is a special calling. This calling requires the following characteristics.
    • Individuals who are committed to spending time with God and investing in their spiritual growth.
    • A feeling of contentment with what they have. This includes both their worldly possessions as well as their ministry position. Ministry leaders can “covet” a higher or more prestigious position instead of being satisfied with where God has planted them.
    • Embracing the hard work that is required with Kingdom-building. While it’s true that most of us won’t have the level of energy and passion that Paul exhibited in Scripture, we still need to work hard at the calling God has placed on our lives.
    • Leaders need to be generous with their time, talent, and possessions. Sometimes this can be challenging, but it’s what Jesus calls us to do.
  • Followers need to exhibit the same characteristics. All followers of Christ have a priestly identity. When we don’t exhibit the characteristics listed above, we can often display a witness that harms the church instead of advancing the church.
  • We need to challenge each other as we walk the path given to us. If we see others failing, we need to come alongside them and correct them in the spirit of love. At the same time, if we are the ones falling short, we need to be accepting of the correction extended to us. We shouldn’t get defensive or be hurt. All of us make mistakes and stumble. It’s how we respond to the stumble and correction that exposes where our allegiance lies.

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-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.