There is a dynamic quality to the early church that reminds us that we are far from finished in our quest to restore the New Testament church. And by dynamic, I don’t mean a picture of excitement and sensationalism, but movement. They didn’t stay and wait, they sent and went. They were committed to taking the gospel to every living person. And it wasn’t going to be hindered by persecution and difficult circumstances.
Let’s set the table for where we are in Acts:
Chapter 11 ends: “The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:29-30)
Chapter 12 ends: “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” (Acts 12:25)
In a way, ch. 12 is a parenthesis in the story of Paul. We noticed a few weeks ago that Luke takes us back and forth between the work of God among the Jews and the Gentiles. Chapter 11 introduces us to the work of Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles in the church in Antioch. Chapter 12 takes us back to the church in Jerusalem and Peter’s imprisonment and miraculous escape. But from chapter 13 on, Acts focuses our attention on the work of Paul. It begins in Antioch where Paul has been with Barnabas for some time. They have delivered the gift from the church in Antioch to Jerusalem and have now returned to Antioch and the growing church there. But Antioch has no intention of sitting on a good thing – 13:1-3 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
I want you to notice two things here: First, this church was serious about the work of God. They are worshiping, fasting, and praying--listening for God’s direction. Too often we decide what we want to do and then ask God to bless it – they ask God what to do and then they act on it. Second, when the Holy Spirit sets apart Paul and Barnabas, the church sends them. If you have a picture in your head of Lone Ranger Christianity, erase it. This is a group effort. Paul is never Superman running around independently saving the world – he is sent with Barnabas and a group of brothers – he is sent by the church in Antioch. They are integrally, intimately involved in this mission. I say that because at the end of this missionary trip, Luke writes in 14:26-28 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
I want to lay out Paul and Barnabas’ first mission trip geographically, then come back and walk through the highlights of each mission spot, and then notice the common themes that connect these cities together.
They traveled from Syria to Cyprus to Asia Minor and the provinces of Pamphylia, and Pisidia, and to the province of Lycaonia in Galatia.
They set out from Antioch to port city of Seleucia.
Sail 130 miles across the Mediterranean to Salamis, the most important city on Cyprus.
Travel through the island 90 miles to Paphos, the provincial capital.
Sail north to Perga the port city of Pamphylia.
Travel north to Antioch in the province of Pisidia, west to Iconium.
Cross into Galatia and the neighboring towns of Lystra and Derbe.
Backtrack to Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, south to Perga and to another port city of Attalia, and sail directly back to Syria and home to Antioch.
From departure to arrival, approximately 700 miles traveled over land and sea - between 2½ and 3 years invested in spreading the gospel and establishing and strengthening churches across the Northeastern Mediterranean. That’s their itinerary.
Let’s back up and notice the highlights:
On the island of Cyprus in the capital of Paphos, they have their first opportunity to present the gospel to a Roman official, Sergius Paulus, the pro-consul of Cyprus. It would seem that he invited them to present their teaching so that he would be aware of this newest Jewish sect that was infiltrating his magistrate. But Paul’s presentation of the gospel is so powerful that Sergius Paulus is convinced and converted. But they also meet a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas, who tries to thwart their efforts to convert the pro-consul, and Paul confronts the sorcerer and Elymas is struck blind by God. Vs. 12 sums up the encounter – “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.”
One of their companions on this mission trip was John-Mark, a young man from Jerusalem. It was his mother’s house where the church was hiding when Peter was arrested, and to her house that Peter went when he miraculously escaped. John-Mark was the nephew of Barnabas. But it was in Perga that John-Mark, for reasons we’re left to speculate, abandoned the mission and returned to Jerusalem. His departure will later become a bone of contention.
In Antioch of Pisidia, Paul is invited to speak in the synagogue and he delivers a powerful presentation of how it had been God’s plan from the beginning to send Jesus to redeem his people. He summarizes the OT history and prophets, finally concluding with the coming, the rejection, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. His sermon brings an immediate response of acceptance from many, but also a response of jealousy and opposition from the Jewish leaders. Paul and Barnabas make the first of many similar declarations in vs. 46 – “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” It is a decisive shift, and its implications will eventually bring about the events in ch. 15. But it is vs. 48 that has the great impact – “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.”
In Iconium, their preaching brings division – some believe, some oppose. It is interesting that their preaching never leaves anybody neutral and dispassionate. The gospel always stirs up strong emotions. When Paul in 2 Corinthians describes Christians as an aroma that is either the fragrance of life or the stench of death, it is just that powerful. People are either drawn to the grace of God or they are driven to destroy it.
When they come to Lystra they step into a hotbed of pagan religion. And when Paul heals a man crippled from birth, the reaction is just astounding. The crowd shouts out, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” And they call Barnabas Zeus, and Paul Hermes, and they wanted to offer sacrifices to them. Well, Paul and Barnabas put a stop to that and tell them about the real God of heaven. Meanwhile, Jews who had followed them from Antioch and Iconium infiltrate the crowd and turn them against the apostles. And now, instead of offering sacrifices to them, they stone Paul and drag him outside of the city and leave him for dead. Just as amazing though, is what happens when the disciples come out and gather around what they think is the dead body of Paul – he gets up and walks back into the city. And the next day they head to Derbe.
And after winning a large number of disciples there, they backtrack through the cities where they have been, strengthening these new churches and encouraging these new disciples to remain true to the faith, and appointing elders in every church, committing the churches to their care.
Notice a couple of recurring themes in this missionary journey:
In spite of the fact of Paul’s commission to the Gentiles, they begin at the synagogues – 13:5 in Cyprus, “they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues.” In Antioch – 13:14, “On the Sabbath, they entered the synagogue.” 14:1 – “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue.” Even though Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, the synagogue is still his starting point and his point of reference.
But in every place, they meet greater and greater Jewish resistance – 13:45 In Antioch – “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying.” 13:50 – “But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.” 14:2 in Iconium, “But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” 14:19 in Lystra, “Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.”
In spite of the opposition and persecution, they saw the gospel spread rapidly: At Antioch – 13:49 “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.” At Iconium – 14:1 “they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.” In Derbe – 14:21 “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples.”
This first missionary journey is a glimpse into the power of God’s Word to cross cultural lines, and attract people from diverse backgrounds and influence even the halls of government.
What do we need to take away from all this? Is it just another geography and history lesson about people and places long ago and far away? What is of any practical or relevant meaning in this trip around the Mediterranean?
First, don’t be fooled into thinking your words have no impact on the people around you. God’s Word is just as powerful today, whoever you are and wherever you are. It is just as powerful coming from your lips and from the lips of Pau. You don’t have to be Paul or Barnabas to be on a divinely appointed, Spirit-led mission. You have been sent. Don’t keep silent, don’t hold back – it is still good news – the best news the world will ever hear.
Second, don’t be surprised and don’t be discouraged when you face opposition. Jesus himself said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). Paul said it this way: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). That is an inevitable fact of the Christian life. Not because we are arrogant and obnoxious about our faith, but because a godly life and the word of truth are such a contrast with the world around us, that it demands a response.
Finally, God is at work today – in us and through us. He is making a difference through what you do and how you interact with people. You are sent. You are his ambassador for his kingdom. You have a mission and a message. You are a man of God, a woman of God. Live like it.
Posted on Sun, September 19, 2010
by John Roberts