Acts, Part 4

A search for books on how to “do church” will reveal many titles – Simple Church, Dangerous Church, Vintage Church, Deep Church, just to name a few. On my last post I recounted how the church at Antioch was a church that was formed because of the testimony to the Gospel by believers who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen. This was a dynamic community of believers, full of the Spirit and committed to the Word of God taught by gifted teachers and leaders. If I were to write a book about how this group “did church” I would give it the title, “Sending Church.”

Now 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. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus.  (Act 13:1-4 NIV)

Thus, the first of three missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul and his team was inaugurated. They went first to Cyprus because that was the home town of Barnabas. From there they went to the mainland of what is now Turkey, where they visited Perga in Pamphylia, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lustra and Derbe. Paul’s pattern was to  begin preaching in the synagogue, if there was one, because of his deep concern for his fellow Jews and also because they were recipients of the covenant from God and, as such, they has a right to hear the fully-revealed Gospel first. Yet this practice allowed him to fulfill his commission, which was to take the Gospel to Gentiles (Acts 9:15), as one of the common characteristics of synagogues was the presence of Gentile God-fearers–non-Jews who had an interest in Judaism. These Gentiles were very receptive to the Gospel and often responded enthusiastically, as did many Jews, when the offer of salvation through faith in Jesus was given.

But the non-responsive Jews regarded Paul’s message as a threat, indeed an affront to the Jewish heritage of following the Law of Moses, so they resisted, often with violence against Paul and his team. Consequently, Paul simply moved to another location where Gentiles were free to attend his teaching. Eventually, he moved on to the next town and conducted his ministry in the same pattern: preach in the synagogue, success among the Gentile God-fearers and some Jews, Jewish hostility, withdrawal from the synagogue, more success among the Gentiles, more resistance and persecution, flight from one city and journey to another.

Most of the persecution came from unbelieving Jews, not Roman sources during this period because the Roman government regarded Christianity a sect of Judaism, which was a legal religion. It was only later, when it became apparent that Christianity was distinct from Judaism, that Christianity was banned by Rome. However, among the early church was a segment of Jewish leaders who accepted Jesus as Messiah, but who also insisted that converts must not only put their faith in Jesus but also abide by the Law of Moses. We might call these teachers ‘legalizers” (the theological term is Judaizers, signifying that their legalism revolved around the Law of Moses). Their view was that faith in Jesus was not enough for salvation. Adherence to the Law, specifically the rite of circumcision, was also necessary. They gave Paul no little amount of trouble as the infant Church was spreading. The problem grew so strong that following their first journey, when Paul and his team reported to the Antioch Church (their sending church), a fundamental dispute arose that needed official Apostolic resolution. Therefore, the church initiated a plan to support Paul and his team by sending them to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the “mother church”. Acts 15 records the first Council that convened to settle church disputes:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Act 15:1-2 NIV)

The deliberation of this council resulted in the affirmation of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles and of the essential message of the Gospel of Grace, that faith in Jesus alone is sufficient for salvation.

After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Act 15:7-11 NIV)

This conclusion seemed good to everyone present, so they drafted a letter that outlined their decision and sent it back to Antioch (Acts 15:30-31). Upon receiving the letter and hearing the report from Paul and his team, the church rejoiced and was strengthened in its resolve to spread the Gospel of Grace.

It is a wonderful experience for a local church to send members of their fellowship on missionary ventures. Our own local church has had that privilege, both in sending career missionaries to vocational ministry as well as several short-term teams on missionary projects. I would like to think that we might be considered a sending church. But the story of Paul’s first missionary journey and of the consequential attention required by his sending church, brings up a very important point that I would like to discuss in my next post. As “romantic” as it is to be a sending church, there is also great responsibility and great accountability not only by the missionary(s) but also by the church. Being a sending church involves more than sending.

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