Today’s reading in Acts begins an almost exclusive focus on Paul’s missionary activity from the first missionary journey with Barnabas up to the time he was probably released from his first Roman imprisonment. Since many of us are unfamiliar with eastern Mediterranean geography, it might be useful to have a map ready as you read. There are lots of exciting, instructive, and inspiring stories ahead, so let’s get started.
Taking the Gospel home — Acts 13
Barnabas was Cyrian by birth and Paul was from Tarsus, a city in Cilicia (a little north of the Mediterranean’s northeastern corner’s shore. As Paul (Saul of Tarsus) and Barnabas are appointed by the Holy Spirit to missionary activity, the first places that they chose to evangelize were their native homes, Cyprus and Cilicia. This sort of dovetails with what Jesus told the man who had been possessed by legions of demons, “‘Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39). Now it is also true that Jeus said, (Matthew 13:57) “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” So, why go home? Because you know the area, you know the people, you know the language and customs, and you will be better trusted than a complete outsider. While it is still true that family and close friends may reject the message because of jealousy or unwillingness to believe that the kid whose diapers you changed could ever teach you anything; it is also true that others will listen to you better than a complete stranger. Who would you be more willing to listen to about a spiritual matter: someone like you or someone not like you?
Unbelief is really blindness — Acts 13
With regard to the existence of God, the authenticity of the Bible as the word of God, and Jesus being the Son of God, unbelief is really not because there isn’t enough evidence; it’s really more a matter of there being none so blind as those who will not see. This was made physically true as an illustration of sorts, as a sign, with regard to the Cyprian magician, Bar-Jesus, who opposed the Gospel teachings of Paul and Barnabas. And it needs to stand as a warning to us all to be careful to avoid being blinded to what God is saying in His word. Satan can blind us by a number of things: jealousy, fear of having been mistaken, family or friendship loyalties, laziness, a resistance to change, position and possessions, moral inconvenience, my emotions, a slick and persuasive speaker, and even more. Christianity, however, has plenty of evidences to its claims, and it’s truth is both accessible and understandable. Unbelief in its truth is a blindness that we choose.
Discouragement of desertion — Acts 13:13 and Acts 15:37-39
Not too much is said of Mark’s desertion of Barnabas and Paul in chapter 13, but his desertion becomes a major source of controversy between these two men later, when Mark wants to come on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-39). The emotional disagreement between these two men of such great faith highlights the true nature of the discouragement that had occurred, when Mark (barely mentioned up to this point) decided to go home. Sometimes we think that our presence or absence is not such a big deal, because after all, we’re really nobodies. But we’re wrong. Absentees vastly underestimate the damage that they do to the morale of the group though their desertion of the body or of a good work. Thankfully, Barnabas (as was typical of his personality and character — remember, Barnabas was his nickname, meaning Son of Encouragement) was willing to give Mark another chance, but Paul, remembering the apparent discouragement of Mark’s desertion, found himself unwilling to risk the success of his important missionary work with the presence of a previous deserter. Don’t be a discouragement to others; what you do really does effect and hurt others in their Christian walk and the church in its good works.
Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God — Acts 14:22,23
I’ve known folks, who, after becoming Christians, ran into persecution and tough times (usually from family), and who then complained to God that they thought that becoming a Christian was the right thing to do and now things are terrible. I guess they thought that becoming a Christian meant that life was going to be a rose garden from that day forward — God would protect them from all harm, living righteously would guarantee no more sorrow in their lives, and everyone would respect their new path of living. I’ve been looking for such a passage in the Bible for a long time now, and the only kind that I seem to find are those like Paul’s message: “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus never sugar-coated the cost of discipleship and neither did the apostles. The first, second, and third century church knew all too well how hard being a Christian was — the world didn’t make it easy. And the world continues to make it hard; it’s an uphill battle all the way, and to think differently is to set yourself up to quit when the going gets tough. “Expect it,” Paul is saying.
The council of Jerusalem — Acts 15
This part of the reading today is a watershed moment in the history of the church. Yes, the Gentiles were being included in the Kingdom, but the question remained whether or not they needed to be circumcised and live by the other laws of Moses. Pharisees who had come to believe in Jesus came to Antioch of Syria, where Paul and Barnabas had returned from their first missionary journey, and preaching that circumcision and obedience to the Law was necessary to be a full-fledge citizen of the Kingdom. This was a huge issue in Antioch of Syria, probably the largest population of Gentile Christians in the world at the time. Paul and Barnabas disagreed with this teaching vehemently and so they all decided to get a definitive answer from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. The decision that came out of this inquiry was that it was not necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised nor obey the laws of the Mosaic covenant. However, because the merging of the Jews and the Gentiles in the church was obviously going to be a long, rocky slog, the Holy Spirit and apostles did give the Gentiles what could be considered a compromise command to avoid offense among the Jewish Christians. They told the Gentiles, Acts 15:29, “that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell”; and the rationale was, Acts 15:21, “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
The lesson that comes out of this is less about what restrictions have been imposed on Gentile Christians and much more about the importance getting along. There are a couple of passages that are more in-depth in the New Testament on this topic in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, but the command and principle is clear, that the unity of all of God’s people, the church, is more important than anyone’s personal tastes or preferences. Doctrine is one thing that should never be compromised; but opinions and other disputable matters for the sake of unity must always be negotiable — unity is just that important.
See you tomorrow, Lord willing.