Methodist Recorder – Reflections Series June-August 2012
When we read the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles we discover that the church at Antioch in Syria was very prominent.
Everything began in Jerusalem with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost but the fledgling church remained only a movement cradled within the Jewish religion and that is the way it would have stayed if it hadn’t broken away. The persecution of the church provided the means for that to happen and in only a short time the church underwent rapid expansion.
I always find it amazing that God can weave his purpose into all situations even persecution. We shouldn’t be surprised at this because when Jesus was crucified the authorities thought they had done away with him once and for all but their evil intent merely provided the means for our Lord’s Resurrection.
The Open Doors charity that serves the persecuted church today makes the point in their prayer handbook that despite increased persecution the church is growing today. In Africa and Asia that growth is significant. Only in some areas of the world is Christianity actually declining and in countries like Iraq that is due to a mass exodus of Christians, rather than a turning away from the faith.
In Saudi Arabia, a country traditionally closed to the Gospel there are reports of people coming to faith in Christ and an increased boldness in witness. A pastor in one Gulf state said, ‘When we suffer, we bring credibility to the gospel that cannot be ignored, because we show that Christ is worth it and that is the secret of growth under persecution.’
We read these words in Acts ‘Now those who had been scattered by the persecution travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them however men from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also telling them about the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lords hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Tertullian wasn’t far wrong when he said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that the church at Antioch in Syria was thriving. News of all the good things that was happening there reached the church at Jerusalem and so they despatched Barnabas who was one of the most respected men in the church to go and investigate. When he arrived in Antioch and saw the wonderful things this new church was doing he encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He then went to Tarsus and found Saul and for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the Antioch church and taught great numbers of people.
Antioch in Syria was very much a multicultural city. It was founded around 300 B.C and after Rome and Alexandria it was the third largest city in the Roman empire with a population of about 500,000. It was described by the theologian John Stott as ‘a melting pot of Western and Eastern cultures, where Greek and Roman traditions mingled with Semitic, Arab, and Persian influences.’
We talk today as if multiculturalism is a relatively modern thing. When we look at the history of the church it was against the backdrop of multiculturalism that the church really grew.
If the city of Antioch was diverse so was the church leadership. It included Barnabas, a wealthy Jew, Saul a former Pharisee, Lucius from Cyrene in North Africa, Simeon called Niger from West Africa and a leader called Manean who had been brought up with Herod and therefore probably an Idumean.
How wonderful that Christ can unite us even though we are very different people.
It was Donald English, one of Methodism’s great preachers of the last century who reminded us that despite our diversity we all look remarkably similar at the foot of the cross for we are all sinners in need of redemption.
It is a fact that the closer we come to Jesus Christ the closer we come to each other.
Do you think that being a large church is the end to which God is moving us? The Acts of the Apostles tells us that great numbers of people were coming to the Lord through the ministry of the church at Antioch. How wonderful that day by day new converts were joining the fellowship.
It’s lovely being part of a large fellowship of Christians with all that is going on but there are dangers that may not be apparent to the casual observer. Some people can feel lost and even anonymous in large groups of people and you do hear stories of visitors to so called large vibrant churches who can walk in and walk out on a Sunday with hardly anyone speaking to them.
It is very important to have good pastoral groups and cell meetings within churches because first and foremost we have to care for each individual and value the contribution that they make.
The biggest danger a large church faces is that it can get lulled into thinking that God is somehow pleased because the church is full but what matters most is not whether the church is full of people but whether the people in the church are full of God.
That is what was happening at Antioch. They were thriving because they had a real longing for God and made prayer a priority. It was while this church was worshipping the Lord and fasting that the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’.
How do we discern the will of God for the church today? It has to be as we wait upon God in prayer and worship. Heaven help the church that tries to discern God’s will through a committee.
In the interest of democracy, good church order and structure we have to have committees but the sad truth is that there are far too many people in our churches sat on committees rather than in prayer meetings.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Holy Spirit was doing remarkable things at the church at Antioch. Through prayer and fasting the message came to them that they had to take Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations seriously. The church may have been growing locally but for it to be true to its divine commission it had to be looking and moving outward.
This is true of any church at any time. Have a look at the statues of John Wesley outside the New Room at Bristol and at Wesley’s chapel in London and notice how his back is set towards the church and his face is set towards the world, the world that Wesley declared was his parish.
The church must always be looking outward. The Holy Spirit came to those in Antioch and told them to take the Gospel to the Gentile world. Barnabas and Saul were commissioned and sent on their way and so began the first missionary journey.
They travelled first to the seaport of Selucia where they boarded a boat that took them over to Cyprus. We know Barnabas was a Cypriot and so it was a kind of going home for him and no doubt he would have had many family members and friends on the island.
They landed at the port of Salamis and began proclaiming the Word of God in the Jewish synagogues. The fact that there was more than one synagogue at Salamis indicates that there was quite a sizeable Jewish community there.
Even though Saul was God’s chosen instrument to take the Gospel message to the Gentiles he did not think for one moment that God had rejected the Jewish people in fact he was adamant about it. This is something we need to be mindful of today and I would urge you to read the book of Romans chapter’s nine to eleven where Paul deals with this in detail.
“Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead…if the root is holy then the branches also are holy.”
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that supports the root, but the root than supports you.” (Romans 11)
In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the Antioch church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit sent a team made up of Barnabas, Saul and John Mark on a missionary journey. When they arrived on the island of Cyprus they preached at Salamis and then travelled across the island, probably taking the southern Roman road to Paphos, a distance of 115 miles.
Paphos was the seat of local government and the home of a Roman proconsul called Sergius Paulus. In 1877, an inscription was found near Paphos, bearing Sergius Paulus’s name and title of proconsul and in 1888 his name was also found on a memorial stone in Rome. The stone records that in AD 47 he was appointed as one of the keepers of the banks and channel of the river Tiber holding this office when he returned to Rome after his three years as governor of Cyprus.
Sergius Paulus was an intelligent man with his finger on the pulse of life on the island, as might well be expected in the highly organised Roman empire. He was intrigued to hear the message that Barnabas and Saul were preaching and so he invited them to meet with him because he ‘wanted to hear the word of God’
Have you ever thought to yourself that he would never have heard that message if Barnabas and Saul had remained in the church back at Antioch. It is because they had the courage to take the message out that this Roman gets to hear it and eventually comes to faith.
How do people hear the Word of God today? We say that they can come to church to hear it and then wonder why they don’t.
Go forth and tell! God’s love embraces all. He will in grace respond to all who call. How shall they call if they have never heard the gracious invitation of his word. J E Seddon
In this series of reflections I have been concentrating on the first missionary journey as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Last week we heard how Barnabas and Saul travelled to Paphos, the capital of Cyprus and whilst they were there were invited by the Roman governor Sergius Paulus to share with him the Word of God.
The governor already had a spiritual advisor called Elymas, described as a Jewish sorcerer. When he knew that Barnabas and Saul were meeting with the governor he opposed them and tried to turn the governor from the Christian faith.
Saul’s condemnation of this sorcerer was scathing as he accused him of perverting the right ways of the Lord.
The first century world was a real melting pot of different faiths and belief systems. The first Christians witnessed to this world not by pulling other faiths down but by lifting Jesus up and proclaiming the good news of God. Saul could live with the fact that there were sorcerers and magicians but when they stood in the way of someone hearing the Good News then they incurred his wrath.
Saul described the sorcerer as a ‘child of the devil’. It’s Interesting isn’t it that a child of the devil is nestled up close to a man of power and influence. Elymas knew that if this Roman leader became a Christian then that would spell trouble for him and all that he stood for. Despite his protests Sergius Paulus did become a Christian and Elymas was no more.
There are forces today that are actively anti Christian whose purpose is to turn men and women from the Christian faith. After what happened to Elymas we need not say any more about the condemnation that awaits them.
From Cyprus the group sailed on to Pamphylia in Asia Minor which is modern day Turkey. Things changed, in that from this point on Saul was officially called Paul and was not referred to as Saul again. Some say that he took on the name Paul after his meeting with Sergius Paulus but there is no evidence for that. The other interesting thing is that up to this point the missionary team was described as Barnabas and Saul from now on it would be Paul and Barnabas.
The churches first missionary journey as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles started from the church at Antioch in Syria. The mission team was made up of Barnabas, Paul and John Mark.
After a very successful visit to the island of Cyprus where many including the Roman governor came to faith they set sail north to the coast of Pamphylia (southern Turkey).
They travelled a short distance inland to the city of Perge from where they would set out and cross the Taurus mountain range. Quite unexpectedly John Mark left them and returned home. Why did he leave?
Some have said that he was tired of travelling while others have said that he was fearful of crossing the mountains and being subject to attack from brigands or wild animals. Some have suggested that he was missing his home and family. Another theory was that he was resenting the fact that when they set off Barnabas his cousin was leading the mission and now increasingly Paul was taking control. We are not told the reason why only that John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem.
It’s interesting how you find people walking with you on the Christian journey and then for some reason they go in a different direction. Some people are with you all of your life but some are there just for a time. Take a moment to think of all those people who have travelled with you and who have influenced, helped and encouraged you. I guarantee that the list is a long one.
We have companions throughout life’s journey but the Christian has something else and that is the knowledge, the assurance that the Lord Jesus walks with us. Even in the dangerous places and through the darkest moments in life he will never leave us, nor desert us.
Paul and Barnabas would have needed courage to cross that difficult mountain range not really knowing who or what they would encounter but they set out knowing that God was with them.
They were heading for a city called Antioch in Pisidia, a large city that was also a Roman colony. They were walking into the unknown but they persevered for Christ knowing that he was with them every step of the way. Do you know in your heart that Christ walks with you?
When Paul and Barnabas arrived in the city of Antioch Pisidia they visited the local synagogue. They went in and sat down and did not speak until they were invited to do so. There was great reverence and humility in that holy place.
The leading elder of the worship service could tell that Paul was a Pharisee perhaps because of what he was wearing and so he invited him to speak. The thirteenth chapter of Acts records in some detail Paul’s first sermon. It is almost identical to the sermon Stephen preached before his martyrdom in Jerusalem years earlier. The interesting thing about that is that Paul was present then and held the cloaks of those who murdered Stephen. How God had worked mightily in Paul’s life to turn it around.
As with any sermon there are multiple responses. They say that one sermon is preached but hundreds are heard.
Many came to Christ after hearing Paul preach but others, mainly the Jewish leaders were jealous of him and the positive response he was receiving.
They began to spread rumours about Paul and they did everything in their power to undermine his credibility. That is what happens when there is a battle of ideas in the public arena. If your side is losing you don’t oppose the idea you oppose the proponent of the idea. We sometimes see it in political campaigns when politicians attempt to smear their opponent’s character.
With Paul, they didn’t attack the message they attacked the messenger. As we tell others about the love of God shown in Jesus let us be aware that we too will come under similar attack.
Paul and Barnabas were expelled from the city which was a common experience for them. He was preaching a radical message of God’s grace overpowering man’s attempt at righteousness. He was showing how the Jews were the recipients of God’s grace in Jesus but that this grace was not exclusively for them but for Gentiles also. Many of their fellow Jews were infuriated that the privileges of being God’s people could also be for the Gentiles.
This is one way to assess our Christian faith. Is it something we simply want to enjoy for ourselves in our own religious community or is it something we want to share with others? Archbishop William Temple said that the church is the one organisation on earth that exists for those who do not yet belong.
After Paul and Barnabas had been expelled they rejoiced. Why rejoice? Because they knew that many in the city had responded to their message and that they were considered worthy to suffer like Christ.
Sometimes we think that the only time when we can rejoice and be thankful is when everything is going well in our lives but the Christian faith provides a means to rejoice even in failure because it is during those times when God’s grace is most at work in us. Time and time again it has been proven that our extremity becomes Gods opportunity.
A large middle class church invited a guest preacher to lead worship one Sunday. He began his sermon by saying, “There are three points to my sermon.” Most people yawned inwardly because they had heard that many times before.
The preacher went on, “My first point is that today there are approximately 1 billion people starving to death in the world.”
There was no reaction from the congregation because they had heard that sort of statement many times before. The preacher continued, “My second point…”
Everyone sat up because only 10 seconds had passed and he was already on his second point. “My second point’ he said, ‘is that most of you don’t give a damn!”
He paused again as those in the congregation gasped and tutted to one another. He then said, “And my third point is that the real tragedy among Christians today is that many of you are now more concerned that I said the word ‘damn’ than you are that I said 1 billion people are starving to death.” Then he sat down.
It was a simple, direct and disturbing message. The church is surely called to disturb the world, and, to use Finlay Dunne’s famous phrase ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’.
When Paul and Barnabas preached the Gospel in Iconium on their first missionary tour they did not bring harmony to the city but disruption. We read in the book of Acts that many Jews and Greeks believed but at the same time a great number didn’t and they made life difficult for the apostles.
It only goes to prove that if you make a stand for Christ in this world you will end up standing against a lot of other things. It’s important to note that even though Paul and Barnabas encountered tremendous opposition they didn’t run away and nor did they compromise their message. They stayed in Iconium for a long time speaking boldly for the Lord.
Only when things got really bad and death threats were made against them did they decide to move on. They left behind a disturbed city but with many new converts to Christ.
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian Holocaust survivor who helped many Jews escape the Nazis during World War II. In 1970, she co-wrote her autobiography, The Hiding Place,
In the book she relates an incident which taught her the principle to always be thankful whatever the situation. She and her sister, Betsy, had just been transferred to Ravensbruck which in her words was the worst German prison camp they had ever seen. Upon entering the barracks, they found them extremely overcrowded and flea- infested.
Their Scripture reading for that morning was 1 Thessalonians Ch 5 vv 16-18 ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’
Betsy told Corrie to thank the Lord for every detail of their new living quarters. Corrie did so but flatly refused to give thanks for the fleas, but Betsy persisted. Corrie finally gave in. ‘We thank you O Lord for the fleas’.
During the months spent at that camp, they were both surprised to find how openly they could hold Bible study and prayer meetings without interference from the guards. It was several months later that they learned why: the guards would not enter the barracks because of the fleas.
This Scripture from 1 Thessalonians about giving God thanks in every circumstance is important as we continue to look at Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey and their visit to the city of Lystra
We read that Paul healed a man who had been crippled since birth and the crowd were so astounded by this wondrous miracle that they proclaimed Paul and Barnabas to be the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus – for in their eyes, who but the gods could do such a wondrous thing as heal a man lame since birth!
But Paul and Barnabas didn’t grasp at first what was happening. Why? Because the text says ‘they shouted in the Lycaonian language the gods have come down to us in human form’.
The disciples communicated in Greek and they didn’t understand the local dialect.
Only when the local pagan priest turns up with bulls to sacrifice and wreaths for the apostles to wear does the penny drop about what is happening.
The people at Lystra were making the mistake of worshipping Paul and Barnabas because of the miracle they had performed instead of worshipping Almighty God who had healed the man through Paul and Barnabas.
Always and everywhere give praise and glory to God the Father. The longer you are following Christ in this life, the more you realise that everything that you possess comes from his hand and that he deserves thankfulness and praise. Even thankfulness for fleas.
We continue to witness a movement of political unrest in numerous Middle Eastern and African nations termed the ‘Arab Spring’. This unrest has given rise to hostility against Christians to such an extent that many are calling this time a ‘Christian Winter’.
We rejoice that despite the daily challenges faced by our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world the church is growing.
One Christian pastor in North Africa said, ‘With persecution occurring daily across the region, becoming a Christian is a serious decision. There are two things about Christianity that we teach people – that it gives you salvation and a lot of joy with it and also persecution. Persecution is a basic teaching in our church’.
Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary tour encountered persecution. At Lystra Paul was dragged out of the city and stoned. The Pharisee who once held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death for his Christian faith now found himself being treated the same way.
It is interesting to see that they dragged Paul out of the city. This was also true of Stephen and of course our Lord was crucified outside the city walls. Why is that?
When the Israelites were in the wilderness the Law of Moses stipulated that the death penalty was to be administered “outside the camp.’
The place of any execution was always 3000 feet away from the Sanctuary or Tabernacle as this was considered to be the city boundary.
Because of this we can confidently state that Jesus was crucified 3000 feet outside the walls of Jerusalem. We can also say that this is the case with the execution of Stephen and the attempted execution of Paul.
If ever we needed an example of a man of Christ who endured through trials and persecution we need look no further than St Paul.
When it comes to witnessing for Christ – not everything we do will be a success and not everything we say will be welcomed by those who hear it. The important thing that we need to remember is not to get discouraged thinking that there is no point.
Any lesser man than Paul would have considered giving up at Lystra. His body was battered and he had been taught a lesson by the Jewish mob. What does he do? He moves on to a new city where the reaction was different. The last city that Paul and Barnabas visited was Derbe which was 60 miles from Lystra.
Many people who witness to God’s love in Christ are tempted to give in when they do not see any results. We can witness to and pray for our own family members and friends and cannot understand why God doesn’t work in their lives. We are like the impatient gardener who plants the seed and then every day keeps digging it up to see if it’s growing. How God grows the seed of His Word in a person’s heart is His business and not ours and we have to let God do his work in his way and in his time.
Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey realised that being a witness for Christ was a costly business. They preached the Gospel often in very hostile situations and then moved on to different towns and cities leaving the work in God’s hands.
As Paul walked the road from Lystra to Derbe his body was battered and bleeding after being attacked by a vicious mob. I wonder whether he questioned whether it was all worth it. What he did next says everything about what was going through Paul’s mind.
When they had finished their work at Derbe, the last place they had planned to visit you would have expected them to be eager to go back home. Undoubtedly they would have been exhausted and yet they take the decision to retrace their steps and visit all the places they had been to on their outward journey.
The text says they return to Lystra (The place where Paul nearly lost his life), then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith.
It must have been difficult for the young churches in these places. How good it must have been for them to see Paul and Barnabas again knowing that they had not been forgotten.
They strengthened and encouraged the churches and more than that they put in an organisational structure. They appointed elders in each church and with prayer and fasting they entrusted the churches to the Lord. They could do no more than that. They gave all they could and then they left it to God.
When we have done all that we can do to bring others to a saving knowledge of Christ then we have to leave things in God’s hands always remembering that the harvest is his.
For the past 12 weeks I have been writing on Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary tour as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Much of their ministry was spent proclaiming the Gospel and founding churches in Pamphylia which is modern day southern Turkey.
They covered about 1400 miles over land and sea and visited many towns and cities including Paphos, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. From the seaport of Attalia they sailed back home to Antioch where they had begun their journey 4 years earlier.
At Antioch they called the church together and related all that God had done with them and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. It is noticeable that neither apostle draws attention to himself and the things that they had done but all that God had done through them. What grace!
There a lovely story about the composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) who when he was very old attended a very special performance of ‘The Creation’ at the Vienna Music Hall. It was his last ever appearance in public before his death.
At one particular point in the performance the audience rose up out of their seats and started applauding Haydn.
The great composer struggled out of his wheelchair and motioned for silence. He pointed his hand to heaven and said, ‘No, no, not from me but from thence comes all’ He was giving the glory to the majestic creator. Only God from whom everything comes deserves our devotion and praise.
When he had returned to Antioch Paul didn’t think for one moment that the job was complete and that he could put his feet up. Far from it for already he had his eyes set on taking the Gospel further afield to Greece and who knows even on to Rome. I imagine that St Paul would have kept asking himself one question throughout his ministry and it was this: Where can I take and share the good news of Jesus Christ next? I pray that we keep asking the same question.