Pastor David B. Curtis

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Strengthening the Churches

Acts 15:36 - 16:10

Delivered 09/06/2009

We are continuing our study through the book of Acts. Before we look at our text, I want to share with you a quote that I found in a commentary on Acts. Ray C. Stedman writes, "I hope you are realizing, more and more as we go through this book, that here is a description of normal Christianity. This is the way the church could have been, and should have been, in any age. Unless the church is living in the atmosphere of the book of Acts, it is missing out on its heritage."

What do you think? Is the book of Acts "normal Christianity"? No, it is not, and to think it is will not be good for your Christian walk. Is it normal for people to drop dead for lying? or for crippled people to be made whole? or for Christians to blind their opponents? or for Christians to be supernaturally released from prison? or to get up and continue preaching after being stoned? No, none of this is "normal Christianity."

The book of Acts is a transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant era. Many miraculous things happened during the Transition Period that no longer happen today. The miraculous was to confirm that the apostles were from God, and their message was from Him. The miraculous is not normal; what is normal is to live by faith trusting God in whatever situation you are in.

In our last studies in Acts Paul and Barnabas had just come back from a meeting in Jerusalem where the church had met and debated the issue of salvation. The outcome was that salvation was by grace through faith alone; circumcision had no part in salvation.

Paul and Barnabas, along with Judas and Silas, had left Jerusalem and gone back to Antioch, which was the base of Gentile missions, and they reported the great findings of the Jerusalem Council that salvation was indeed by grace. Then they went back to their ministry, and things really took off.

But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord. (Acts 15:35 NASB)

Notice that the church at Antioch was not a church that was organized like most of the churches in Christendom today. It did not have a single pastor. There were many godly men teaching the Word in Antioch.

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." (Acts 15:36 NASB)

If you remember, the first missionary journey was a result of the Spirit's leading:

And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." (Acts 13:2 NASB)

But in our text there is no vision, no angelic call. There is no lightning, no special word of the Spirit in the inner heart. There is simply the concern of Paul and Barnabas for the people whom they had led to Christ.

One day Paul suggested to Barnabas that it was time that they returned to those cities where they had established churches in order to minister to them and see how they were doing. This would be around A.D.49.

"Let us return and visit the brethren"--the word "visit" here is episkeptomai, which denotes caring oversight. This journey was undertaken for the prime purpose of revisiting the churches where these brethren had previously labored, and not, primarily, to preach to the unsaved. The purpose does not seem to be evangelistic, but edification.

And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. 38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. (Acts 15:37-38 NASB)

Mark had abandoned them on their first journey:

Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John left them and returned to Jerusalem. (Acts 13:13 NASB)

Because of this, Paul didn't want him to go with them again. But Barnabas, who was the Son of Encouragement, wanted to take him along to give him a second chance.

Thank God for the Barnabas' among us. Who of us does not need a second chance, or does not need to have a forgiving spirit exercised toward us, and the opportunity to try again? So Barnabas was willing to give Mark a second chance.

And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. (Acts 15:39-40 NASB)

The word translated "sharp disagreement" is the Greek word paroxusmos, from which we get our word paroxysm. It means: "a stirring up." It can refer to a stirring up of love, and, in this case, a stirring up of disagreement and differing views. It does not necessarily mean that they had a falling out, nor does this imply anger or ill-will on either side.

Adam Clark writes: "The word is used to signify incitement of any kind; and, if taken in a medical sense, to express the burning fit of an ague: it is also taken to express a strong excitement to the love of God and man, and to the fruits by which such love can be best proved; and, in the case before us, there was certainly nothing contrary to this pure principle in either of those heavenly men."

Since they couldn't agree, they went their separate ways, but there is no reason for us to think that in the end it was other than amicable and by agreement. And we can reasonably assume that Barnabas, as a Cypriot, went to Cyprus by mutual agreement, taking Mark with him in order to look after that side of the work.

This separation must have been painful for both men. Paul and Barnabas had been a team for many years. It had been Barnabas who had first taken the young Paul under his wing. When everyone else in Jerusalem was afraid of the young Christian because of his history of persecuting the church, it was Barnabas who took him and who introduced him to the church. When Paul was sent home to Tarsus for a number of years, it was Barnabas who came and got him and brought him to Antioch. This loss of fellowship must have hurt them both greatly.

The differences between these two men of God were not rooted in pride, personal ambition, or offended feelings, they were rooted in different spiritual gifts, outlooks, and callings. Aside from the loss of on-going fellowship, such as they had known in serving side-by-side, the outcome of their separation was very positive.

Paul certainly never speaks of Barnabas in any other than a friendly manner, and we can be sure that Barnabas, that supremely gracious man of God, was the same.

We must recognize that there are times when Christians will on principle take up differing positions and may have to do things differently. But we are still commanded to love each other.

There is no further mention of Barnabas or Mark in the rest of the book of Acts, but a study of the Epistles reveals the fruit that Barnabas' action had in the life of his nephew. Paul makes reference to John Mark in two of his prison letters:

Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. (2 Timothy 4:11 NASB)

Mark was with Paul during the apostle's second imprisonment when he wrote to Philemon in A.D.64. Another reference to Mark is included in Peter's first letter. Writing to the Galatian churches, Peter sends his greetings and those of "my son, Mark." This is the same Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark, which was Peter's account of the ministry of Jesus.

Tradition holds that Mark was sent on a mission to Egypt where he is said to have founded the church of Alexandria. There, as bishop of that church, Mark was said to have been martyred in the eighth year of Nero's reign, in A.D.62.

What if Barnabas hadn't believed in him? Things could have turned out much differently.

But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. (Acts 15:39-40 NASB)

Silas was a distinguished figure in the Jerusalem church, a prophet, and one who could confirm the agreement reached at Jerusalem. He may well also have been a witness to the resurrection. He was almost certainly a Roman citizen, as was Paul. This would provide them with mutual status. As Silvanus (his Latin name) we see him acting as amanuensis to both Paul and Peter. He was thus both competent and spiritual.

So Barnabas and Mark sailed off to Cyprus. And Paul and Silas go by land to Syria and Cilicia. Notice that the result of this separation was two missionary ventures, not just one. Others were involved in ministry, including Silas, Timothy, and Luke:

And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:41 NASB)

They went through Syria and Cilicia doing what? Strengthening the churches. There's that word again. It comes from the Greek word episterizo, which means: "to support, confirm, strengthen." They were strengthening the churches, building up the saints.

And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, (Acts 16:1 NASB)

Paul goes back to Lystra. That was a radically courageous thing to do! Lystra was where Paul had been stoned, dragged out of the city, and thrown on the garbage heap as dead. If I were he, I would not be inclined to go back to Lystra.

Does anything stand out to you from this verse? I have not found one commentator who has mentioned this, but I think it is significant. Timothy is called a "disciple," while his mother is called a "believer." Why the difference? Is there a difference between a Christian and a disciple? I think so!

The Greek word used here for "disciple" is mathetes, which literally means: "learner." It is the most common designation in the Gospels for the followers of Jesus. Outside the Gospels, it is found only in Acts. The Greek word for "believer" is pistos, which means: "trustworthy; trustful; believe, faithful, sure, true." In modern English, we have come to understand "faithful" as a word which describes consistency between what a person has said he will do and what he actually does. But, that is not the meaning of the term in Paul's language. In Paul's day, "faithful" meant: "having faith."

Then He said to Thomas, "Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but [pistos] believing." (John 20:27 NASB)

So pistos refers to someone who has trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, while mathetes refers to someone who is a learner or follower of Christ. Is there a difference?

Many Christian teachers use the term "disciple" as synonymous with that of a Christian, but I think there is a difference between a Christian and a disciple. How does a person become a Christian? What do you have to do to be a Christian? The answer is simple: believe the Gospel! A person becomes a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ:

But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, (Romans 4:5 NASB)

A person becomes a Christian when they understand and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At that moment they are placed into the body of Christ, given Christ's righteousness, indwelt by God, and are as sure of heaven as if they were already there.

The Scriptures make it quite clear that salvation is a free gift of God's grace, but the Scriptures also teach that discipleship is costly. Salvation is our birth into the Christian life, and discipleship is our education and maturity in the Christian life. Compare these two texts:

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NASB)

Eternal life is a gift of grace to all who believe--do you see any cost involved here? But now notice:

"So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:33 NKJV)

Discipleship is a call to forsake all and follow Christ. Can this be talking about the same thing as John 3:16? I don't see how. I see discipleship as a conditional relationship that can be interrupted or terminated after it has begun. All Christians are called to be disciples, but not all are:

Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, "If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; (John 8:31 NASB)

Notice carefully, Jesus is speaking to those Jews who had believed Him. He is telling these believing Jews how to be disciples--they must abide in His word. Do you have to abide in His Word to be a Christian? No! Let's look at another text where believers are told to abide:

"You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (John 15:3-4 NASB)

Jesus tells the eleven: "Your are already clean," now abide in me. If we go back a couple of chapters, we see that "clean" refers to salvation:

Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you." 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, "Not all of you are clean." (John 13:10-11 NASB)

The word "clean" is katharos, it is used here of salvation. Jesus says, "But not all of you," because Judas was there (verse 11). Jesus is telling them (the eleven) that they are clean, they are saved.

So, abiding in Christ is different from being saved, because He told believers to abide in Him in John 15:4. Abiding is a relationship of discipleship where believers walk with the Lord in obedience. He is telling His disciples to abide in Him, and fruit comes from abiding, and abiding is work:

"If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you. 8 "By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. (John 15:7-8 NASB)

So, you become a disciple by abiding in His word. Discipleship and abiding are the same thing. This is not a work of the flesh, but is dependant discipline. It's you disciplining your life, structuring your life to live in obedience, while all the time depending upon God to provide the power to live it out.

Discipleship in Jesus' culture--a young Jewish boy in Jesus' time began the educational process at age 4-5 attending class in the synagogue taught by the Rabbi. The teaching focused primarily on the Torah, emphasizing both reading and writing Scripture. Large portions were memorized, and it is likely that many students knew the entire Torah by memory by the time this level of education was finished, about age 12. At this point, most Torah students stayed at home to learn the family trade.

The best students continued their study (while learning a trade) in Beth Midrash, also taught by a rabbi of the community. Here they (along with the adults in the town) studied the prophets and the writings in addition to Torah and began to learn the interpretations of the oral Torah to learn how to make their own applications and interpretations. Memorization continued to be important, because most people did not have their own copy of the Scripture, so they either had to know it by heart or go to the synagogue to consult the village scroll.

A few of the most outstanding Beth Midrash students sought permission to study with a famous rabbi, often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time. These students were called talmidim in Hebrew, which is translated: "disciples." There is much more to a talmid than what we call student. A student wants to know what the teacher knows for whatever reason: a grade, a degree, or even out of respect for the teacher. A talmid wants to be like the teacher, that is to become what the teacher is. That meant that students were passionately devoted to their rabbi and noted everything he did or said. This meant the rabbi/talmid relationship was a very intense and personal system of education. As the rabbi lived and taught his understanding of the Scripture, his students (talmidim) listened and watched and imitated so as to become like him. Eventually, they would become teachers passing on a lifestyle to their talmidim.

The decision to follow a rabbi as a talmid meant total commitment in the first century as it does today. Since a talmid was totally devoted to becoming like the rabbi, he would have spent his entire time listening and observing the teacher to know how to understand the Scripture and how to put it into practice.

A disciple is someone who more than anything else in the world wants to be just like Jesus. Are you His disciple? A disciple has a hunger for God:

"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 NASB)

The "kingdom of God" signifies the rule of God; to seek the kingdom of God; to come under His kingship; to come into subjection to Him as King. The word "righteousness," as used in our text, comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, which means: "a pattern of life in conformity to God's will." This is not speaking of positional, but practical righteousness. The person who seeks for God's righteousness, then, seeks for conformity to God's will.

The word "seek" here is the Greek word zeteo, which means: "to seek, to desire to worship." It is a hungering, desiring, seeking; it is not laboring in a sweating way. It is a matter of a hungering, desiring, worshiping spirit; it is to seek with a desire to worship.

But not only must we seek His kingdom and righteousness, it should be our supreme priority. The word "first" in our text comes from the Greek word proton, which means: "first in order or importance, first or chief of all, holding the highest place in all our affections." The Lord is saying the first place in the priority of our affections must be the will of God. This is discipleship!

There is much misunderstanding about what is meant by, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness." When He is speaking of His kingdom, He is talking about our coming under submission to His reign, setting our priorities straight so the authority of His Word occupies the first place in our lives. It means: "to walk under His reign, to live in obedience to the Lord."

Let's go back to Acts and notice what it says of Timothy:

And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, (Acts 16:1 NASB)

Although Timothy's father was an unbelieving Greek, his mother and grandmother had taught Timothy the Hebrew Scriptures from his childhood (2 Tim. 3:15). Apparently, on Paul's first visit to Lystra, these women and the young Timothy had gotten saved. By Paul's second visit, Timothy, who would have been in his late teens or early twenties, had established a good reputation among the believers in Lystra and Iconium.

Just as witnessing the stoning of Stephen had made an indelible impression on Paul, so watching Paul get stoned had made a profound impression on young Timothy:

and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. (Acts 16:2 NASB)

Timothy is a disciple, a man of good character whose reputation has extended even to Iconium, a day's journey away. Luke doesn't say anything about his talents. Luke doesn't say anything about his education. What he does speak about is the most important thing, and that is: "he was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium"--Character! Paul chose Timothy because he was a disciple, not in order to make a disciple of him:

Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:3 NASB)

Paul didn't want Mark to go with him, but he wanted Timothy. He obviously felt that he could trust Timothy from what he had heard about him.

The last time Eunice and Lois saw Paul, do you know where he was? He was blood-soaked, and he was lying on the city dump. He had just been stoned. And here he was saying, "I'd like to invite your son to come along on our missionary efforts."

"He took him and circumcised him"--What is this about? They had just come from the Jerusalem counsel where it was determined that circumcision was not necessary, so why did Paul circumcise Timothy?

Timothy was half Jewish, half Greek. His father was a Greek, but his mother was a Jew, and, according to the Jews, this made him a Jew. The Jewish people had a very practical way of thinking about this. They said anyone knows who a man's mother is, but you can't be as sure of his father. So they reckoned the line of descent through the mother, and Timothy was therefore considered a Jew.

The team would be visiting many synagogues to preach the Gospel, and, if Timothy was not circumcised, that would be an offense to the Jews. So, Paul took Timothy and circumcised him so that together they could walk through the doors of opportunity that would be available to them to preach the Gospel.

What is interesting about this, and what is somewhat puzzling about it, is that when we turn over to the Epistle to the Galatians, we find that with Titus, Paul would not allow him to be circumcised. He refused to have him circumcised in order to appease the Judaizers. Salvation by grace, not works, was the issue then. But in Timothy's case the issue was open doors of service to the Jews. Paul was prepared to compromise where service was concerned, but not when salvation was at stake.

Many people call Paul inconsistent for having Timothy circumcised, but not having Titus circumcised. I don't think that's true at all. If you want to know why Paul did what he did, he tells us in 1 Corinthians 9:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NASB)

Paul did what he did in order to reach all he could with the Gospel.

Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily. (Acts 16:4-5 NASB)

The missionary team traveled throughout the region, delivering the decrees of the Jerusalem Council. As a result, the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number daily. The Jerusalem decree affirmed that salvation is not by keeping the Law of Moses, but rather is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; (Acts 16:6 NASB)

Notice that they were "forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia."Initially, the guidance of the spirit was prohibitive. We have no clue as to how this "forbidding" took place. It could have been circumstantial, such as a warning from civil officials or a sore throat, or it could have been an inner hesitation. It could also have been in the form of a vision or some prophetic utterance. By whatever means, it was recognized as the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was not yet God's time for the evangelization of Asia. So, too, with Bithynia. For whatever reason, and by whatever means, they were prevented from entrance into Bithynia:

and when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; (Acts 16:7 NASB)

They couldn't go west, so they turned north to Bithynia but "the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them." Now what? They can't go West, they can't go North, they came from the East, and in the South is water. So now what?

and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." (Acts 16:8-9 NASB)

They came to Troas (this is to the west and this is the ancient city of Troy). Now we can't be dogmatic on this, but the "certain man of Macedonia" may have been Luke. If Luke was a Macedonian (he remained in Philippi when Paul and Silas left), it is perfectly conceivable that he had been urging Paul to evangelize Macedonia. If he saw Luke in vision, it would also give fuller significance to the phrase: "a certain man of Macedonia."

And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:10 NASB)

This is the first time in the book that we have this expression: "We sought to go into Macedonia," the first person plural pronoun. And so, it's likely that the narrator of the Book of Acts, Luke, joins Paul and his company here. So, it's Luke and Silas and Timothy and Paul who are now together; and, perhaps, some others, also, as well.

We're told they got to regions they had been to before: Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium. It was an overland trip from Antioch to those regions, and the road was fairly good. But we're told that inexplicably, they turned north. They didn't go to all the places they had been before, only about half of them. They traveled north for four hundred miles in difficult conditions--mountainous, difficult terrain. As they trekked along, at one point they tried to go into Asia, and they were forbidden by the Spirit. They went farther north and tried to go into Bithynia: "No!" They were forbidden, and this is expressed in very strong language. The door to their efforts was slammed shut by the Spirit of Jesus. There was no opportunity for ministry.

They finally got to Troas, and there Paul had a vision: "Come to Macedonia." The next verse will see them off to Philippi in Macedonia. Great things happen in Philippi. Philippi is where God wants them.

We see in this text the sovereign leading of God. I think we also see something about the will of God. God's will is not something about which Christians should worry or agonize, as though it were a mystery, a game of hide and seek, and as though we might miss it if we don't go through all the right steps to discern it. God's guidance, on the one hand, seems to be something about which no one worried much. We are not even told they spent time praying for it (though they might have). And God's will was not something which we are given the impression they might have missed. A God who is sovereign will be sure to make His will known, and who will also be certain that we do not miss it. I think that there is too much emphasis on missing God's will today, as though it is so vague we might not recognize it. Our text, consistent with the message of Acts, shows that our Lord is still in control, bringing to pass those things He commanded and promised.

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