Acts 15vs36-40; 16vs1-5. Church Growing Pains.
A friend of mine once wrote an article in a missionary magazine about the immense task facing his mission. "How do you eat an elephant?" he asked, and he came up with two answers. The first was simply 'one mouthful at a time'. If that was too slow an option he said, the second way is 'bring others to eat it with you'.
Our Lord Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the other disciples to follow him. "'Come, follow me', Jesus said "and I will make you fishers of men.' At once they left their nets and followed Him", Matthew 4vs19 and 20.
My old Boys Brigade captain encouraged me into the ministry. I learned a great deal at his Bible class at the church in the London Borough of Hounslow where I was converted. While still a teenager he would ask me to give a testimony when he was preaching in nearby churches. Then I was asked to read the Bible passage and later to lead the service through. My first attempt at being master of ceremonies was before that while I was about 10 years old in the Methodist Sunday School. I did everything quite reasonably well, except I announced the last hymn instead of the sermon. When my parents teased me over lunch I'm told I replied "It didn't matter really because we'd heard it all before!"
As the months and a few years passed by I led my first service and preached at a little Baptist church adjacent to Heathrow airport, London on November 27th 1966. I still have the notes I preached from. When I read them now I wonder how on earth the people listened so politely and restrained themselves from ejecting me from their pulpit. Yet ministries have to start somewhere. If we cannot make those dreadful mistakes in a church pulpit where can we begin? I thank God for the men who let me into their pulpits although they were many times more competent than I was. By their faith and confidence in God I have learned through experience what it means to "preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction", 2 Timothy 4vs2.
We can now look at several examples in the book of Acts where people encouraged others into a ministry.
The first is in Acts 11vs25, 26 where "Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch". Barnabas knew Saul from the time when he brought him to a rather reluctant group of disciples in Acts 9vs26, 27. He respected Saul's conversion and was able to forgive him for his past violent attacks on Christians. He watched Saul "speaking boldly in the name of the Lord" , while in Jerusalem, Acts 9vs28, before a murder plot forced Saul back to his home town of Tarsus. Out of sight was not out of mind as far as Barnabas was concerned for Saul. Having been different to virtually everyone else in discerning what God was doing in Saul's life, Barnabas brings Saul back into the mainstream of events at Antioch. He had been sent there himself to see what God was doing in bringing people from Greek and Jewish backgrounds into faith. Because large numbers of people had been brought to the Lord (The Greek word 'mega' is used three times in Acts 11vs21, 24 and 26) there was a huge need for systematic discipleship. Who could help Barnabas ground these folk in the Scriptures and the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Barnabas thought of Saul. He recalled how Saul's commission had been to carry the name of Jesus Christ before the Gentiles, Acts 9vs15. He remembered with a warm glow how Saul had baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ, Acts 9vs22. He knew Saul had had experience of talking and debating with Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem, Acts 9vs29. The brothers had wisely taken him out of that situation when he provoked death threats against himself, but Barnabas thought that here was another chance in a different environment to use all of Saul's knowledge and experience.
It sounds easy, Acts 11vs25, "Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul." We could have picked up a phone and had Saul tracked down in virtually no time. We could have invited him to join us and received an answer within an hour, if not a few minutes. I first learned how difficult the events of this little verse were when we wanted someone to take a lecture for us at an evangelists' conference in Khartoum North, Sudan. The proposed speaker was a pastor from the other side of Khartoum. No telephone in his house or ours (not that they work very well even if we had had them). My friend and I travelled by bus for one and a half hours and walked a further thirty minutes to his house. He was away for a few days and was expected back Monday or Tuesday. We left him a note of what we wanted, but we would need a reply to our request for we may have to ask someone else if he couldn't come. It was a two hour journey back.
Late Tuesday evening we again crossed the town to this man's home to find he was out and had not left us any message. We were welcome to wait for what was expected to be an hour or so. Three hours later the man did finally come home and said "Yes, I'll be delighted to come and speak at the conference." It had taken us eleven hours spread over five days to get that reply. It would have been five minutes on the phone.
Barnabas travelled some 200 miles from Antioch to Tarsus. He would not have been totally sure that Saul would be there, and during the ten-day journey must have wondered whether he was wasting his time. The Greek word translated 'to look for', 'anazeteo', means to look intensively, to search carefully, implying difficulty and effort. One commentator paraphrases it "Barnabas hunted him up". He must have really wanted him in his ministry team to have put himself out so much. Is there a lesson for us in that? Like Barnabas we should look for the potential in Christian people, we should keep our eyes open for possibilities of service, and we should be prepared to pay a personal price for bringing people into what God wants for them. Did Barnabas ever use his time more effectively for the long-term growth of the church?
Of course it did not stop there. Barnabas also shared the nurturing of dozens of young and uninstructed believers in Antioch with Saul. While they were doing that the senior man was also instructing the junior along the way. Then in Acts 13vs1-3 the two men team up again on a missionary journey. They are called by God and confirmed by the church at Antioch. By Acts 13vs13 the team is already starting to become known as "Paul and his companions". There is a hurdle we must overcome if we are to be faithful to God in bringing others into the ministry. We do not have to stay at the head of things. Just as parents have to let their children grow into adulthood and give freedom to them to develop their own lives in their own way, we must be ready to take a back seat as those God pairs with us to bring into the ministry establish their own spheres of service. They may go with a different church or mission group. They may do what we do, but differently - perhaps in a more relevant way. They may become more famous than us! Praise God. We obeyed Him and did what He asked us to the best of our ability.
Our second example is Barnabas and John Mark, Acts 15vs36-41. Mark had gone with Paul and Barnabas from Antioch on their first missionary journey, Acts 13vs5. He was only with them in Cyprus and when their boat reached the mainland at Perga John left them to go back to his mother's home in Jerusalem, see Acts 12vs12. Paul and Barnabas obviously viewed his dropping out differently to each other. Acts 15vs37 and 38 "Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work." Perhaps Paul was concerned about the work: "We cannot have an unreliable person with us", while Barnabas was characteristically concerned for the worker: "We cannot leave him as a failure for all his life". Barnabas' family relationship with Mark would undoubtedly be an influence, Colossians 4vs10. I am very thankful that I have had more than one opportunity in Christian work. I try to learn from my mistakes and so I hope to be more useful as the years go by.
The "sharp disagreement", Acts 15vs39 was very real and hurtful to both men. It is costly to team up with some people when others disagree. If God is calling us to help restart a failure then we must do it. Barnabas helped this failure not to fail again. He received Mark back, which is one of the ways of translating 'paralambano' "Barnabas took Mark". Paul may have written him off, but Barnabas had not. Paul himself later acknowledged Mark's value in the ministry, 2 Timothy 4vs11. Acts 15vs40 could mean that Barnabas was really out on a limb as it appears the brethren commended the team of Paul and Silas while not so commending Barnabas and Mark. In any case he wisely went back with Mark to Cyprus, his own home and the place where Mark had started and succeeded in his earlier ministry. It seems that Paul and Barnabas agreed to preserve their earlier work, by one team going to Cyprus and the other to Asia Minor. God encouraged unity by separation. Perhaps each one would learn in time that the other had had a valid point. God cares both for His work and all of His workers.
Mark traditionally wrote his gospel at the dictation of Peter who frequently visited his family home, Acts 12vs12. His Christian upbringing and Christian friends did a great deal towards God's plan for his life.
Our third example is of a church speaking well of one of its younger people and encouraging him into the ministry. Timothy was a disciple in Lystra, Acts 16vs1. He had mixed race parents and it was his mother's side that taught him the Scriptures. Paul wrote later "I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also." "From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus", 2 Timothy 1vs5, 3vs15. The family is always a great way of encouraging another into the ministry. It need not be a clergyman or preaching missionary. God requires His people in all walks of life and He regards them all as His ministers. We should tell our children of the great saints of history and pray that God will fulfil His plan for their own lives.
When Paul and Silas arrived in Lystra from Derbe the Bible narrative says "The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him (Timothy)" Acts 16vs2. A selfish church may have been looking out for its own interests and been wanting to keep Timothy to lead the youth group and occasional services. An ignorant or careless church would not have noticed the blossoming Christian talent in their midst. These believers had a wider church on their minds and the future of their young protege on their hearts. They may have given the suggestion to Paul and Silas that wider experience would help him immensely. They willingly accepted the need for circumcision so as not to create a possible obstacle in ministry elsewhere. There was no need for it, but it was helpful to the scope of the work. Were the prophecies mentioned by Paul given in Lystra or Iconium? We don't know, but Paul drew Timothy's attention to them when the ministry was going to be difficult. "Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight." 1 Timothy 1vs18. "For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands", 2 Timothy 1vs6.
The church noticed, encouraged, supported, advised, took an interest in Timothy. Paul invited him, commissioned him, reminded him of his calling, gave him opportunities, 1 Timothy 1vs3, and developed a 'father and son' relationship with Timothy all the way through their respective ministries.
I thank God for the privilege of helping some people over the years who are now pastors or their wives, lay elders in churches or homegroup leaders, missionaries in England and elsewhere. At the time it probably seemed as if Brenda and I were simply helping these individuals through a sticky patch in their lives, but now looking back over twenty years we can see a lot more that God had in mind.
Who should you be giving opportunities to? Do not exclude people on the basis of what they believe or do not believe. We saw in an earlier chapter how Aquila and Priscilla invited Apollos into their home for a while so that they could share with him a more adequate explanation of the way of God. Teaching, persuading, encouraging, recommending and releasing are all in this story of Acts 18vs26-28. The end result was an immense help to the believers in Achaia as Apollos debated wholeheartedly with their Jewish colleagues, and was able to prove from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
When Jesus Christ told His disciples to "Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest field", Luke 10vs2, He also challenged us to pray for co-workers, to partner them, to provide for them and to point them in the general direction in which He is preparing to use them.
Can you think of jobs you do in the fellowship that you could involve someone else in? Giving out bulletin sheets could be a start!
Are you ready for them to do it better than you do?
When was the last time you encouraged someone into a ministry you could see they had?