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19. Preserving spiritual fruit

Acts 20vs17-31. Church Growing Pains.

I am well aware that God is able to look after His own children. The Ethiopian eunuch received no human follow up, as far as we know, although we do know he had an interest in the Scriptures and his own copy to read, Acts 8vs28, 39. We have noted earlier in this book how God used Barnabas to care for Saul when he was born again, Acts 9vs27, 11vs25, 26. We have no real clues about how Cornelius matured in his faith. We do know he was a man of prayer and devotion even before his conversion, Acts 10vs2. He also had a great deal to meditate on in Peter's sermon at his house.

Barnabas turned the new believers at Antioch into disciples of Jesus Christ through a year long Bible class, Acts 11vs26 and his presence and ministry "...encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts", vs23. We also know God developed a leadership team there at Antioch and they were spiritually minded, judging by their activities in Acts 13vs1-3.

Almost all of the letters of the New Testament come under the category of 'follow up'. Although Paul had never seen the Romans he wrote to them a reasoned theological treatise, setting out the clear gospel message and its impact and implications for a Christian lifestyle, Romans 1vs13-15, 15vs23-32. He wrote to the Corinthian Christians concerning problems that arose in the collective testimony: divisive factions, 1 Corinthians 3, gross immorality and resorting to worldly solutions, chs. 5 and 6; and he answered their questions raised to him, 1 Corinthians 7vs1 "Now for the matters you wrote about": also 8vs1, 11vs18. Paul wrote to the Galatian churches, including Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch to deal with the problem he had faced when he was with them. He assumed they still faced it, the Judaisers adding observance of the Jewish law to faith in Jesus Christ's work as being necessary for salvation. Galatians 1vs6 "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel." The Philippian letter was basically a 'thank you' letter for the gifts given to his missionary team by the Philippian Christians, and sent to him in prison by the hand of Epaphroditus, Philippians 4vs18. In Colosse the church had been founded by the preaching of Epaphras, one of Paul's converts at Ephesus, Colossians 1vs7. The letter argues against the "fine sounding arguments" 2vs4, that others were putting forward for acceptance. He encapsulates the gospel message in Colossians 1vs15-20. If I may quote his four points they are these:

1. All things were made by Jesus Christ, 1vs16.

2. All things were made for Jesus Christ, 1vs16.

3. All things are held together in Jesus Christ, 1vs17.

4. All things are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, 1vs19, 20.

The best defence against error is always to focus on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, Who is the Truth.

The Thessalonian church was left alone without much teaching from Paul as he had had to leave the city after only three weeks, Acts 17vs2. Timothy was sent by Paul as his representative to build on the word of God Paul had been able to briefly share, 1 Thessalonians 2vs13, 3vs2-6. The purpose of the letter was to "instruct you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more." 1 Thessalonians 4vs1. Paul's letters to Timothy were pastoral care for the pastor, helping him so, "if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth", 1 Timothy 3vs15. There are also various personal encouragements given to Timothy, perhaps to combat his feelings of inadequacy, despair and frustration, 1vs3, 1vs18, 1vs19, 4vs12. Titus received a letter of similar purpose, "these, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you", Titus 2vs15.

Philemon was a personal letter following up two people, Philemon himself and the now converted runaway slave Onesimus. (Paul's prayer life amazes and rebukes me. He prayed for just about everyone he knew, Philemon vs4). Paul wants both men to begin their working relationship again and urges this. "So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me", vs17.

Whoever wrote Hebrews, it is a letter to follow up Jewish converts who may suffer doubts about leaving their old beliefs. James wrote his letter to encourage his scattered congregation who were undergoing hard persecution. He urged them to look beyond this life to the promised reward from God in heaven, James 1vs12. Peter wrote in a similar situation urging holy living, 1 Peter 1vs15. And John wrote to expose the errors in some teaching and to underline the truth that a person who has Jesus Christ in their life is living before God, 1 John 5vs12.

So letter writing was very important for follow up. One of our ministries in Britain is to share the news of AFC works in India, Indonesia, Sudan and Zambia, the four AFC International works AFC Britain has adopted for prayer, encouragement and support. I have said many times to our Sudanese team that if they do not write their news to us we cannot share it with their prayer partners. I have also said that if the apostle Paul had the same attitude to writing letters as they did then about one hundred New Testament pages in my Bible would be blank! The written word is important even today. John got it right in his gospel. "These are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name", John 20vs31. We must write where we can to encourage believers in their new found faith. A personal letter can often travel where we cannot go. Use the mail for the Master!

The Acts narrative and the letters also show us other ways the apostles used to preserve the spiritual fruit. They made return visits themselves where they possibly could, for example to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, Acts 14vs21, 22 and 18vs23. They split up their team's human resources on occasions. Paul went on to Athens while Silas and Timothy conserved the spiritual gains in Berea, Acts 17vs14 and 15. Timothy and Erastus went ahead of Paul into Macedonia, Acts 19vs22, and others formed a similar advanced party in 20vs4, 5. Preparation beforehand can really help follow up afterwards. People remember what they are told to look out for when they see it for themselves.

The touching final encounter of Paul with the elders of the church at Ephesus, Acts 20vs17-38, is a lesson in follow up principles for us. Firstly Paul initiated the contact with them, vs17. He was in the area, as near as he was going to be to them and so he invited them to meet with him at Miletus. Contact shows that we care for people and everybody wants to be cared for. Secondly Paul reminds them of the events they have shared with each other before, the events recorded in Acts 18vs19, 21 and 19vs1-20vs1. His two and a half years stay is summarised personally in Acts 20vs18-21. It highlights a third follow up principle, example. Paul says "I served ... I was severely tested ... I have not hesitated ... I have declared ..." Paul was not boasting. He knew the value of a role model and so he highlights himself for the ease of their understanding. Fourthly Paul is realistic about the next few months and as far as can be seen in the future. He does not build any false hopes or make promises he cannot keep (even if he were intending to keep them now). When he says "Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again", Acts 20vs25, he is also saying to the Ephesian elders, 'Humanly speaking you are on your own'. He would pray for them from a distance (and he did, Ephesians 1vs16), but he would not be with them. At this point we should notice the fifth follow up principle, specific prayer for particular maturity. Ephesians 1vs16-18 and 3vs14-21 are excellent prayers we could, and should, pray for the babes in Christ who are our responsibility. Pray for the Holy Spirit to make them wise, to draw them into a deep relationship of love for God, to hold the heavenly hope before them, to manifest Jesus Christ in their lives and to work out His ultimate purpose for them. Sixthly, teach as much of God's truth as can be assimilated, trusting God to plant it firmly in their lives, Acts 20vs27. Seventhly, follow up involves a commission. Give the believers something to do. "Keep watch over yourselves", Paul said, vs28. You may be leaders but do not let your concern for the church make you careless for your own walk with God. He was later to warn Timothy that failure at home meant a bar on public ministry, 1 Timothy 3vs5. These men were also to "be shepherds of the church of God", Acts 20vs28, accountable to the One who paid the purchase price in full, with His own blood shed on Calvary's cross. Shepherds feed, guide, protect and mature sheep as they live among them, all good ideas for us to think about and apply to ourselves. Eighthly, Paul warned them to be on guard against predators from outside and inside who would try to lure believers away into potentially fatal positions, Acts 20vs29-31. After prayer together they parted. Acts 21vs1 shows the final ingredient in follow up, deep love, that will do God's will no matter how much it hurts all parties involved.

These principles for follow up, contacts, reminders, role models, realism, prayer, truth, commissioning, warning and love are ones that Paul often used. The last meetings he had in a town often contained these same elements. In Pisidian Antioch "Paul and Barnabas talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God", Acts 13vs43. At Lystra and Iconium they went "strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. 'We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God' they said" Acts 14vs22. In Lydia's house, after their own release from prison and before they left the city at the request of the local officials, "they met with the brothers and encouraged them", Acts 16vs40. Acts 18vs23 says "After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples", while Acts 20vs2 says "He travelled through that area (Macedonia), speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece." All these examples bring together strengthening, encouragement, truth, warning and the urging of a continual walk with God just now begun at conversion.

Such follow up is necessary because today, as in those days, there are many voices and vices seeking to lure new Christians away. The Galatians were turning to a perverted gospel, 1vs6-9. The Philippians were battling many hard persecutions and discouragements, 1vs29, 30. The Colossians were confused at least by rules and regulations imposed by others, 2vs16-19. Some of the Thessalonians had given up their jobs and were simply waiting for the Lord Jesus to return, 2 Thessalonians 3vs6-13. A truth pressed to an extreme and excluding references to other truths becomes a reason for error. We must be careful.

In the last church I pastored we established a system for follow up that suited our situation at the time. We had five or six mature Christians who were prepared to miss their Bible class and use their knowledge and experience to help new believers or enquirers to the faith. Every week, running concurrently to the Bible Class was a discipleship class led by myself, or later, selected people from the congregation who had been through it. It was informal, in our home, with an opportunity for questions to be asked and discussions to be held as we went through basic Christian truths about God Himself, the Gospel and practical Christian living in the modern world. God granted us, as a small church, just over one hundred people who went through the course over four years. Not all stood for Christ, but a large majority did. We would try to have a Christian of longer standing meet with the new person once a week outside of the class to befriend them and to talk about particular issues relevant to the individual. Others used the course book one to one with their own friends, especially those who were unable to get to the class on a Sunday morning. We put ourselves out to try to preserve the spiritual fruit. The onus was on us to make the effort,, not on the new Christians. Now some of those people are leaders in the church and in other churches too where they have moved away.

Follow up is costly in terms of the time taken, the energy exerted, the involvement in the lives of other people, and the hard questions that are raised even to your own faith. But follow up is rewarding. To see mature Christian men and women walking with God in their lives, building Christian homes and families where there was once tragedy and heartbreak is uplifting. To hear of these folk being used to serve God in a variety of circumstances both in the workaday world and in Christian activity helps us to keep going when the going is tough.

Paul wrote: "Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain", 1 Corinthians 15vs58, - and he should know!

Discussion questions

  • Discuss the elements necessary in looking after a baby and bringing it up to independence.

  • Can you parallel these with looking after new Christians?

  • Share with the group what helped you most when you first became a Christian.


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