Acts 15:36 – 16:40
If I were writing history,
In the Trinity Network of Churches there is a retired Professor of History. And even though he’s retired, obviously history is still a passion, and so he sees it as very important, for us as a group of churches, to not only be aware of our history, how God has been at work, but also he says, we need to be aware that we are making history.
Not in any grandiose sense, that people will one day erect statues in our honour, and young children will study our exploits , but that there’s benefit in those members of Trinity Mount Barker who come after us, being able to hear of the things that are happening now.
And so this man says to me, “Clayton, you need to be writing down your history”, which I think means, “Write down all your mistakes so other people don’t have to make them!
But if I were write down the history of Trinity Mount Barker, I can tell you, it would be great read!, And we would all come off really really well!
I reckon if I’m writing history, there wouldn’t be any record of any mistakes …
Our giving would be right up …
The Hours of Prayer would be jam packed with people eager to pray together.
And there wouldn’t be any hint of disagreement or division.
Now, as it happens, our history does read as a tally of God’s kindness to us, and in reality, there’s hardly anything at all that one would be even tempted to leave out, but you get my point, don’t you?
So isn’t it encouraging and refreshing for us to see that when Luke, the historian, records the life of the early church, he does it honestly.
He doesn’t just gloss over things that show the human, even sinful side of the people who make up God’s church.
God opens doors for the gospel even when Christians disagree
We pick up the story in Acts, with a major disagreement between Paul and his ministry partner Barnabas.
Verse 37 …Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 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.
Sometimes Christians have to withdraw from others, over issues of truth.
This isn’t one of those times.
These 2 men, had laboured side-by-side for the gospel, disagreed so strongly over an issue of strategy, that they can’t work together.
They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Now, in God’s kindness, these relationships were restored. Right at the end of his life, Paul writes to Timothy, 2 Timothy 4:11, Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry”
But what Luke wants us to see, is that God is sovereign, and opens doors for the gospel to go forward, even in the midst of human failings.
See what’s happened?
Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus,
Paul chose Silas, He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches
We now have not one, but two missionary teams.
And Mark’s experience and time with Barnabas, who’s called “The Son of Encouragement”, ends up making him a gospel minister who Paul comes to depend on.
We then find out in chapter 16, that Paul invites Timothy to join him, as a kind of Ministry Apprentice, the role that Mark had previously filled, and if he’d still been on the team, they probably wouldn’t have been able to take on an extra member.
And because Timothy was half-Gentile, half-Jew, he had a foot in both the cultures that Paul ministered in, any door would open to them, and we read in the rest of the New Testament, just how significant Timothy’s ministry was …
Paul wrote 2 letters to him, and lists him as a co-sender in 6 others.
He’s the one Paul calls his son, in the work of the gospel.
Even in one of the low points of the young church’s life, God is able to propel the good news of Jesus forward.
Have you dropped the ball in ministry?
Have you avoided another Christian because you don’t see eye-to-eye?
Have you disagreed over silly, insignificant things?
We need to repent, apologise, seek forgiveness, where necessary, but we need to remember that God can create opportunities for the good news of Jesus to be heard, not just even despite our sinfulness and foolishness, but even through them, such is his power and sovereignty.
Circumcision opens doors for the gospel (v - 5)
And if that wasn’t a surprise enough, we now learn that even circumcision can open doors for the gospel.
In chapter 15, the church leaders in Jerusalem, clearly and definitively, restate the truth that no human contribution is required in order for someone to be welcomed into God’s family.
Jesus’ death in our place doesn’t need to supplemented, with something that we do.
Being circumcised doesn’t help you become a Christian.
Turning up to church doesn’t make God like you any more …
Putting lots of money in the bag, doesn’t win God’s favour.
And the Apostle Paul was one of the strongest defenders of that message.
And yet, how does chapter 16 open?
With Paul having Timothy circumcised!
Did you read this week, Jemima Kahn, one of the big supporters of the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, saying he’s actually set back his cause, by the way he’s acted.
Is that what Paul’s done? He says he’s the champion of “no human works required”,
Has he just set back the cause of Christianity as a free gift from God?
But why does Paul have Timothy circumcised?
Verse 3, because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
The Jews …recognise someone’s Jewish identity, according to the mother’s ancestry. It’s called matrilineal descent.
Timothy’s mother was a Jew, and so other Jews would have considered him to be Jewish.
Imagine the difficulty Paul would have had, taking an uncircumcised Jewish man, into the synagogue.
That would be so offensive to the Jews, they wouldn’t hear a word of what Paul had to say.
The simple solution is for Timothy to be circumcised.
It doesn’t count for anything before God, but it might just open a door for the gospel of Jesus.
It’s completely un-necessary for acceptance with God …
But it was a smart idea for acceptance among other people.
John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, once said of Paul, he was “a reed in non-essentials, an iron pillar in essentials.”
In things that don’t matter, a stick of grass waving in the wind, in things that do matter, absolutely fixed, and firm.
How might we open doors today?
What can we do that’s just smart, for opening doors for the gospel?
When we gather here, what things should we be doing, or should we not be doing, in order to present the good news of Jesus without offence or distraction?
What would we give up?
What could we stop doing, that we actually quite enjoy, and would quite like to keep doing, but for the sake of someone else hearing the gospel of Jesus …
Feeling welcomed in our community …
For the sake of a new opportunity to speak about Jesus,
What freedom or preference would we willingly give up?
One of the things that I like to do, when people become Christians in our church, is ask them “What was weird for you about being here?
Was there anything that made you nearly not come back?”
When you invite your friends along, ask them afterwards, what could we have done differently, to help you hear and understand about Jesus?
When we first launched our church, the invitations we gave out had a picture of a welcome mat on them, and so the line we used a lot in our publicity was “You’re welcome.”
What we don’t ever want to do is extend that phrase: “You’re welcome if”
You’re welcome if, you dress like this …
You’re welcome if, you read 10 Christian books a year …
You’re welcome if, your family structure fits this neat model …
See what we should be saying is “We’ve only done our job, if, you’re welcome.
So that Luke’s observation might be true of our ministry too, the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
God closes a door to the gospel (v 6 – 10)
Those words are a little progress report, on the mission of the church, how they’re going in fulfilling the commission Jesus gave them in Acts 1.
And so verse 6 opens a new section.
Here we have the beginning of what’s known as Paul’s second missionary journey, but before it really even gets off the ground, God closes a door to the gospel.
Look with me at verse 6, Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.
Twice, God closes a door to the gospel ministry of Paul and his team.
No ministry in the Roman province of Asia …
No ministry in Bithynia.
And if you’re anything like me, you want to know, “How did God stop them?”
We’re not told, and so it’s obviously not important.
Maybe it was a dream …
Maybe it was a prophetic word from someone…
Maybe the rivers were in flood, or the roads were closed because a semi-trailer had jack-knifed on the Freeway
There are scholars who think it was some kind of illness that changed their plans.
If you notice, it’s immediately after these events, that Luke, first starts referencing himself, as a member of the group. See there in verse 10, after Paul had seen the vision, we , got ready at once.
We know Luke was a doctor …
Maybe this was how they first came into contact.
Whatever the case, Paul and his companions understood God to be at work, closing doors to the gospel.
But then, During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them
Did you notice we’ve seen each person of the Trinity at work?
The Holy Spirit kept them from preaching in Asia, verse 6 .
The Spirit of Jesus would not allow them into Bithynia, verse 7, and together they concluded that this was the call of God into Macedonia, verse 10.
When I was at theological college, people used to highlight the notes that were given out in various lectures. Some people had a code, pink highlighter for this, orange for that, green something else.
And there was one guy, who as soon as the lecture started, would highlight almost every word on the notes, and then promptly fall asleep!
Well, think of this as all the different colour highlighters all at once! There’s really no greater way that Luke could highlight the fact that God is guiding and directing this ministry, than to picture the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, all intervening, causing the gospel of Jesus to break new frontiers.
See Macedonia, is Europe.
When God closes the door to Asia …
And then closes the door to Bithynia,
He opens the door to Europe.
Paul doesn’t know it, of course, but God is preparing for the good news to take hold in the continent that for the next 1900 years, will serve as the main centre of missionary outreach for the entire world.
Once in the cafeteria of a Christian college in the US, there was huge basket of delicious-looking red apples, with a sign “One apple each, please – God is watching”!
At the end of the cafeteria line, there was a big box of biscuits, and someone had scrawled a sign on the box; “Take as many as you like, God is watching the apples”!
Well, yes, God is watching the apples!
But God is watching the biscuits, too!
Luke is determined that we see, how closely God is involved, directing and guiding every aspect of this expanding ministry of the gospel.
Being convinced of this is how Christians are encouraged to stand firm in gospel ministry, to persevere in gospel conversations.
Of course, we need to remember that we are not the Apostles,
We weren’t commissioned for ministry like Paul was, face to face with the risen Lord Jesus.
And yet there are good lessons for us here, about setbacks in gospel ministry, about God’s guidance.
First of all, we ought not get disheartened, when our gospel hopes don’t come to fruition.
That time you didn’t get the opportunity to speak about Jesus that you hoped you might,
Or the ministry we tried to start, that we just couldn’t get off the ground …
Or the prayer group in my school, or in my office, or with the other mums from playgroup, that never really got going,
Maybe it was because God closed the door.
And maybe the reason God closed the door, is because he has something else in mind for us to do, for his kingdom, and his glory.
We don’t see the whole picture.
It’s worth noting too, that God led these missionaries, by a number of different factors, over a length of time.
Paul didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “Pack your bags, boys, we’re going to Macedonia”
Although it’s Paul who receives the vision, it’s the group of missionaries together who conclude that God was calling them there.
Great wisdom, even for the Apostle Paul, to say to other Christians, “this is the experience I’ve had, Is it legit?
Is God really calling us there, or is this just wishful thinking and clutching at straws?
There’s a rational, thinking and reflecting on the situation together, seeking to make sense of their experiences, and seeking the best way forward.
The word translated concluding, is the word for “drawing things together, analysing data,
It’s closely related to the word that elsewhere describes Paul proving something from the Scriptures.
We saw last week, Paul’s prayer for the people he’s just about to meet, the Philippians, that they might have the knowledge of God that comes from careful studying of the Scriptures, so that they have discernment to make the best decisions, for the glory of God.
Paul didn’t have the finished product of the Scriptures, but we do, That’s where this knowledge for discernment comes from.
Also, because we’re not told, even the barest detail of how God closed the doors to ministry in Asia and Bithynia, we need to be careful in applying this language to our own experience.
Maybe in our case God didn’t close the door.
Maybe a ministry stopped or failed because someone was lazy!
Saying “Oh, God closed the door on that ministry”, sounds much more spiritual, but if our leaders said “We closed this ministry down because we were trying to discern what was the best use of our resources, and the gifts of our people”, we should be happy with that.
The temptation is there to just apply this language to our own situation and experience, but we need to be very careful.
God opens doors for the gospel (v 16 – 40)
So God closes doors in Asia and Bithynia, opens a door to Europe, Macedonia, and once Paul and the others get there, well he really does open some doors, doesn’t he?!
Such is the opposition to the impact that the gospel has in setting this slave girl free, that Paul and Silas are about to be thrown in prison,
We might wonder, though, what’s the big deal, she’s following then around shouting These men are servants of the Most High God, any publicity is good publicity, right?
What was it that Oscar Wilde said? The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about?!
Well, a couple of things to note, one is that that phrase “The Most High God”, while it’s the term that the Jews used to refer to God, it’s also the way that the Greeks talked about Zeus, and so it’s not necessarily good advertising for the gospel of Jesus.
And it’s not that Paul just loses his temper with the girl.
He’s troubled by her situation, verse 18. Some translations have say Paul was grieved, or distressed.
To the owners though, who are exploiting this girl for income, to them it’s like Paul has just burnt down their investment property,
No more steady income stream, and so they have Paul and Silas dragged before the authorities, verse 19.
In the 1800s, when the Salvation Army was first beginning its gospel ministry among those called the “down and outers” in London’s East end, who do you think were most vocal and violent in their opposition to the spread of the gospel there?
The liquor dealers and pub owners, who lost business and profits, as people were lifted out of the depths of binge drinking and alcoholism through the preaching of the good news of Jesus.
Even today, I hear stories from people who are missionaries in various parts of the world, some of those who are most strongly opposed to the good news of Jesus, are those who stand to profit, from the fear and superstition of paganism …
From the slave trade …
Those who profit from the trafficking of women,
And we see these things broken down, when the people involved come to faith in Jesus.
So it’s opposition to the gospel in the form of greed, that has Paul and Silas facing the magistrates in verse 20.
Roman magistrates was accompanied by officers, who carried as a symbol of their authority, a bundle of rods with an axe protruding from it. It was called a fasces, which is where both name and the symbol for the Italian Fascists came from.
But this bundle of rods, was more than just a symbol. Verse 22, The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten literally “beaten with rods”
Did you notice the actual accusation back there in verse 20? These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.
What’s the biggest insult you can imagine? It’s to call something “un-Australian” isn’t it?
Well the accusation here is that the message of the gospel of Jesus is “Un-Roman”, even though there was nothing Paul and Silas had said that was unlawful to the Romans.
And they weren’t quite “throwing our city in to an uproar”, but it is true, that the message of Jesus turns society on its head…
Brings a whole new set of priorities, a completely new way of looking at the world …
And in our world, where people are valued for their contribution …
Where status and influence is the measure of someone …
We ought to expect that a message that says all people are valuable to God, regardless of status or influence, or position in society …
The 21st century equivalent, of the Philippians slave girl, being pimped out spiritually by her owners, the gospel of Jesus has something to say about that situation.
Don’t be alarmed, that when lives get turned upside down, or right side up, by the gospel, some people will push back.
The other Wesley brother, Charles, was a famous preacher in 18th Century, and because there were many people who didn’t like his message of the free gift of forgiveness in Jesus, he would constantly wear a long riding coat, to catch all the rotten fruit and vegetables that people would throw at him!
I’ve got my Driza-Bone under the lectern here which I’ll quickly put on if anyone throws fruit this morning!
But one day, while he was riding along on his horse, Wesley realised he hadn’t faced very much opposition in a while, and he concluded that it must have been because he hadn’t been speaking clearly enough about Jesus. He figured that his message must have had stopped being a message that demanded a radical re-alignment of people’s priorities, and therefore people weren’t reacting against it.
So he got down off his horse, knelt in the lane beside the hedge-row and prayed, asking that God would help him preach the message of Jesus that turned people’s lives right side up!
He finished praying, he stood up, and just as his head came over the top of the hedge, and old woman in the adjacent field saw him and called out, “Is that you, Wesley?”, and started pelting him with rotten tomatoes!
Now, I’m not saying that unless you have to wear your Driza-Bone to work or school or the shops, then you’re obviously not being clear enough on the gospel!
Not at all!
But what Luke keeps reminding us of, is that the message of Jesus will bring opposition.
And yet, the opposition is no match for God, is it?
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
See, really, the door that God opens for the gospel in Philippi, is not the door to the jail …
But the opening of the door to more people hearing about Jesus.
The apostles have been man-handled by a crowd, if you saw any of the video of the Libyan embassy attack last year, you’ll know just how gut-wrenchingly horrific, and angry mob can be …
They’ve been stripped …
They were beaten with the rods …
And yet bloodied and bruised, they were praying and singing hymns to God.
No wonder the other prisoners were listening to them!
There’s a way to open a door for the gospel!
How do you react when people mistreat you?!
It’s part of the reason people like Corrie ten Boom, who survived the Nazi extermination camps, have such a significant impact for the gospel. “I want what she’s got!”
See, God’s opening doors for the gospel all over the place here.
While it’s the violent earthquake that grabs our attention, and that the foundations of the prison were shaken.
That’s what we notice,
But the earthquake doesn’t deliver Paul and Silas,
It delivers the jailer, doesn’t it, it’s the beginning of his hearing the word of the Lord verse 32,
Sure, the doors to the prison swing open, but what’s more significant, is the door that swings open, allowing this man and his family to hear the good news of Jesus.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
This earthquake tells me I can’t keep on living in God’s world, but living as if God doesn’t exist!
So Paul and Silas talk to him about Jesus,
And we see the evidence of his faith, don’t we?
He takes them home,
He treats their wounds …
He gives them food,
His family rejoice. Literally verse 24 reads, he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God
His family realise that his believing is good news for them too.
But then what?
Well, Paul and Silas go back to jail,
Back into the inner cell …
Feet back in the stocks.
See they know, the most important door for God to open, was not the prison door, but the door for the gospel to go forward.
Having just seen the jailer’s response to the good news, they have even more reason to be confident in God’s guiding and provision, and that yes, the good news of Jesus will go forward, to the ends of the earth.
Luke wants us to take great encouragement from the fact that God’s in control.
God knows what’s going on.
God sees …
God’s watching the apples and he’s watching the biscuits,
He is intimately involved in the spread of the good news of Jesus, and there is no kind of opposition that will catch him off guard.
In his sovereignty he uses Paul’s Roman citizenship to guarantee safe passage, a personal escort from the city authorities, verse 39.
Who would have thought that the right words on your passport would open doors for the gospel?
Well, actually there are plenty of missionaries today who have found that through “accidents of history”, the place where they were born, gets them welcomed in to countries which would otherwise be closed to them.
Again, with the Salvos, God used a decision of the European Human Rights Court, to overturn an attempt by the Russian government to stop their ministry in that country.
God will open doors, so that his good news can go forward. Sometimes we feel we’re the travelling salesman who has to shove his foot in the door to keep the opportunity open.
Luke say, “no way!” God will open the doors all on his own. We just want to be ready with the good news when he does!
What must I do to be saved?
Let me say one more thing.
What must I do to be saved?, maybe that’s your question …
Maybe, for you that question has been brought on by an earthquake, a metaphorical earthquake!
Maybe your world has been shaken by crisis, and all of a sudden you realise you need to think more carefully about what life in God’s world is all about.
I know one person in our community who came to faith as a result of an earthquake like this. The September 11 terrorist attacks poked all the holes in this person’s worldview, and they realised they needed hope and assurance, in a world where both seemed to be in short supply.
So if that is you, and you’re not sure of the answer to that question what must I do to be saved, please do let us know, there are people who would love to read the Bible with you, and help you find some answers to that question.