Saturday, July 22, 2017

170723 Son of Encouragement

After his conversion Saul immediately began to preach in the synagogues at Damascus. Instead of proclaiming that the followers of Jesus should be arrested he testified that Jesus is the Son of God. He soon found that his life was in danger and his disciples helped him to escape through a hole in the wall. Saul went into Arabia until it was safe for him to return to Damascus. He continued in Damascus for about three years and then went up to Jerusalem.
There was a disciple in Jerusalem who had proven himself to be an encourager. His name was Joseph but we shall always know him as “Barnabas”. “Barnabas” means “son of encouragement” We know that he was of the tribe of Levi and that he was a native of Cyprus. The disciples in Jerusalem were afraid of Saul. They knew that when he left Jerusalem he was an enemy and they did not know how to trust him.
In spite of the fears Barnabas came to help. Let’s read about that event in Acts 9:26-28. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.
Barnabas knew some of Saul’s history and was confident that he was safe. Since he did not fear Saul he was able to bring him to the apostles. In his letter to the Galatians, Saul, by then called Paul, told about this encounter. Luke did not know how many apostles he met with but Paul tells us that he met with Peter and spent about two weeks with him. And almost as an afterthought, he said that he met with James, the Lord’s brother. Within a very short period of time it became obvious that Saul of Tarsus could not stay in Jerusalem if he wanted to stay alive.
For his protection, Saul was sent away. Let’s continue to read in Acts 9:29-30. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
So, within the first four or five years of his life in Christ Saul returned to his home district in what is now Turkey. For several years Saul traveled around the regions of Syria and Cilicia preaching the good news of Jesus. We have no record of the time that Saul spent absent from the Holy Land. Knowing what we do about him in his later years, as well as in the immediate years after his salvation, we can be sure that Saul went into the synagogues and preached the good news about Jesus. In fact, there may have been churches founded during that time. I can’t believe that he would have failed to bear witness anywhere he went. Saul/Paul was consistently a witness for the living Lord Jesus Christ. His isolation would come to an end when God was ready to use him.
Fourteen years later Barnabas came to Antioch. Let’s read Acts 11:20-22. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.
The church in the region that Saul was operating in began to have an influx of Gentile believers. We do not know if there was any connection between Saul’s life in Tarsus and the growth of the church in Syrian Antioch. What we do know — Antioch was rapidly becoming a large center of Christianity. Within the first 300 years we are told that the church there grew to more than 100,000 disciples. Obviously, this early response to the gospel concerned the apostles in Jerusalem. After all, Jesus himself had told them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came on them (this occurred almost immediately and is recorded in Acts 2). And when this powerful spirit came on them they would become Christ’s witnesses beginning in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and would continue to the end of the earth.
You recall the event I’m sure. Immediately after Jesus ascended into heaven two angels appeared to them and, in effect, asked why they were standing there looking up into heaven. Angels are always prepared to do the will of God without question and without hesitation. I am fairly sure that the angels do not understand how we can be so hesitant when we have a clear instruction from God!
When Barnabas was sent to Antioch by the apostles, still huddled in Jerusalem, he saw right away that the grace of God was manifest there. Barnabas was pleased at what he saw but he needed help in deciding how to present the report to the apostles. Barnabas needed someone who could relate to the people of the region. After he had given it some consideration, and a lot of prayer…
Barnabas knew who could help. Let’s continue to read Acts 11:25-26. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
I would really like to be able to see a record of the things that Saul had done in Tarsus and the surrounding region. I do not believe for one moment that he was able to be quiet about his newfound faith. At the same time, he needed to study and pray to understand the tremendous changes that had come into his life. After all, he had persecuted the church! Wouldn’t that disqualify him? He had to know, from God, that he was acceptable. It mattered little what men thought. Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Accepting Barnabas’ call for help must have been very refreshing to the man who had persecuted the church. He went gladly to see what he could do to bind the church together.
We are so impatient! It’s true that we rush in where angels fear to tread. Saul and Barnabas settled into the role of teaching pastors for this rapidly growing church.
For an entire year they taught the new church. My how good it would be to see the outlines of their Bible teaching. How good it would have been to sit in on their leadership discussions. They had a definite problem! The church was rapidly becoming a mixture of Greeks and Hebrews. God was preparing his two servants for their future ministries. During the time that they were in Antioch a prophet named Agabus reported that there was going to be a famine that would particularly harm the church in Jerusalem.
The Christians in Antioch felt an obligation to help those who had sent the gospel to them. In order to help solve the problem…
Barnabas and Saul became a team. Let’s read on Acts 11:29-30.  So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
First, they helped to organize financial relief for the elders in the home church. The leaders of the church in Antioch knew they couldn’t do better than sending these two fine Christian men to Jerusalem with the offering.
By this time, Barnabas and Saul were inseparable. Wherever one went the other went. They worked well together. It seems to me that Saul was the teacher and Barnabas was the worker. Barnabas could bring people together and organize them and Saul could teach them. This mission team would finally began to fulfill the words of Jesus on the day of his ascension. God was preparing them to bring the gospel to the end of the earth. Up until that time it seems that there was a Christian presence in Rome and also along the far eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Most of the believers were organized in such a way that they were led by the church in Jerusalem.
We cannot know if there were any other centers of the faith. We have no record to rely on but there are stories told about the expansion of the gospel beyond what Luke recorded for us in Acts.
On their trip to Jerusalem…
They added to their team. Let’s read on Acts 12:25. And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.
We do not know much about John Mark. It appears that he was a cousin of Barnabas. We know also that his mother had a sufficiently large house where the church could meet. The church was meeting for prayer in the house of John Mark’s mother when Peter was rescued by an angel.
It would appear that John Mark was not with them very long before the church at Syrian Antioch came together to be an entirely new phase outreach. Barnabas
The team then became traveling missionaries. Let’s look at Acts 13:1-3. Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
The title “prophet” is not used a lot in the New Testament. It usually refers back to the Old Testament prophets. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he speaks of prophecy in its place in the church there. Whatever their role was at Antioch they were listed among the teachers. When I consider what was happening in the church in Antioch I am reminded of one of J. Edwin Orr's more colorful phrases, which he repeated time and again, was: "Whenever God gets ready to do a great work, He always sets His people a-praying." Orr was one of the faculty members at the Fuller Seminary School of World Mission a generation ago. He was a great evangelist as well as a prolific writer. Incidentally, he wrote the last verse of Amazing Grace – “When we been there 10,000 years bright shining as the sun we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”
While they were fasting and praying the church in Antioch began to sense a new direction from God. As they understood God’s direction they set aside Paul and Barnabas for the special ministry. After fasting and praying they laid hands on them and sent them away. The next few months were exciting times for Paul and Barnabas and John Mark.
As we have seen from the earlier experiences of the disciples, the gospel was spreading fairly slowly across the world. At his ascension into heaven Jesus had announced that they would receive power and were expected to carry the gospel out into the world. They would begin in Jerusalem but they were not to stay there. We are not told exactly how much time had passed but it was certainly more than seventeen years since Jesus had left the earth. The gospel was being spread but it was almost accidently rather than intentionally. Now it was time to get serious about spreading the good news!
All scriptures quotes are from: The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

170716 Chosen to Suffer

Saul had been present when Stephen was killed for his testimony concerning Jesus. He had even held the cloaks of the men who stoned Stephen to death. Saul, later called Paul, continued along that path until he had arrested most of the active followers of Christ in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Saul believed that he was doing the will of God by arresting and killing Christians. He went so far as to organize a search and destroy mission going to Damascus. Look at the words of Luke as he described what happened.
Acts 9:1-3 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.
The Book of Acts continues the story found in the Gospel of Luke. In the first few chapters we see the beginning of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Jesus’ disciples. Since we have often looked at those chapters we’re going to pick up with the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He was one of the leaders of the opposition to Christianity. As he traveled north from Jerusalem to Damascus he was met by the risen Lord Jesus.
Saul was so thoroughly indoctrinated with hate towards Christian believers that he was taken totally by surprise when confronted by Jesus himself. This encounter can encourage us to bear witness to Christ wherever we go. No one is beyond the power of God to bring them to salvation.
Also, this event warns us that there is an unseen world around us. It was just simply a matter of God drawing back the curtain and allowing the Lord Jesus Christ to appear in the sky above Paul and his cohorts. Saul was now looking into the realm that Stephen had seen. Stephen gave his life while asking that the men who stoned him should be forgiven. If anyone would be beyond salvation it would seem to be Saul who was so violently opposed to the followers of Christ.
Later, when Paul was telling the story in his trial before King Agrippa he tells us that…
He was interrogated by Jesus. Let’s look at the record in Acts 26:13-15. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
In recounting the story, before King Agrippa, Saul remembers a detail that had been left out of earlier accounts. But the one thing that is consistent in all the accounts is that in the midst of all that light it was the voice of Jesus that he heard. Jesus wanted him to see that by attacking his followers he was attacking Christ himself. Obviously, God had been pressuring him to turn from his path before that day. Here, he used the phrase “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” implying that God had been challenging him to turn aside. The goads mentioned here would be recognized by a person who drove a wagon being pulled by oxen. In order to keep the oxen from kicking the wagon apart the teamster would put sharpened sticks behind the oxen’s legs so that the animal would suffer pain when he tried to kick.
Obviously I don’t know exactly what these goads were in Saul’s life. But they were designed by God to make him conscious of the fact that in opposing the church he was opposing God. As Jesus spoke to him he was surrounded by light so bright that it drove him to the ground and then he heard a voice. The voice did not say, “Why are you persecuting the church?” The voice said “Why are you persecuting me?” Opposition to the followers of Christ would always be considered an attack on Christ himself!
As Paul continued his defense he reported that…
Jesus told him why he was called. Let’s continue reading Acts 26:16. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,
Having been struck to the ground by the bright light Paul is now instructed to stand up. Now our Lord Jesus explained why God chose Paul! Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus is later described as being the last appearance of Jesus to an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:8). It must’ve been an amazing experience for the persecutor of the church to be told that he was being appointed as a servant and a witness. All of those incidents of prodding that Saul experienced were designed to improve his witness. There would be other experiences when Christ would appear to Paul the Apostle.
The Bible reveals some of these experiences where Paul saw Christ. In Acts 18:8-9 Paul had come to a point in his life that he was experiencing fear. So during the night Jesus told him not to be afraid. He was told to go ahead speaking the truth no matter what men might say. God still had a purpose for Paul’s ministry in Corinth because Jesus had many in that city who were his people.
A second such experience happened in Acts 23:11, at that time he was the subject of persecution. The evidence is pretty clear that Paul expected to be killed in Jerusalem! And instead of being killed he was rescued by the Romans. During that long night in the Roman barracks Paul must’ve been searching for a good answer as to why he was still alive. So the Lord stood by and told him that he was not finished yet. Just as he had given testimony in Jerusalem he would give testimony also in Rome.
Those events are still in the future as Paul was listening to Jesus on the Damascus Road. He was not only struck down by Christ but Jesus had a plan for him in Damascus that was quite a lot different from his intentions…
Jesus prepared his reception. Let’s go back to Acts 9:10-12. Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
Let’s use our imaginations a little. Armed guards were marching north along the road to Damascus being led by Saul of Tarsus. Meanwhile, in Damascus, the word was being spread among the followers of Jesus that Saul was coming. Decisions were having to be made as to whether they would stay in Damascus and face the persecutors or, leave the city hoping to escape imprisonment and perhaps execution? Those agonizing questions were passing through the mind of one of the disciples of Jesus named Ananias. At just that time the Lord, who had met Saul on the road, came to Ananias in a vision. He called Ananias by name and instructed him to go to Saul with the encouragement that Saul was praying. In answer to Saul’s prayers he was given a vision of a man named Ananias coming to him and laying hands on him so that he can recover his sight.
The enemy of the church was practically helpless on Straight street and now Ananias was supposed to pray for his healing. When Saul’s sight was restored he would immediately see one of the targets of his persecution. That target was a very uneasy Ananias.
This called for courage. Let’s continue to read Acts 9:13-14. But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”
Just in case Jesus did not know exactly what was going on Ananias explained things to him. This man, whom he was supposed to pray for, had done much evil to the church in Jerusalem. Maybe God didn’t know that? Of course, this was not news to the Lord. He not only knew about the persecution he knew about the plans he had for Saul when he became named Paul. The former persecutor of the church would now become his strongest advocate. He was a chosen instrument that would be fine tuned over the next years to carry the name of Jesus into the Gentile world, before the world’s rulers, and to the children of Israel.
He was to be…
A chosen instrument. Let’s look at Paul’s testimony to the Galatians 1:14-15. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,
“Advancing in Judaism” was the way Paul described his life process. He was thinking that he was doing God’s work when he persecuted the church. Paul later could see that God had chosen him even before he was born. By God’s grace, at the proper time, he would be called to be a chosen instrument…
With a special purpose. Let’s return to the account in Acts 9:15-16. But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
As Ananias was struggling with what to do the Lord told him to “Go”. God’s special purpose for Paul was not just to preach the gospel. His special purpose included suffering for the sake of the Name! God does not promise us an easy journey.
Centuries later Isaac Watts would pen a hymn that asked the question, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”
The second verse goes like this: Must I be carried to the skies On flowery beds of ease, While others fought to win the prize, And sailed through bloody seas?
The answer is “NO”! Paul, along with every generation of believers must be…
Prepared to suffer for Christ’s sake. Paul himself described what his life was like in his letter to the Corinthians. Let’s read 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
How can I expand upon Paul’s own words? He certainly would have been one of those described in the book of Hebrews, chapter 11. In every generation there have been persecution of those who live by faith. Certainly Paul was one of those of whom the world was not worthy! Day by day Paul had a constant pressure of anxiety for the churches! Perhaps the churches of today would be better off if such men and women suffered under anxiety for the condition of the churches.
Obedience to God is more important than avoiding suffering or even death. As Paul was going to Jerusalem for his last visit there he could say, “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). This level of conviction could make Paul able to go back into the city of Lystra after he had been stoned and left for dead. As he came to the end of his life he could say, “I have fought the good fight I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7). I pray that we will all be able to speak such words because of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
 All scriptures quotes are from: The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.