What was it really like to be a Christian in the first half of the first century AD? We read how the apostles preached the gospel and people were being saved all over the place and it can seem so thrilling and exciting but very remote and different from our lives today. The reality is that church life then wasn’t that different from church life today. People had arguments. People had to make sacrifices to witness for Jesus. People were being saved, but not always in crowds. Often just, slowly but surely, one by one. And behind it all the Holy Spirit was at work – the same Holy Spirit who is working in us today giving us power to be witnesses for Jesus. This morning let’s take a look at four snapshots of what mission was like in the Early Church. We start with a story which could be discouraging.
Disagreement between Paul and Barnabas
Acts 15 36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ 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. 39 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 believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Nobody’s perfect. Here we see an argument over what seems to us to be something very minor leading to a parting of the ways. It might help us to know who this John, also called Mark, actually was. You might have remembered when the angel released Peter from prison in Acts 12, he made his way to the house of Mary, who was the mother of John, also called Mark. When Barnabas and Paul went back to Antioch at the end of Acts 12, they took John Mark with them. He also went out with them on the first part of their first missionary journey to Cyprus and we read that he was their helper as they preached the gospel in Salamis. But when they arrived on mainland Turkey John Mark left them to go back to Jerusalem. Paul felt that he had deserted them, but Barnabas was more charitable.
There are two other things we need to know about John, also called Mark. Firstly, Colossians 4:10 tells us that Mark was Barnabas’s cousin. So it is understandable that Barnabas might be more forgiving towards a member of his own family. Secondly, most people believe that John also called Mark is the author of the second Gospel, Mark the Evangelist. So Mark was not some insignificant extra with a tiny walk-on part in the story of the Early Church. He had his own important role in the growth of the Early church, writing his account of the life of Jesus, quite probably based on the sermons of the Apostle Peter. And towards the end of his life when Paul was writing 2 Timothy, he could say, “Mark is helpful to me in my ministry.” So in due course Paul and John Mark were obviously reconciled once again. Perhaps Barnabas son of Encouragement had been working for years behind the scenes to bring Mark and Paul back together for that happy ending.
But here in Acts 15 we see such a sharp disagreement that Barnabas and Paul head of in different directions. They give us a positive example of letting go and moving on. Each was still doing the job they had agreed to do, encouraging the new Christians in the churches they had planted. Barnabas had a new apprentice in Mark, and Paul took his new sidekick Silas. As we will see in a moment, Paul also went on to take Timothy under his wing. So although the dream team of Barnabas and Paul had split up, in reality the work was multiplied. God was at work through it all. Even when there are disagreements, even when churches split, God often has a way of working through our human weaknesses to bring greater blessing. Sometimes things do go wrong in life and in the church – but God is still under control. He can bring good out of bad.
Martin Luther wrote this about this passage.
“Such examples are written for our consolation: for it is a great comfort to us to hear that great saints, who have the Spirit of God, also struggle. … No one has ever fallen so grievously that he may not rise again. Conversely, no one stands so firmly that he may not fall. If Peter (and Paul and Barnabas) fell, I too may fall. If they rose again, I too may rise again.”
Nothing can stop the spreading flame of the good news of Jesus Christ. And good did come out of that apparent disaster.
Timothy joins Paul and Silas
Acts 16:1 Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. 2 The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
Now he was apart from Barnabas, Paul had a vacancy for an apprentice of his own, and he chose Timothy. This part of the story should surprise us. Last week we heard about the Council of Jerusalem and the letter which the Jewish Christians sent out to the new Gentile converts around Asia. It made clear that people did not need to become Jews before they became Christians. Male disciples did not need to be circumcised. New Christians were not obliged to obey the Jewish Law or keep the Sabbath or obey the 10 Commandments or celebrate the Jewish festivals. All the letter from the Council of Jerusalem said was this.
Acts 15 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
These were the decisions reached by the Council of Jerusalem which Paul was delivering to the new churches of Gentile Christians. So why on earth did Paul circumcise Timothy?
It was not because a Greek person like Timothy needed to be circumcised in order to follow Jesus. Instead it was to make sure that there was no possible barrier to Jews hearing the gospel with Paul and Timothy preached to them. God accepts all people equally – Jews and not Jews. But that truth would be a stumbling block to Jews when they heard the gospel that Jesus had come to save them. In time Jews who became Christians would discover for themselves that God loves everybody equally. But to begin with they just needed to hear about the resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness which He offers. So Timothy consented to be circumcised, to help the Jews hear the good news of Jesus.
Paul explained it to the Corinthians like this.
1 Corinthians 9 19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
By all possible means. Doing whatever it takes. Saving people “any which way we can.”
That doesn’t mean that Paul or Timothy changed the gospel in any way. They didn’t water down the truth or compromise the gospel in the slightest. They didn’t adjust the message just to please the audience. But they did remove any barriers they could to make sure that people could hear about Jesus and not be put off by secondary issues. So for Paul who was a Jew, and for Timothy who was not, the principle was simple.. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.
It’s easy to be stuck in our ways. But if we really want to win the worldly, we have to be willing to change our ways, to give up some of our “rights”:
• Our “right” to associate only with people who are like us
• Our “right” to be comfortable
• Our “right” to relaxation
• Our “right” to spend our money however we want
• Our “right” to determine our own schedule
• Our “right” not to be bothered
God calls US to do “whatever it takes” to share the gospel here in North Springfield. I have shared this quote before. “We must welcome people as Jesus welcomed them, rely on the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin and leave it to God to be the Judge.” Saving people any which way we can! So the mission continued and was richly blessed and the next part of the story tells us why.
Paul’s vision of the man of Macedonia
6 Paul and his companions travelled 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. 9 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.
Just a very simple observation from these few verses. Paul and Silas didn’t just roam wherever they felt like. But nor did they have to invent for themselves a specific strategy for their mission. Instead they simply went where God the Holy Spirit led them. We don’t know exactly how it happened that they were “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” but we know that the Spirit was guiding them. We don’t know how it was that when they tried to enter Bithynia “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” The Spirit of Jesus of course just means God the Holy Spirit, who bears witness to Jesus and gives us the power to be witnesses for Jesus. We do know from Acts 15 that Silas was recognized to be a prophet, so it may be that God was guiding Paul and Silas on those occasions through words of prophecy. But we do know exactly how God led Paul to preach in Macedonia and that was by a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Throughout Acts we see God the Holy Spirit guiding and leading the church. And we should be praying for God to guide us in the same way, sometimes even by dreams and visions and words of prophecy.
I had been a minister for just a few weeks in Tunbridge Wells when I was on my way home for my lunch. My plan for the afternoon was to visit two sisters who were members of the congregation. Joan was ill at home and Peggy was looking after her. As I reached the end of our drive I felt compelled to forget about lunch and make the visit at that moment. So I drove on. I arrived and prayed with the sisters. Five minutes later Joan died and I was with them both as she left us. God the Holy Spirit does sometimes lead is in ways like that which the Bible would refer to as a word of knowledge or a word of wisdom. We just need to learn to listen to God speaking to us. And when the Holy Spirit prompts us to talk to somebody about Jesus, we should be bold and speak the words God gives us to say. The Holy Spirit is ready to guide and lead us in our mission and outreach today. And there is more encouragement in our fourth snapshot of mission.
Lydia becomes a Christian
Acts 16 11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.
Often when the gospel was preached by the first Christians, many people were saved. We just read this in Acts 16 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. We read how during their first missionary journey Barnabas and Paul saw very many people respond to the gospel. Acts 14:1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.
We often read in Acts how large numbers of people were saved at the same time. 3000 on the day of Pentecost and 2000 more in the weeks that followed. We don’t often see that kind of dramatic response to the gospel nowadays. But we mustn’t be discouraged. Because Acts also tells us about specific individuals who were saved. God cares just as much about the one as he does about the ten or the hundred or the thousand. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep safe in the fold to search for the lost sheep. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost and there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:17). The loving Father is always looking out hoping to welcome back the one prodigal. The parable of the starfish on the beach reminds us that God cares about every individual. God is very happy to save people one by one.
So here we read about just one lady, Lydia, whose name means beautiful one or noble one. Lydia was the first person to become a Christian in Philippi and she became the leader of the church which met in her house. But did you notice that it wasn’t Paul’s preaching which brought Lydia to faith in Jesus. “The Lord opened her heart to God’s message”. It was God the Holy Spirit who helped her to believe and who brought her to be born again. And that is always the way. We aren’t the same as Paul – but it is the same Holy Spirit at work through us. God used Paul’s words, and God will use our words to touch people’s hearts and bring them to respond to the good news of Jesus – when we are brave enough to tell people that God loves them. Lydia heard the gospel and she responded by being baptised, which is the New Testament way a person shows that they have become a believer. And the story of how just that one woman was saved has passed down the centuries to us to give us the name of the largest network of ladies’ prayer groups, the Lydia Fellowship. Individuals matter to God!
So in these four snapshots of mission, we have seen how even disagreement between Paul and Barnabas couldn’t stop the gospel from spreading. We have seen Paul and Timothy becoming all things to all men to spread the good news any which way they can. We have seen God the Holy Spirit guiding the mission of the church and we have seen that God wants to save every individual as he does vast crowds. This is how the church grew in the middle of the first century and this is how the church can still grow today as God the Holy Spirit gives US the power to be witnesses for Jesus.