People of Purpose - Acts 11:19-30

This is a sermon by Viv Whitton from the evening service on 16th August 2009.

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People of Purpose

Acts 11;19 - 30, 13:1 - 3


If I were to ask the man in the street which was the key city in development of Christianity, I guess some would say Jerusalem, or if it was December, perhaps Bethlehem, and some might even say Rome,  but precious few would say Antioch - and even fewer would know where it is (not helped that 17 cities were named Antioch by Greek warlord Seleucus in honour of his father!)

However it was Antioch that became the springboard for the amazing growth of the church in 1st century, so much so that it's where we were first called 'Christians' - actually a somewhat derogatory term that might have appeared as a notice in the window of Antioch boarding houses - 'room to let, no pets, no Irish, no Christians' much as we saw here before the  anti discrimination legislation rightly outlawed such practices.

Why was Antioch so special?

·        Strategically placed for trade in what is now southern Turkey some 500 miles north of Jerusalem, it had become the third most important city in the whole Roman empire. It had a rich and varied culture and a reputation for independence as well as for the loose morals associated with pagan worship.

·        After Jesus' ascension the church had grown by leaps and bounds in Jerusalem amongst Jews and converts to Judaism, but God had a much wider purpose than just Judea - so after Stephen was killed by the authorities in Jerusalem, the church came under increasing persecution and the believers scattered across the then known world - and, critically some ended up in Antioch - they shared their faith widely and many believed, however crucially not only Jews but gentiles too. The apostles back in Jerusalem hearing of this, sent Barnabas to see what was going on. Now Barnabas had the nickname of 'encourager' - he was a good and generous man - just the sort of mentor the new converts needed.

·        And he was thrilled to see what God was doing! Recognising the pressures they were under, he exhorted the converts to stand firm - as our text puts it (Acts 11 - 23) 'to remain faithful with steadfast purpose'.But faithful to what - they were relatively ignorant of the things of God, they hadn't tyhe benefit of a Jewish background and needed teaching, however this wasn't a one man job, so Barnabas, not one to hog the limelight, went for a scholar with impeccable credentials, but also a scholar on fire for Jesus - the young Paul who was fortuitously in nearby Tarsus where he'd been sent for his own safety. And together they ministered to the new Antioch church for a year or so.

·        Note however this church wasn't a comfortable holy huddle, it was thoroughly  outward looking - when asked they contributed willingly to relieve a famine that was affecting believers in Jerusalem, and crucially they were prepared to let their beloved Paul and Barnabas move on, to take the gospel to other cities around the Mediterranean - in fact to be the first missionaries to Gentiles. Do note though that when they went it wasn't a final goodbye, there was ongoing accountability to the church at Antioch for P&B returned more than once to report back to the church what they had been doing!

·        Why then were they so outward looking? Simply they were putting Jesus' final commands into effect, in fact the one He gave just before He ascended in Matthew 28: 18 - 20 

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.   

This example of the growing church at Antioch - and their response to this final great commission of Jesus - brings into focus three vital questions that we and indeed any 21st century church have to face:

1. Is it for now? Does it apply to us, or was this a command specifically for the apostles to mark the beginning of the Christian era - like a signpost? Indeed some would even say we have 'moved on' from then to an era of interfaith understanding and tolerance!?

Surely this cannot be, the command is to go into all the world and preach the gospel and the text specifically promises Jesus' presence to 'the 'end of the age' which clearly hasn't come yet. The gospel of Jesus is for 'all nations'.

Now it is true that you will today find some Christians in virtually all countries of the world - but our definition of country is very artificial - in many cases more an accident of colonial aggrandisement than common sense. When the bible talks of nations it actually means people groups, that is folk who are linked by language and culture, some of whom today may not  even have an independent state of their own.  Our world population of some 6.7 billion people can be divided broadly into 3 groups: well evangelised 'Christian countries', countries where the church has been established but many have yet to hear, and some 1.6 billion that is 30% of the world who have little or no chance of hearing the gospel.  Just look at these examples, some big some small, as a sample of the thousands of people groups as yet unreached in any meaningful way.

Joshua Project '30 Unreached Peoples' Powerpoint

2. So just what is the task? given that we followers of Jesus have this unfulfilled responsibility, what are we actually to do? Well again Jesus makes it patently clear - we are told to make disciples, to baptise them and teach them to observe His commands - which of course culminate in this self same commission. Paul puts it very helpfully later on in his advice to Timothy, a younger leader:

 "what you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others"

In other words discipling new believers is more than just teaching the facts, it's getting them to the stage of public separation from their old life (which is what baptism is all about) and then to pass it on to others who will in turn evangelise, baptise and teach.

The missionary task is not to create satellite churches responsible to some central or colonial authority, it's about building self reproducing churches that can take responsibility for themselves. Of course this is a general principle, not just for central Africa or Asia: our own Riverside church plant for example can only be counted successful when in turn we see folk converted, taught and going out from there to plant another church or win others.

The wisdom of this biblical principal came home to me very forcibly when I visited Guinea Bissau a very poor small country in W Africa. We entered the country as the only protestant mission in late 1940's and praise God saw folk converted and a church come into being. By the end of 1980's most of responsibility had been handed over to the national church, the missionaries had actually seen pastors, teachers and evangelists converted and grow up through the church, their education and theological training may not have been as sophisticated as ours but frankly they could do the work among their own people far better than expatriates.

Then there was a coup, an invasion from neighbouring Senegal and all foreign missionaries had to leave. Praise God the national church was strong enough to stand, and was, in due course able to act as 'honest broker' in the rebuilding of the country when the war was over. That could not have happened if the missionaries had not submitted to the authority of the local church.

3. But now  the crunch question - Is it for me? Do I need a special call to be involved? Is all this just for a bunch of enthusiasts on the church mission committee? Or for those who have done some special training? - Well clearly training and experience is important and no self respecting missionary society would consider someone who was not already active in their local church, but let me first put some startling facts to you:

There are about 4 million full time Christian workers in the Christian 'west', and indeed some 300,000 missionaries from other lands working amongst us. At the same time there are only 30,000 workers for the whole of the the unevangelised world  - in other words we western churches take and keep the lions share of ministers, youth workers, evangelists and so on whilst something like 1.6 billion people have little or no opportunity of ever hearing the gospel for themselves, largely because we put less than 1% of our personnel with peoples like those I have brought before you earlier.

Frankly I think that is obscene - what must God think of us when in practice His clear commands we ignore?.

You may well reply 'hold on Viv' what about the very real needs round here? don't you know that Hull has a lower church attendance than the rest of the UK, and that even here at St John's with 300 people passing through the doors each Sunday, we are hardly scratching the surface in a parish of 22,000 people?  Well yes I do know, in fact I helped commission and analyse a major church attendance survey in Hull, the difference is simply one of opportunity - there are significant numbers of workers and congregations in Hull today. Maybe we could and should be more effective but at least everyone has some opportunity to find out for themselves, virtually all young people receive a Gideons New Testament at school, there are regular campaigns and outreaches, church is widely publicised. On the other hand millions out there have no such opportunity.

So - there is the call, we do not need to wait for flashes of light, writing on the wall, or inner voices - we all have the responsibility to actively seek the Lord for our role in this work. You may say 'but I'm not a church planter' - that could be true but then how do you know? And remember too that there are a host of other tasks involved in keeping church planting teams active amongst unreached peoples: for example we need cooks, administrators, people with practical skills, children's workers, midwives, doctors, teachers and so on - let me give you one example you may think a little unusual: my mission has ~2000 people working worldwide, many in extremely sensitive situations and good secure communication is essential, yet we struggle to recruit IT technicians indeed we rely largely on one guy for the whole UK headquarters and he is snowed under with work. Then I come to St John's on a Sunday and ironically it seems like there are more capable IT people in this church than in the entire mission internationally!

That's where the mission committee and church leadership come in - as you seek the lord in these matters we are there to support and guide, to help you find the right opportunities for serving Him in today's world..

So how did it work in Antioch, what else can we learn from them?

In chapter 13 v1 we read how as the leadership team were at prayer together, it came very clear to them that they should send out  the two most capable people in the whole church, their key leaders and  teachers Paul and Barnabas! The very people one might say they could least afford to lose. What does this tell us? Simply that these guys had done their job well - the year of discipleship training had set the right foundation for the church, there were now other leaders in place and they were ready for God to move them on.

So don't be surprised if we see more from our staff team moving on - Lee and Vicky would be a natural choice for starters,  but any of the team could make a really significant contribution to an unreached people! God may have things in store for us of which we have no idea yet - and possibly a long way away from Hull. He has a habit of surprising us and is no man's debtor!


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