Sunday’s Sermon: Acts 13:14-15, Keys to a Fruitful Life and Ministry

11 Dec

 For the last two weeks I have been planning to preach on Paul’s sermon in chapter 13 but I have been stopped in my tracks in each week by truths in these first couple of verses. Last week we saw in Acts 13, verse 13 the issue of Mark’s departure from Paul and Barnabus and the wonderful restoration that later took place for Mark which can take place for us. And my plea was that you not be spiritually lifeless even while you live.

          I believe verses 14 and 15 go on to tell us how we can avoid spiritual lifelessness. They provide us with keys to a fruitful life and ministry. So let’s look together at these keys this morning. I am hopeful next week to actually get into Paul’s sermon, because it is incredible but I want to linger one more week here in these first verses because I think it is important for where we are right now as a church.

 The first key to a fruitful life and ministry we see in this passage is . . .

Key #1: PERSEVERANCE   (v. 14).

14  but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.

It may be that the most important words of this whole passage are the first four verses of verse 14, “but they went on.” They went on even though they had faced earlier spiritual opposition in Paphos. They went on even though there had been a change in their ministry, with Paul taking more of a lead role. They went on even though they had faced the departure of their helper John Mark. They went on. Paul and Barnabus would face many obstacles in ministry. Time after time, they pressed on. They kept ministering.

We give up way too easily these days. It seems this is especially the case with the things of God. This shows us with the way we read our Bibles, with the way we pray, with the way we share our faith, with the way we participate in church life. For many things in our lives, we will move heaven and earth to make them happen. If we love the hobby or the activity or the event, we will be there.  But with the things of God, we are often reluctant to persevere. We are all too likely to give up at the first sign of difficulty. We’ll read our Bible if we have time in the morning, but otherwise, forget it. We’ll come to church if there’s nothing better to do, but if it’s a good day for golf or our child has a game, or if we don’t feel just quite right, we’ll be missing today. Many of us can get up for work every day of the week and we can get up early on Saturday to hunt or to take our children for activities, but we can’t make it to Sunday School. Now I’m not trying to lay guilt on you, but I do want to speak for the value of perseverance in the things of God. I appreciate the many of you who come long distances to be with us. And many of you come twenty or thirty minutes not only on Sunday morning but also for other services. I appreciate all of you older saints who feel pretty lousy physically most of the time but make every effort to be here. But I see as a general trend in churches in our day a low level of commitment to persevere in the things of God. And this is a tragedy because perseverance is one of the keys to spiritual life and strength and health for the individual and for the church.

Somehow we have bought the lie that walking with God is easy. Yes, Jesus said that His yoke was easy and His burden light, but remember what a yoke is, an instrument of labor. So we walk in His power, but we still walk, and that walk requires perseverance. We seem to have the idea that if we serve God everybody will love us and the waters will part and we’ll just go from one victory to another. But reality is more a matter of having both great spiritual opposition and great spiritual opportunity. So take to heart the example of Paul and Barnabus and persevere when you face a hardship or a challenge. Don’t give up on God when rough times come. Jesus told us in John 16, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” And remember too to persevere in the day to day. You know, these accounts of the missionary journeys do not say much about the many  long, ordinary days Paul and his companions spent traveling by boat or over land. The arduous journey, the day to day need for supplies and food, all of it was a calling to persevere. And all this, not to mention their spiritual lives, which would need the nurture of prayer and fellowship with their fellow believers.  The greatest battlefield in the fight to persevere is probably these little mundane moments of life. It may be that walking with God through ordinary days may be the most difficult thing of all. Bills, laundry, family members, making meals, getting children to activities, talking on the phone, small daily choices about how we spend time, all of these things and more are the little things where a life for God’s glory is really played out. And I have to share with you a lesson I am still learning, and probably always will be: God-focused faith-filled perseverance in the details of life will pay off huge dividends in your life.

Think about it. Do you make progress in any other endeavor in life without perseverance? Oh, I want to lose a few pounds. How does it happen? It happens through the detail of daily exercise and attention to diet. It is the consistent practice that makes a good musician or athlete. It is attention in class and focused study that makes a good student.

But with all this said, we don’t persevere without motivation. Nobody is going to the weight room or the treadmill without motivation. The motivation may be bad (like pride) or it may be good (like a desire to be healthy) but unless the motivation is greater than the pain of the activity, we will not persevere. So in the end, I think this is at the heart of our problem with perseverance in the Christian life. It is a motivation problem. Weak motivations like looking good or being respectable are not sufficient to sustain the Christian life. Empty motivations like trying to earn God’s favor or be worthy of His love will never produce lasting growth and staying power. We need true motivation. What is that motivation? Well, let’s think about what motivated Paul.

Flip over to 2 Corinthians 5. We all know that we should live life as unto God and not unto self. But we often struggle with motivation to live in this way. But Paul seemed to be consistently motivated to live for Christ. Notice verse 14 and 15 in chapter 5. For Christ’s love compels  us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all,  then all died. 15 And He died for all  so that those who live should no longer live for themselves,  but for the One  who died for them and was raised.

Now notice what motivates, what is the controlling factor, what directs Paul’s life? It is the love of Christ. Now that could be his love for Christ or that could be Christ’s love for him. I believe that the second option is the more likely. And of course when we recognize Christ’s love, it does something to us. It moves us to no longer live for ourselves, but for His glory. So the turn from the life unto self to the life unto God is the embrace of the truth of what Jesus has done for God’s glory and our joy.

There are many other words in Paul’s writings that point to his motivation. Philippians is filled with them. “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” “One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead I press on toward the goal, the high calling of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Colossians 3 is there too: “If you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on things above, where Christ is at the right hand of God. And what we see in that passage in particular is that the call to kill sin in our lives immediately follows these words about setting our minds on things above. It is the life with heart and mind fixed on the love of Christ which is really able to make war with the destructive working of sin in our lives.

So today if you haven’t opened your Bible in weeks, if you really don’t want to be here this morning, if you never pray except to complain, ask yourself about where your heart is today. Are you motivated by the greatness of God’s love in Christ or are you not motivated at all, or motivated by weak things that will not sustain? The issue is not how good the preaching is or whether the music is the style you like or if the people are enough like you or if they are friendly or not. The issue is not whether you agree with every decision or anything else. The real question is “where is your heart?” The only way your life as a believer will have the staying power of a Paul or Barnabus is if you have a heart of overflowing love for Christ. You can’t produce that on your own. It is the gift of God, this is what John 6 tells us, this is what Ephesians 2 tells us. But having received by faith that new heart of love for Jesus when you were saved, now you and I are called to walk in light of the grace of God we have received, through good times and bad.

My prayer for myself and for all here is that we would be a persevering people. When the hard times hit, we would not forsake God but would cling to Him all the more tightly. So I just want you to write these words over your life today, “but they went on.” Take it for yourself. Keep on going in the trials of your life.

The second key to a fruitful life and ministry seems contradictory on the surface but we will see that it is not as we go . . .

KEY #2: SOVEREIGNTY and STRATEGY (vv. 14-15). 

The second word concerns what Paul did in their ministry in these verses. So where the first word concerns their attitude, this point relates to their actions.

It seems that Paul and Barnabus did not stay long in Perga. Instead, they traveled to Pisidian Antioch. This is not the same Antioch that launched Paul and Barnabus into missionary service, this was a different Antioch located in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. There were actually 16 different cities in the Roman world named Antioch, named after Antiochus, the father of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. This Antioch in Pisidia was an important city in the region, but so was Perga. So as I was looking at this, I began to wonder why Paul and Barnabus didn’t begin their mission in Perga. I thought it was unusual for Paul and Barnabus to bypass Perga, a significant city, for Pisidian Antioch more than 100 miles away. And Pisidian Antioch was not only 100 miles away it was a climb of over 3000 feet. Pisidian Antioch was, as we would say about Boone and Blowing Rock, up the mountain.

So why would Paul and Barnabus try to go to Pisidian Antioch rather than starting their missionary journey in Perga? Now they wouldn’t ignore Perga. We will see them come back there at the end of chapter 14, but they start in Pisidian Antioch. Why?

I think there are two reasons. First, other sources from Roman history tell us that there was a large Jewish population in the city of Pisidian Antioch, while no such population is noted in Perga. Paul and Barnabus, for strategic and theological reasons, took the gospel first to the Jews. In doing this they would be identified as having continuity with the long-standing and respected faith of Judaism and so would be less likely to be viewed with suspicion by the governing authorities. Paul and Barnabus and the other early Christians did not see themselves as enemies of Judaism or as a whole different religion. The first Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism. We will see this clearly as we look at Paul’s sermon here in the coming weeks. They also believed that since the Jews were the people of  God through whom the Savior had come, that they should have the first opportunity to hear about Jesus and trust Him. So there was a specific strategy from Paul and Barnabus.

Still why travel 100 miles and go up 3000 feet in altitude when there was a sizeable city right there in Perga? There was another reason. Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor who had been converted on the island of Cyprus, had many relatives who lived in Pisidian Antioch. They owned many estates there and would serve for Paul and Barnabus as a welcoming presence upon their arrival in the city.

Now we begin to see here two truths which are key to understanding what is going on. These two truths seem to many people to contradict each other, but in fact they go together. The two truths we see here in verses 14 and 15 are sovereignty and strategy. First, we see the sovereign hand of God, don’t we? Having been sent from their church with the blessing of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can see how Paul and Barnabus have been led to this point. God led them to Cyprus according to verse 4. God led them through the whole island and their reputation apparently preceded them because when they got to Paphos the Roman governor Sergius Paulus sought an audience with them. And of course, God had been working in Sergius Paulus’ heart as we see in verse 7. And then as this opportunity comes to Paul to speak with Sergius, there is the conflict with the Jewish false teacher Elymas. But God in His sovereignty uses this conflict and Paul’s prevailing in it to profoundly impact Sergius Paulus. And then it seems from the historical background we have about this passage, that Sergius Paulus  opened doors for Paul and Barnabus to go to Pisidian Antioch. Isn’t the timing and working of God amazing! I am continually amazed at how we see this in the Bible. Proverbs 3:5 and 6 is really coming true for Paul and Barnabus. As they trust in the Lord with all their heart, He is directing their paths.

We will continue to see the sovereign leading of God in Paul’s and Barnabus’ ministry. Sometimes it will come through miraculous means, like the later vision of the man from Macedonia, who calls on Paul to come help them. Sometimes it will come as God closes doors. Sometimes the phrase is used, “the Holy Spirit would not let us.” So it is clear throughout the book of Acts that God is leading. He is moving things everywhere for the spread of the good news about Jesus. And as we look at Acts, it seems that He often moves in answer to prayer. How the sovereignty of God works in concert with prayer is something of a mystery, but that His rule does work hand in hand with prayer is undeniable from the book of Acts. So while we rejoice and rest in the sovereignty of God, we also pray and trust in Him.

So we trust in our sovereign God, but there is also a place for strategy in the church. It is clear that Paul and Barnabus had a certain strategy in their ministry. They went to the Jewish synagogues first, for the reasons we mentioned before. If the historical background of this passage is correct, and I think there are some clues in the text that it is, then they also secured from Sergius Paulus letters of recommendation from Sergius Paulus to go to Pisidian Antioch. In this way, their ministry opportunities in the city would be enhanced. They would have a foot in the door, so to speak. And what we see in verse 15 is that they got that foot in the door very easily, because of God’s sovereignty and their wise ministry strategy. Look at verse 15 . . .

 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.”

In a synagogue service, it was normal for the Old Testament scriptures to be read and then for a synagogue leader to give a message based on those scriptures. It also was not unusual for respected guests to be asked to share messages with the gathered group. The question here is, why were Paul and Barnabus asked to share? Some have speculated that their clothing may have set them apart as Jewish teachers but I think the far more likely explanation is that their endorsement by Sergius Paulus to the prominent people of the city had given them an open door here so that they were welcomed and encouraged to speak. And what an open door it is. You’ll never see a better opportunity for sharing the gospel than this. “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” The synagogue leaders viewed them favorably, calling them brothers. They opened the way for them to share anything they wanted. Normally, the message was based on the scripture that had just been read but this does not seem to be the requirement here. The synagogue rulers ask for a word of encouragement and what could be a more encouraging word than the good news of Jesus Christ? And this is to be a message for the people, exactly who Paul and Barnabus wanted to reach, all the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles present in this synagogue service.

So how did this open door come about? The door opened through God’s sovereignty and the strategy of Paul and Barnabus. And of course in the end it is God’s sovereignty which directs Paul’s strategy, so that God gets the glory and we get the blessing.

We tend to pit these things against each other and most people swing to one or the other, but we need to always keep in mind in our ministry and our daily living. Some Christians discount the sovereignty of God. I remember one pastor whose church I attended as a young Christian. One of his favorite phrases for motivating the members of the church was, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” And that always struck me as kind of strange, even as a new Christian. I was asking myself, “Where is God in that?” In the same way, when I became a pastor and began to see and listen to much of what experts on church growth said, it smacked of all strategy and no trust in God’s sovereignty. The power was in the plan, not in the work of God in answer to prayer. If you applied this strategy to your ministry it would experience exponential growth. For a time I became skeptical of any strategy and just thought, well preach the Word and love the people and trust the sovereignty of God. And that approach is good and it goes a long way toward where we need to be. But I am convinced in studying the book of Acts that there is a place for strategy at times. We need to use wisdom in how we do ministry. There is a place for thinking about those things. There is a place for making plans. There is a place for particular approaches to ministry. We will see this very thing in Paul and Barnabus. They will adopt different ministry strategies based on their audience. And I don’t think this matter of strategy is just a matter for missions. Paul will give the established churches particular insights about how to do ministry as well.

So the danger is always to swing to extremes. We say, we’ll just preach and God will do it. Or we say, unless we have the right strategy, nothing will happen. We need an approach to our life as a church like that of Paul and Barnabus. An approached covered in prayer. An approach that trusts wholly in the sovereignty of God and is always seeking His leading. An approach where there is a willingness to change when God leads the change. An approach where strategies are a part of the picture but not the whole ball of wax.

We have to always keep in mind our purpose. We are here to love God and to love each other and to serve the world. We are here to glorify God through knowing Him and making Him known. So the question we need to apply to what we are doing as a church is simple: does this or that activity or focus in our church bring glory to God by helping people know God and make Him known? Does it hinder the God-centered, gospel-focused approach that should characterize church life?

So we need to ask those questions, trusting in God but seeking to make this place the best it can possibly be for accomplishing God’s purpose for us.

Pray, trusting in God’s sovereignty and then use the wisdom and guidance He gives to seek to be the most useful instruments in His hands we can possibly be.

Every church is called to the same basic mission but every church is in a different field and faces unique realities. We must not think that God wants us to be the church down the street or the church on TV. He wants us to be who He has uniquely fitted us to be as a people of God.

Keys to a strong ministry and a strong life – Perseverance, Sovereignty and Strategy. Like the Proverbs say, we make our plans but God directs our steps. When plans change or obstacles come into our path, we don’t withdraw or become discouraged. We persevere. May people in days to come be able to say of this body of believers at West Hickory, “but they went on.” Many of their best members died, “but they went on.” They went through hard times of transition, “but they went on.” Nobody got everything they wanted or hoped for, “but they went on.” The whole area around their church changed, “but they went on.” They aren’t a flashy church, never going to be famous, but God is at work there. They trust that He reigns. They pray without ceasing. They seek ways to reach people with the good news of Jesus and make disciples of all people. They love their community in word and deed. This is God’s calling to us. Are you motivated to walk in this way? Have you been compelled by the love of your Savior to move away from a life unto self to live a life unto God? There are thousands of gifts in this life unto God, one of the big ones is not being a slave to the things of this life. But beyond that, there is the joy of knowing you are involved in something eternal that can not fail, because the God of the universe is moving in it. So join with us today. Be a man or woman of God who doesn’t give up and who is always looking for ways to grow, all the while trusting in the sustaining power and wisdom of God and the love of Jesus.

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