READ : Acts 13:26-29
“The church,” a well-known Christian leader once remarked, “exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” Let’s look at the first mission efforts of Christianity’s most famous missionary.
When we left Paul and Barnabas at the end of our last message they were settled into a team ministry at Antioch in Syria, the Roman Empire’s third largest city (after Alexandria and Rome itself). Barnabas and Paul spent more than a year in this major metropolitan center (Acts 11:26), leaving only long enough to bring the offering of the Christians in Antioch to Jerusalem for the relief of famine victims there (11:27-30). Upon their return (12:25), though, Barnabas and Paul were singled out by the Holy Spirit (13:2) and the church (v. 3) for a special work. At last Paul is to begin in earnest his life’s primary mission: communicating the good news about Jesus Christ throughout the whole Roman world.
THE FIRST MISSIONARY JOURNEY
Acts 13 and 14 relate the details of Paul’s first missionary journey. He started out in the company of his friend and colleague Barnabas, along with Barnabas’s cousin, a young man named John Mark (cf.12:25). Several things about this missionary undertaking are noteworthy, chief among them the fact that it happened at all! After all, Antioch was a huge city with an estimated population at that time of half a million inhabitants. The church had only been established there for a few years, and there was still an enormous spiritual need in the city. Yet God asked this congregation for its most gifted leaders to become missionaries (13:1). And the church in Antioch willingly gave up Paul and Barnabas for this larger work. Five hundred thousand people still to be reached at home – and the church is sending out its best to reach the world? Now there’s a group of believers who know the mind and heart of the Lord! We must never be deterred by the size of local needs from doing all we can to send the gospel to the ends of the earth in cross-cultural mission.
Paul and Barnabas began their first missionary tour by sailing the short distance from Antioch to Cyprus. After traveling the length of the island and preaching to its inhabitants, Paul, Barnabas and young John Mark sailed north for the coast of present-day Turkey. There some kind of problem arose, as Luke tersely relates.
From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphilia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch.
Notice the honest reporting in this little passage. Christians are tempted to idealize the early church, as if all its actions were heroic, all its members perfect, and all its leaders invincible. But that was not so.
When the great English ruler Oliver Cromwell sat to have his portrait done he is reported to have said to the artist, “Paint me as I am, warts and all!” That’s just what Luke has done for the church in the book of Acts. He tells us about the glorious Day of Pentecost and the incredible generosity and love shared among the early Christian community, but he also records the lies and treachery of Ananias and Sapphira (ch. 5). Luke describes the amazing missionary successes of Paul and his companions, but here in chapter 13 he reports that one of them, John Mark, lost his nerve and abandoned the work (v. 13). Later Luke will describe how this eventually led to a falling out between Paul and Barnabas themselves and the breakup of their team (15:36-41). Christian mission is really no different in one sense from any other human activity. Missionaries and pastors struggle to move ahead with their work despite personal shortcomings, failures, tensions and conflicts, just like everyone else.
A MISSIONARY SERMON
Having first visited Barnabas’s home of Cyprus, the missionary team next journeyed to Paul’s home territory on the south coast of Asia Minor. After John Mark left them, Paul and Barnabas pushed on into the interior alone, traveling to another city named Antioch, this one in the district of Pisidia. One reason they may have had for not lingering on the coast might have been the state of Paul’s health. Pisidian Antioch was one of the chief cities in the province of Galatia. When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatian Christians not long after this first missionary journey, he mentions the health problems that caused him to visit there in the first place (cf. Gal. 4:15-17).
At any rate, whatever the cause, Paul and Barnabas found themselves inland, in a foreign city, and following what became his practice throughout his career, Paul went first to the local synagogue on the Sabbath day.
On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.”
Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me . . . .
“Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. . . . When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
“We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. . . .
“Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.
Acts 13:14b-16; 26-27, 29-33a; 38, 39, niv
This is the summary of the missionary message Paul preached to the audience in Pisidian Antioch. He began with an introduction that was carefully adapted to his listeners. Knowing his audience well, Paul starts with the story of their people’s history – something with which everyone could immediately connect. But Paul’s concern is not just to give a history lesson, or a dry recital of names and dates. Rather, he wishes to make two basic points about Israel’s history, which, as a matter of fact, are also true about all history.
The first point is that history is God-directed. In almost every sentence Paul speaks, God is the subject, the initiator of the action. History is not merely the record of a series of random events, or the blind outworking of fate, or even the account of human deeds and accomplishments. History – salvation history in particular – is the story of how a sovereign God accomplishes all that he purposes in the time and manner of his choosing.
The second point Paul makes about Old Testament history is that it is Christ-centered. All of the ups and downs of the story of the people of Israel trace the road that leads to Jesus Christ. All of God’s promises through the prophets and the psalms point to Christ.
Well, the history of the ancient people of Israel is all very interesting, no doubt, but is it relevant? One test of a sermon, or any kind of talk for that matter, is the “So what?” test. If what you are saying is true, then so what? What difference does it make in the world or my life?
Paul’s missionary sermon in Pisidian Antioch passed the “So what?” test with flying colors. The story of Israel’s history leading up to the coming of the Christ, all the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus’ death and resurrection – these things are not just old words from the dusty past. They apply to us directly. “Brothers,” cried Paul, “it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.” You can still catch the note of wonder in his voice – after all this time salvation has finally arrived with the coming of the Christ into the world. He has come to us. We’re the ones to finally see him. The salvation he brings is for us! Imagine that! All the long centuries have been leading up to right now, to this moment in time. All those generations of faithful people were waiting for what we can now experience.
Then comes the heart of the matter, the crux of Paul’s message. The good news of salvation for the human race depends upon two crucial events: Jesus’ death and his subsequent resurrection. Paul first repeats the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. He tells how Jesus was blindly condemned by the rulers and people (v. 27 ) and unjustly executed by Pilate the Roman judge (v. 28). It may be that the story of Jesus’ death had already been circulated in the Jewish community at Antioch. If so, it would have greatly prejudiced all devout Jews against him, for crucifixion was the most shameful of deaths. The Old Testament law declared that God’s curse was upon any criminal who was hung from a tree.
So a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms. No one who had been crucified could possibly be God’s blessed servant, his beloved Son. Paul does not attempt to deny or downplay Christ’s death on the cross. Rather, he draws specific attention to these very things, for they are the heart of the gospel. They were prophesied beforehand: “When they had carried out all that was written about him,” Paul declares, “they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb” (v. 29). He must have been thinking of such Old Testament prophecies as the one in Isaiah,
All we like sheep have gone astray; but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. With his stripes we are made whole.
The saving death of Christ was not just an event attested to by the New Testament eye-witnesses; it was also predicted in the writings of the Old Testament prophets.
The second great fact to which Paul directs his listeners’ attention is the resurrection. The transition between Jesus’ death and resurrection is introduced by what may be the two most important words in the Bible – “But God.”“They . . . laid him in a tomb,” Paul declared. “But God raised him from the dead.” “You were dead in trespasses and sins,” he writes in another place, “but . . . God . . . made us alive with Christ” (Eph. 2:1; 4-5). Those two words remind us that God makes all the difference in the world. It is only the power and love of God that turn a hopeless situation around. Humanly speaking everything seems lost, but then God intervenes. A grave is emptied by resurrection; helpless sinners find salvation. If it were left to us, death would be the end of everything: Jesus dead in his tomb, us dead in our sins.“But God” changes everything.
Like the cross, Jesus’ resurrection was also attested in the prophecies of scripture. The apostle Paul, great preacher that he is, always goes back to the Bible for the basis of his message. He doesn’t just assert the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. His preaching is based upon and drawn from the Scriptures. When Paul affirms that Jesus rose again, he does so on the strength not only of personal testimony but also the witness of the written word of God – “We tell you the good news as it is written . . .” (vv. 32-37), he says.
At last he comes at his ultimate “so what.” Because of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, we too can have forgiveness and eternal life through him. Listen to Paul again:
My brothers and sisters, here is what I want you to know. I announce to you that your sins can be forgiven because of what Jesus has done. Through him everyone who believes is made right with God.
Acts 13:38, NIrV
So the obvious response for anyone listening to these words, whether in Antioch of Pisidia or Grand Rapids, Michigan, whether in New York or London or Kathmandu or Timbuktu, is to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.
Just as the apostle was sent out with a missionary message two thousand years ago, so we today proclaim the very same good news. This message you are reading right now is an extension of the very same ministry in which Paul was engaged. We at Words of Hope broadcast the gospel all over the world for one reason only: because God cares about you, and wants you to know he sent his only son to die and rise again so that your sins can be forgiven and you can be made right with him. Whether you realize it or not, being right with God in a world gone wrong is the single most important issue you face. So put your trust in the One who has died and risen to be the world’s only Savior. Do it today!