by Roger McCay
17 May 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 14:20-28
Link to Audio Version
There are some who claim to be Christians who don’t think they really need to be involved in church. But, that’s like saying you are with a tour group that’s loading on a plane together to head to another country … and then running outside onto the runway and flapping your arms to fly with them as the plane takes off.
The thing is, the Lord went to great lengths to establish his church—his chosen people; true Israel—embodied and organized into local churches. He did this for a reason—many reasons, really. Critical to us, the Lord plainly reveals his will, in the Scriptures, that local churches are the way his people, the body of Christ, are to be formed together in this world. Churches are a means for us to journey together, as we follow Christ, lovingly united as his people. Indeed, it is irrational for a person to think that he or she is somehow continuing in the faith, the walk of a Christian, while spurning involvement and membership in a local, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, doctrinally sound church.
Joining a church does not save you; Jesus saves you by his grace through faith. Born-again believers (disciples of Christ), by definition, strive to obey the Lord, working out our faith. It’s what we do, continuing in the faith. Church affiliation, church membership, is simple obedience and a clear marker of one’s identity as part of the body of Christ.
On the flip-side, it’s like John Piper has said, “In the New Testament, to be excluded from the local church was to be excluded from Christ.” Yet, without Biblical grounds for their assumption, there are some who claim to be Christians who don’t think they really need to be involved in church—much less be members.
In our passage today, we see the apostles Paul and Barnabas reach the furthest destination of the first missionary journey to the Gentiles, in Derbe. They then retraced their steps, touching base with and ministering to most of the local churches they had planted along the way, also continuing to proclaim the gospel, as we see in Perga. Finally, they arrived back to their sending church, in Antioch of Syria, giving a grand and joyous report, claiming mission accomplished to this glorious leg of the Spirit’s grand adventure.
As Luke has recounted this journey, in Acts 13-14, he has been clear that all along it was initiated by the Spirit of God and empowered by the Spirit of God for success. Through Paul and Barnabas, it was the Lord who planted churches in the various Gentile cities and put in place foundation stones towards sustaining these churches.
The Spirit of God Plants His Churches
Luke, in vv. 20-21 and 24-25, mentions, in passing, Paul and Barnabas’ continued evangelistic ministry in a couple of towns in different regions—Derbe, in Galatia; and Perga, in Pamphylia. Since he’d made his point as to what was involved in such ministry already, he only briefly mentions what took place there, as he’s rounding out and finishing the account.
Many folks in Derbe believed and became disciples. We know the name of one of the Christians. Gaius, from Derbe, would later be one of Paul’s fellow travelers, representing his church in Acts 20:4. Paul also visits that church in his 2nd and likely his 3d missionary journeys (Acts 16:1 and Acts 18:23). This Galatian church started strong and the Lord blessed them.
Perga is mentioned, and you may remember that Paul and Barnabas travelled through there earlier in their journey, yet did not preach the gospel there at the time (possibly due to Paul’s illness, some think malaria). But, they made sure to stop and preach the gospel there on the way back. At this point, loose ends are being tied up, bringing us to the end of the narrative concerning the first missionary journey.
Now, considering what Paul and Barnabas did along the whole journey as authoritative representatives of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit, it is important to observe and understand that they did not just leave behind a bunch of believers going about their individual lives independently trying to follow Jesus. They did not send out a shotgun blast of gospel proclamation and then head on into the sunset. Rather, they evangelized, discipled, and organized the disciples, leaving behind churches made up of definite bodies of believers that were set-up to flourish.
Disciples were identified with the church and were involved in the life of the church, as part of a definite structure. Indeed, the term disciple is synonymous with the term church member—disciples of Christ are together the church. God, through his apostles, planted these churches and set in place church membership, in the form of disciples who belonged to each particular church body.
Along those lines, the Scriptures are absolutely clear that the local church is God’s way of organizing his people—smaller bodies in the world united with each other in the universal church—the body of Christ. God plants and blesses churches through the work of missionaries, church planters, and other means.
The local church is so much part of the life of Christians that for someone to refuse affiliation with the Lord’s church, on whatever grounds … Well, I would question whether that person is really a Christian. And, whether they truly are or not, I am confident that that person is not flourishing as a Christian. Church affiliation is a package deal—faith and obedience—the obedience being the fruit of true belief.
There are so many biblical proofs and reasons for local church bodies, and membership in those bodies, that I could spend months just preaching sermons on those passages. I’m just going to briefly touch on a few these verses here. Feel free to run with these and others in your own studies—I’d actually be delighted to know if you do! Be a Berean, my friends.
Jesus, for one, spoke with the assumption of his people being united in churches. For example, in Matthew 18:17, Jesus, as part of his explanation of church discipline states:
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Jesus was referring to his expected practice of church discipline in specific church bodies, made up of believers—his followers; his disciples. In order to go about obeying him in this, (confronting a sinning brother or sister), the members of the church would most definitely have to be clearly defined, known, and under authority.
This idea of the church (the ecclesia, the assembly), is an old one, practiced by the Jews for centuries in various forms. For example, in 1 and 2 Kings there are the “The Sons of the Prophets.” These were bodies of faithful Jews gathered together in the Lord’s name, with the prophets being itinerant preachers of sorts, teaching them and leading them in the Lord’s will.
Then there were the synagogues. There is debate and discussion on whether the formation of the synagogue was pre-exilic, exilic, or post-exilic. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jews had, for centuries before the coming of the Lord, been assembling together in groups, wherever they happened to be, for the study of God’s word, prayer, and community—the synagogue. As a result, by the first century, the Jews had very established churches (synagogues) all over the known world. Providentially, also, due to their nature, the synagogue was Paul’s logical first stop to proclaim the gospel, as he went from city to city.
Synagogues were not just some Jewish aberration, either. Like the “Sons of the Prophets” had the Lord’s prophets’ endorsement, and were likely organized by the prophets, Jesus endorsed synagogues in his very participation in them. We see this in Nazareth, as the synagogue was the place where he would have grown up receiving his religious instruction in Judaism, and where he read the Lord’s Word in Luke 4:16-31; also, in Capernaum, where he had made his home, attended synagogue, and taught (Luke 4:31-37); along with teaching at various synagogues throughout Judea—Luke 4:44. Jesus’ participation in synagogue was his placing his stamp of approval upon them as being in harmony with the Lord’s will. Local churches are essentially and literally the logical growth of synagogues into Christian form.
So, we see them planted and grown throughout Acts and addressed in the Epistles. Just flipping through Acts, you cannot escape the critical importance of the church and the activity of believers, who are each part of a local church.
There is, of course, the church in Jerusalem, and numerous other churches are named throughout the book. In Acts 11:26, Paul and Barnabas met with the church and taught considerable numbers. In Acts 12:1, Herod “laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them.” Notice they were members. They “belonged to” the church. In Acts 12:5, after Peter was arrested, with Herod intent on killing him, the church met together and offered up fervent prayers for him.
Then, here in our passage today in Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church”—all the churches they had founded during their missionary journey. These elders were given responsibility to oversee (elders are also called “overseers” or “bishops”) … they were given responsibility to oversee the flock of God. Indeed, the elders of all the local churches are commanded to shepherd the Lord’s church (Acts 20:28). They assuredly knew exactly who made up that flock—as each disciple was a member of the church, having submitted to their authority (1 Peter 5:1-5). Otherwise the elders could not obey the command.
And, of course there was the church in Antioch, the sending church, whom Paul and Barnabas gathered together in Acts 14:27, in order to give a report as to how the Lord had used them to his glory in planting churches in various parts of the Gentile world.
I could go on and on. You just cannot escape in Acts, much less the entire New Testament, that the local church (distinct communities of believers) the local church is one of the most important elements in the life of a Christian. Local churches are something that the Lord himself plants, and he expects his people to be intimately involved with the church—not loosely, just attending on Sunday, but intimately involved with as a major part of their lives.
Indeed, as you read the Epistles, most of them are directed to churches. Even in the case of Timothy and Titus, the epistles are addressed to individuals concerning issues in their churches and their ministry in the church.
Even more, the pattern for churches, (God’s people gathered together in his name with definite church members who are on a church role), comes from the heavenly realms—The Book of Life. There, in The Book of Life, the Lord keeps the names of all the true Christians. It is his role of church members (Exodus 32:33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 20:15; and so on). Local churches, keeping a role of members, are simply being consistent with God’s way of doing things—which is a fine example of what it means to follow the Lord.
Join a Local Church
My friends, for so many of you, you understand and have been church members for a long time. But not everyone does. If you are a believer and are not a member of a church, join one, and be active in it. If you are here with us, and not a member, we’d love for you to consider joining our church. Talk to one of the elders and we can get you started along that path.
We’ve got a couple of families faithfully waiting to join, even now, having finished the Inquirer’s class right before this coronavirus thing kicked off. Now that we are back to meeting in person again, hopefully we can now move forward with it.
As it is, don’t sit on the fence on this. Move forward in the Lord. Being a church member is just one aspect of your continuing in the faith, as Paul puts it in Acts 14:22. It involves commitment, submission, and involvement, and comes with great blessing.
Furthermore, if you consider yourself a Christian and are just loosely affiliated with the church (or not affiliated at all and by some providence you’ve happened to hear this message), know that your keeping yourself aloof and away is just plain wrong. Whether your situation is due to ignorance, stubbornness, arrogance, or what have you, repent, and make it right with God. In his grace, there is forgiveness, but, he also expects you to do what he wants you to do.
Get involved with a church. Be a disciple of Christ like he wants you to be. Because the Spirit plants his Church, we must continue in the faith.
The Spirit of God Sustains His Churches
Now, not only does the Spirit plant churches, he also sustains them. How does he do this? Well, in a nutshell, Luke answers that in vv. 21b-23 of Acts 14:
they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
This is a succinct formula for what it takes to set a church up for flourishing, consisting of three aspects: instruction in the Word; pastoral leadership; and the Spirit’s guidance and protection.
Paul and Barnabas, having planted the Galatian churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Psidian Antioch, wanted to encourage them and make sure they were prepared to continue in the faith, as the apostles had to move on. In each of these places, persecution was a very real possibility, seeing how Paul and Barnabas were run out of two of these cities, with one place plotting to kill them, and the third city actually trying to kill Paul by stoning him. So, there was a real threat of violent persecution for these new churches, and there is a likely chance they were already experiencing it. As such, it was a real possibility that these new believers could become overwhelmed and discouraged under such pressure. So, Paul and Barnabas took steps to encourage them towards their continuing in the faith—the faith being the whole concept of discipleship and following the Way—Jesus Christ.
So, Paul and Barnabas exhorted them, with apostolic instruction: teaching them from the Word of God; showing them the hope of Christ from the scriptures; also sharing with them the teachings of Jesus, showing them how it all fit together and applied to their lives. In such a way the apostles “strengthened the souls of the disciples” (the members of the churches), encouraging them from the Lord’s Word.
Notice they did not manage this by telling them that one enters the Kingdom of God through a lifetime of comfort and bliss—“and here is a five-step formula to live your best life and prosper in the world.” Rather, a key aspect of their message of strength and encouragement was that it is “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Such is right in line with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:10).
The Lord makes no bones about the fact that his disciples will be persecuted and suffer for his sake. He tells us we will suffer (Matt. 5:11; 10:16-42; also consider 2 Tim. 3:12 and Rom. 8:17).
Anyway, I’ve recently spent a bit of time here preaching on the inevitability of persecution for Christians who seek to live godly lives in Christ. So, I’ll leave it at that for now.
The second way the apostles set the churches up to continue in the faith was by putting leadership in place, in the form of elders with pastoral oversight. As is evident in just about any organization, without leadership in place, the churches had no chance of thriving. Elders were long the leaders in Jewish communities, and now Christian elders are put in place in the church communities. It’s a logical step, just like the step from synagogues to local churches. With a leadership committed to lovingly shepherd the flock of God (able to teach, continuing in the Scriptures and the apostolic instruction they received; also, ensuring sound worship; leading in prayer and the sacraments; and exercising church discipline with wisdom) … with such leadership, the churches were set to thrive even when under attack by the enemy.
The third way the apostles set up the churches to be fruitful was by committing them to the Lord—last part of v. 23 there,
“with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
The apostles could comfortably move on, considering it “mission accomplished” with these churches because they left them in the Lord’s care. They knew that the Lord planted his churches. They likewise knew that the Lord would sustain his churches. He would protect them and guide them. He would lead them through the means set in place—his Word and the Elders. He would also work in each one of the them through their individual spiritual gifts to the edification of the whole people of God—Christ’s body on this earth (1 Corinthians 12).
Finally, we come to the end of the first missionary journey, as the weary apostles make it back to their sending church in Antioch to report. It is there we see another way the Lord sustains his church—through missions. It is a cycle. The Lord plants a church, then sustains faithful churches who send and support missionaries, church planters, and such, who the Lord then uses to plant churches, and so on and so forth. It’s a wonderful system the Lord puts in place to bring all his chosen people throughout the world into the fold of his grace.
Notice that the apostles report gave the Lord all the credit for everything good that came out of their labors (vv. 26-27). It was the Lord who used the apostles to do his will throughout all their many adventures. It was the Lord who opened the door to faith for the Gentiles, planting and sustaining his church.
Lastly, after mission accomplished and a joyous reunion with the church in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas took some time to catch their breath. Verse 28:
“And they remained no little time with the disciples.”
Continue in The Faith
My friends, I say to you what the apostles said to the believers, “continue in the faith.” Whatever comes, whether joy or suffering (even both at the same time) … whatever comes, continue in the faith. Be active in the church as best you are able; continue in the faith. The Lord gave you a Spiritual gift not to hide away but to be used by him towards the edification of his church; continue in the faith. Because the Spirit sustains his Church, we must continue in the faith.
Let us not be that person running down the runway flapping their arms trying to fly to another country, while the rest of the group is flying together on the plane. Let us live so that it might be said of us, when we finally make it home to the Lord and report, that it was mission accomplished. All praise be to God!
Because the Spirit of God cultivates his Church, we must continue in the faith.