Life is full of defining first times: The first time we went to school, got a job, fell in love. Our world has its quota of first times and they are game-changers: The first time women voted; first time humans landed on the moon.
The book of Acts is a book of first times: The first time Spirit came down on all of God's people in Jerusalem; first time Samaritans called on the name of Jesus and the first time non-Jews were fully included in God's family.
Now we see in Antioch the first time a Church made up of Jews and non-Jews and the first time a church intentionally sent out missionaries. We are going to cover 80 verses in 30 minutes to inspire you to play your part in God's mission at MBM.
It took 11 chapters in Acts before it was clear that God has no favorites and he accepts all people who fear him. Jesus may have said “Go and make disciples” but it took a big push by God, through persecution, to force out the disciples from Jerusalem, and with them, out went the gospel. But they didn’t get the memo because they were only preaching to Jews in places like Antioch. Antioch is located on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. It actually took some men from Cyprus and Cyrene to preach to non - Jews in Antioch and many became Christians. So now for the first time, we have a church in Antioch with Christian Jews and non-Jews. Barnabas then goes to Tarsus to find Paul and bring him back and together they taught for a year to large numbers of believers. The church of Antioch has reaped where others had sown and now it was time for them to sow so that others may reap.
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. ~Acts 13:1 (NIV)
A generous church - this church has already sent money to Christians in a famine in Jerusalem, sent with Barnabas and Paul. They were a multiethnic church, Saul from Tarsus; Barnabas for Cyprus, and possibly two Africans, Simeon called Niger which means black and Lucius of Cyrene - North Africa.
They were economically diverse, not just slaves. Manaen was either a school friend or a foster brother to King Herod. They were gifted in the word ministry and they had Prophets and Teachers and they were about to send their best preachers on the mission field.
Antioch would serve as the first church-based mission to the nations. In that sense MBM shares some similarities with Antioch: We are both multiethnic and economically diverse. We have also sent some of our best teachers out: Rowan to New Zealand and Grant to MBM South West. Like Antioch, we are a sending church; planting churches locally and globally by sending homegrown missionaries.
Antioch had ministry trainees like John Mark and during the past 30 years, we have had 35 Ministry trainees and 105 student ministers. We have reaped where others have sown and we sow where others will reap. Our leadership at MBM is like that of Antioch, I count 13 different cultures across staff and deacons and next year we will be joined by our first African MTS, Kwabena. From the beginning, we understood that the Kingdom of God is bigger than MBM.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. ~Acts 13:2-3 (NIV)
This first mission was cutting new ground. I say explicitly because all mission is Spirit-led but here the Spirit of Jesus directly speaks, perhaps via a prophet, set apart for me Barnabas and Saul, the point is clear, this is God's plan.
The second mission trip has no explicit mention of the Spirit. But all plans were be bathed in prayer. We are to prayerfully depend on the Holy Spirit. I don’t think I have ever told the church but before I went to Bible college I prayed and fasted 3 days. When we started MBM we prayed each week for a year. The bishops laid hands on me and ordained me to plant MBM.
It's clear that the living Jesus, through his Spirit, is directing this church to send missionaries to the nations. It would take 2 years (46-48AD) and I count 6 places that they went to evangelise: Salamis and Paphos (in Cyprus); by boat they went to Pisidian Antioch, Iconium and Lystra and Derbe, all in modern Turkey.
Here are some patterns between MBM and them.
1. They went to the Jews first.
Jesus is first a Jewish messiah. He was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises. Some of the Jews would become elders in the new churches. At MBM we first reached Maltese and other second-generation Middle eastern and Mediterranean.
2. They went to cities and towns
Cities have more people to evangelise and they were more likely to find a synagogue (a hub for the Jews) in the cities. Our focus the Western suburbs of Sydney; where many call home.
3. They then went to the nations
They saw many non-Jews converted, the first was Sergius Paulus. He was impressed by teaching about the Lord. Roman readers of Acts would realise that the gospel is not just for slaves and Jews but for the intelligent Roman elite, and he was not the last.
4. They faced growing opposition
In Paphos, they encountered a Jewish false prophet who was into magic dark arts. Elymas hindered Proconsul from accepting the message. And Paul, full of the Spirit, confronted him headlong
Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.” ~Acts 13:9-11 (NIV)
Paul gave him 5 descriptions and not one was a compliment. He didn’t so much issue a curse on Elymas but announced God's judgment. Paul knew exactly what it's like to have the hand of the Lord against you since he was blinded 14 years earlier.
In Pisidan Antioch Paul was slandered and thrown out of the region. In Iconium they threaten to stone him and in Lystra they actually did stone him and left him for dead.
For us, at MBM the opposition has been as individuals and families. The first Maltese to become a Christian got punched by her father in the face. She is now the wife of an Anglican Minister. I remember visiting the parents of an Italian woman who was the first to be baptised at MBM, her father was angry and wanted to see me. I remember sitting in his kitchen where he kept telling me he had a shot gun in the next room, with bullets. All the while his dog was chewing my new slacks.
Jesus was clear with his disciple and Paul is clear with us.
… “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. ~Acts 14:22 (NIV)
Of course, you can avoid hardship by not being salt and light and by being silent. Some like John Mark found it too hard and he returns home. But it's not the end of the story for him. We will see Paul say later “Get me John Mark he is very useful to me.” Your past failures don't have to determine your future ministry.
5. They respond to persecution with great boldness
In Lystra, a lame man is miraculously healed through Paul. These people from Lystra, thought the gods had come down again, they confused Barnabas and Paul with the Roman gods Zeus and Hermes. One moment they try to worship Paul and then they try to kill Paul. But Paul gets up, shakes the dust off and went on to the next town to preach.
No matter how bad it got they didn’t skip a beat. They went to the next town and preach Christ. Their courage was breathtaking.
McCrindle research shows that people are more open to hearing about Christ:
Since last year I prayed every day for courage and I ask you to join me in this prayer as we look to 2022. Sandy and I were waiting for a cup of coffee and a lady walked past and said ‘I feel the need to ask you, do you know that Jesus loves you?’ Let's prayerfully depend on the Holy Spirit for courage.
6. One door closes and another opens.
Again and again, the rejection from some Jews spearheaded the good news going to the nations
Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. ~Acts 13:46 (NIV)
Our first focus was to reach 2nd generation Mediterranean and Middle eastern but then we found ourselves with a large group from hippy or heavy metal - heavily tattooed, who loved the message. At one stage we had 13 up the front where one person led the next to Christ. Eventually came those from Asia, South America, Africa
7. As apostles they were blessed with signs and wonders.
Miracles of healing such as the lame man in Lystra, miracles of Judgment on Elymas, these apostles were in the words of Isaiah, a light to the nations
John and Betty Sharpe were members of MBM for 12 years, they took the gospel to the Tugital in the jungles of Indonesia. One of the men who got converted, years later, told John that when he first came to their tribe he was following John in the jungle and as he was about to pull out his machete to slice Johns's head off, he said someone stopped his hand. When all is said and done, they like us were committed to same thing.
8. They preach same gospel according to the scriptures
Paul gives an extended speech in the Synagogue in Pisidia Antioch. Paul addresses Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, it would be the same message for both. Paul retraces the steps of Israel's history and the points were clear.
This is God's salvation for all nations:
All good preaching is grounded in the scriptures
All good preaching focuses on the good news of Jesus.
All good preaching calls for a response with a warning
“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. ~Acts 13:38-39 (NIV)
It's good news because Jesus alone offers a clean slate and a fresh start. Only through Jesus can you be justified and set free. True freedom day is not coming out of lockdown, It's coming out from under the wrath of God and it's knowing you are fully pardoned.
I was watching Gladys our former Premier being grilled by ICAC and her words were being used against her. She looked so uncomfortable. Then I thought, Try being on judgment day with your words used to condemn you. In Jesus we are Justified, we know now what God is going to say on the last day - Not guilty! That is why it's called a message of grace, good news of our Lord Jesus.
I beg you that there is only one Saviour and he comes to forgive, but you must come to him. Then as now, some believed and some rejected. As then - so now
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. ~Acts 13:48 (NIV)
What kept Paul steadfast and true? What keeps me sane seeing that some accept and some reject? This is God's salvation and those whom he chooses for eternal life will believe. So our labour is not in vain. That is why we don’t change the message-whatever happens during COVID; that is why we don’t panic for this is his mission.
Paul's mission is not just to preach Christ. Paul and Barnabas backtrack and visit the same places where they were slandered and stoned. It's to strengthen Christians, appoint elders, and establish churches.
Many know the MBM vision but not many would know our mission statement which is:
To bring all people in the west of Sydney to Christ, and into maturity of Christ, and establish them as active partners in the church of God to the glory of God the Father.
It's why after Explaining Christianity we offer a year-long course called Firm Foundation course. To make sure new Christians are grounded. After Firm Foundations, we invite them to Belonging to join our church. And if not our church, then to join another.
The apostles returned to their home church in Antioch to report what God had done.
On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. ~Acts 14:27 (NIV)
In a sense it's what we are doing today in the celebration series as we look back and reflect on what God has done through us all. In 2021 we are celebrating over 20 people come to faith this year and over 100 people Explaining Christianity
God doesn't need us but his plan is to use us. And what a plan!
Not every church is a sending church. This has been our privilege at MBM for 30 years. May it always be so as we turn our attention to the next campus in the next couple of years.