I’ve got so many great stories and memories from our time living in Asia. One memory was sitting in India and reading 3 book series with our son Taran when he was just a little fella, The Chronicles of Prydain, the Narnia Chronicles and finally we read The Hobbit and then the Lord of the Rings. It took years, sitting on the cane lounge with our legs spread out towards each other. It was always so hot that we’d have to make sure our skin wasn’t actually touching, we were sweating, but we were engrossed. Now fast forward 10 years and a global pandemic later. On day 1 of the Covid lockdown in Thailand, mid-March 2020, I realised it was time to dust off the old books and start reading with Ruby. We got through the first two series in about 4 months, we had a lot more time on our hands. The image from those books that’s been in my mind and heart over the weeks preparing for today's talk is from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s where Aslan, the Lion, breathes life onto the people and the creatures of Narnia that have been turned into stone by the wicked White Witch. As Aslan breathes his warm breath on them, the people thaw. Colour, warmth and life return, as the horrible spell is broken.
Today’s passage is about the Gospel, life through faith in Jesus, going out across the ancient world in Acts chapter 18. And amazingly, how God still uses his people today, to be a part of that great work. (verses 1 - 18a) the Gospel goes to Corinth. So firstly today, the Gospel goes to Corinth.
Verse 1 has the first mention of Corinth in the bible. Corinth was the main city of southern Greece, a busy place of trade and travel. But Corinth was famous in those days as the city of the Greek goddess of Sex – Aphrodite, which is where we get the word aphrodisiac from. It was a pretty wild place.
So, in Acts 18 Paul goes to Corinth as the next step on his mission trip, he meets a Jewish couple called Aquila and Priscilla, and a wonderful gospel friendship is born. One of the things that bond Paul with Priscilla and Aquila is their trade, they’re all tentmakers, they make and they repair tents. And in a very generous act of hospitality Priscilla and Aquila invite Paul to and come stay with them and they all keep busy earning money together through their trade.
But Paul’s heart, as always, is to share this message of Jesus which has completely transformed his own life. So come Sabbath day, Paul downs tools heads to the Synagogue, and preaches the good news to any Jews or Greeks who happened to be there. But before we move on, we need to notice one important fact about Pricilla and Aquila’s story. What got them to go to Corinth in the first place? Why did they end up there? It’s possible that they were among the first Christians to ever arrive in this completely unreached city. The answer is tucked in verse 2, they went to Corinth… because they’d been kicked out of their home in Rome. It was religious persecution that made them to pack up their life and leave. As refugees, they needed to run to save their skin.
As a young Christian fellow, I used to think that I’d love to be persecuted for my faith. I can take it! I can stand firm! Send me some suffering God. I’m ready to be your faithful servant! I was a little naive. About 20 years ago, Leaf and I had our exploratory trip to India . We met our friends Steve and Ellen. As we sat bright eyed and bushy tailed in their house, they told us about the pain of the adoption process they were going through to get their precious daughter out of an orphanage. They were really beaten down. But I remember thinking all for the Gospel hey? Bring it on! Bring it on!
There was a knock at the door. It was their teammate. He was a doctor. How exciting? A real Gospel worker. Maybe I can meet him? Maybe I can get his signature? I didn’t get to meet him because he came to see Steve and Ellen, and deliberately didn’t come inside, because he had just been diagnosed with Tuberculosis in his lungs and was terrified that he would pass it onto Steve and Ellen and also to his wife at home. In my head, I’m like, ‘Yeah, TB for the Gospel. I can take it.” A few minutes later, the phone rings. It’s Ellen’s dear friend Robyn. Robyn had heard that a bomb had just gone off in a church in Pakistan. 5 people were killed and her uncle was injured along with 400 others. That was the day when persecution started to loose its charm for me. Real people killed and real people suffering for their commitment to Christ.
We don’t know the ins and the outs for Priscilla and Aquila, but looking back, we can see that God used all things to His glory. Now that’s a really easy thing to say. That God is at work in all things for my good. I’d love to say that 15 years of faithful service has taught me to believe it, but I’d be lying. I don’t like suffering. I used to think I was a faithful Christian. Until I really suffered. When you get to the point where your head feels like it will explode from confusion and your heart feels like it is sinking into a deep, deep, dark hole in the ground. It’s so much easier to believe that there is no hope. There’s no way out of that hole than it is, to believe, that God is at work for my good.
It doesn’t make sense. It seems, at the time, like a cruel lie. Is that something that you can relate to? Even lately, maybe you’ve been struggling deeply and you’re just so worn out. God has a word for you today, and for me. You see Paul also knew about suffering, he knew about it a lot. Up till now on his journey, he’d been beaten so badly that his attackers thought he was dead, he’d been flogged, and imprisoned. In Corinth, where he is now, the Jews reject and abuse him. And so, Jesus comes to Paul in a vision
…“Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” ~Acts 18:9-10 (NIV)
Now this a specific promise to Paul at a specific time, while he’s in Corinth. But some of this promise is for those of us who are Jesus’ people today, it’s a promise to us, all the time. The words, “For I am with you”. Do they sound a little familiar?
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, … surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”. ~Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)
Do you, as a son or daughter of God, need to hear these words? I do. It’s so hard to be hanging on when things are so dark and so bleak, and your strength is just gone. Jesus says, “It’s ok, I’m with you. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I’m with you now and always.” You know that phrase that’s around today? People say, “You got this!” Jesus doesn’t say to us, “you got this”, he says, “I got you.” We don’t have to have stuff worked out. As long as we have Jesus, we just move forward, day by day, sometimes it’s more inch by inch, and he works it out. These were words for Paul and they’re for us today.
I’ve also noticed about Acts 18, is that it’s littered with beautiful Gospel relationships. Paul with Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy and Silas arrive and financially support Paul to preach full time. In verse 7, Titius Justus, a Gentile worshipper of God, opens his home for Paul to share the message of Jesus there. Because the Gospel goes out into the world through Gospel relationships. Can you open your door for gospel ministry? A meal? A Bible study?
The couple, Steve and Ellen, that I just mentioned before from 20 years back, they have become some of our dearest friends in the world. We lived together in India and then in Thailand. We’ve laughed and we've cried, we’ve hurt each other and we’ve hugged each other. And we have the wonderful testimony like what Paul and his team saw in Corinth
…many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised. ~Acts 18:8 (NIV)
Because the Gospel goes out through Gospel relationships. The second movement in Acts 18 is the Gospel going to Ephesus. Just like Corinth, this is the first time that Ephesus is mentioned in the Bible, again, Paul goes to a completely unreached area. Now today Ephesus is a spectacular site of ruins in Turkey but back then it was a big commercial city. So, when Paul goes with the Gospel, he takes a team of trusted friends. Because how does the Gospel go out? Through Gospel relationships, yes that’s right.
Priscilla and Aquila go with Paul. They lived and worked together for a year and a half in Corinth and so now, they pack their bags and hit the road together. Paul continues to train them and guide them, because soon he’s going to leave them to continue on the work without on him. It’s a beautiful model of a spiritual friendship.
In our years in Asia, we wanted people that were mature to join our communities to serve alongside us. The dream team would have been a mix of ages and gifting and personalities, but most importantly, people that love Jesus and are mature and experienced in ministry. Have you been serving faithfully in your context? Could you go to an unreached area for the Gospel? But maybe you’re thinking, Brendan I’m not a ministry machine, I’m an engineer, I’m a nurse, I’m a teacher, I’m in IT, I do admin, I’m retired. But what about going somewhere to enable the work to happen? Being in a support role?
Janet Banks is a friend of ours from Mt Druitt and she served faithfully as a primary teacher for decades around Mt Druitt, in fact, she was Leaf’s primary teacher, Janet is tough and she’s skilled. She now teaches at a tiny school for missionary kids in the middle of Niger, Africa, so that parents can stay on the field serving Jesus. And our very own Al and Liz Walker, in the Philippines, are doing exactly that at Faith International. Keeping missionary families on the field. Maybe you might like to pray Jesus’ prayer for the Father to send out workers into his harvest field. The need is still so, so great.
Now friends at MBM, I need to say, I wrote and preached this sermon one week before Ray and Sandy’s bombshell was dropped, I was as shocked as all of you. In missions, there are heartbreaking goodbyes, whether it’s a new church plant in Parramatta or going to pastor a church in Dubai. There’s a price that is paved in tears, but because of the Gospel, the goodbyes on earth will all be eclipsed with that final hello that we have together in the new Kingdom. Our stories on earth don’t end with a goodbye, for those of us in Christ, there’s a new beginning coming with the never-ending hello. And plus, a stopover in Dubai will never be boring ever again.
But now Paul leaves the ministry in Ephesus in the hands of Priscilla and Aquila, their apprenticeship is over. And off he sets on his Home Assignment, Deputation, Furlough, different words for the same thing. Where the Christian worker goes back to the church where he or she was sent from, to give a report of all that’s happened. This is the conclusion of Paul’s second mission trip which lasted 3 years.
Paul goes back to Antioch from where he was sent out. After Paul’s first mission trip, it says this about Paul’s home assignment.
From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving in there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. ~Acts 14:26-27 (NIV)
And so now in chapter 18, today’s passage, Paul returns again to Antioch, and we can confidently assume, that Paul would have reported to the church once again.
This is our sixth Home Assignment where we’ve reported back to the saints here at MBM church. What you’ve done in sending us out and receiving us back, is what the church has been doing for 2,000 years. And we want to say a huge thank you to every one of you for the support that we’ve received over so many years. Emails, Facebook messages, financial support, care packages, visits. Through this Gospel relationship that we have had together, if we look back at the ongoing legacy, praise God, there are lots to celebrate; We’ve seen travellers come to place their faith in Jesus. We’ve seen a global network of communities with the same vision for travellers get started. We’ve trained up people to share Jesus with seekers and seen them go and travel all over the globe. We’ve seen a weekly Christ-centred meditation start-up in a neighbouring city of northern Thailand and probably best of all, we’ve fed about 10,000 hippies and travellers in our Jesus communities and have been able to tell them that we do it, because we love Jesus and we love them. It has been a powerful witness and a great privilege, and you have all enabled that to happen. As this is now our final Home Assignment as a family, I would encourage you all to find another mission family to support, just as you supported us. Get behind them. Pray and give. And grow to love the people and the culture that your workers have gone out amongst. Support them well, because the Gospel goes out through Gospel relationships.
And now, we come to our final section in Acts 18 and we see how the Gospel grows in Ephesus. You’ll remember that Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus to continue on with the work there. From 1 Corinthians 16:19 we know that they successfully started a house church in Ephesus. Praise God for that!
But in the last section in Acts 18 we’ve got this interesting person named Apollos who appears out of nowhere. Apollos is a Jew and comes from Alexandria in Egypt. Alexandria was the ancient equivalent of our modern day Cambridge or Oxford, a city of great learning. So Apollos has a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, he’s a great preacher and he teaches about Jesus accurately, but there are some gaps in his theology. It’s really hard to be sure of what these gaps are though. Some commentators say that maybe he didn’t know that Jesus had taught for all believers to be baptised, or maybe his own understanding of the Holy Spirit was somehow confused. But either way, he begins to preach in the synagogue in Ephesus. And now we get to a fascinating verse
…When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. ~Acts 14:26-27(NIV)
This powerful orator from Cambridge University gets up and preaches up a storm. Priscilla looks over at Aquila and says, “He’s young, passionate, gifted, but a bit misguided, shall we invite him to lunch dear?” And they do. Notice what they didn’t do. They didn’t shout him down as a heretic. They didn’t gossip and ruin his reputation. They didn’t belittle him. They didn’t smile and thank him politely and then rip him to shreds on the drive home from church. They invite him to their home, into their lives. They reach out to extend the hand of Gospel friendship and in that context, they explained the truth more fully to Apollos.
The ones discipled by Paul, are now discipling a young and talented, upcoming leader. They have become his mentors. In the context of relationship and hospitality, they instruct Apollos. They might not have his gifts, but they have lessons that Apollos needs and so they teach him. Is there a younger person that you could mentor? Get alongside and help them to grow in their life and in their ministry? But the other angle to look at this encounter is from Apollos’ view. He could have said, “Look I’m the preacher here. I’m the upfront guy. I’m the leader.” But he doesn’t. He humbly receives their instruction. Apollos is more eager to serve effectively than to keep his ego intact.
Are you a Christian leader? Do you have mentors that you go to? Are you open to instruction by a person in your church? If Priscilla and Aquila invited you for lunch, would you go? What we see here is mutual humility from both parties. Because Gospel relationships must exude grace to each other. Why? Because Jesus and his grace is at the centre of our gospel relationships. Now there are so many other applications we could look at here but we don’t have time. The wonderful role of women in the New Testament church. The beautiful sight of a husband and wife doing ministry side by side like Priscilla and Aquila, enabling others to flourish. And it would appear that Apollos did flourish. After a while he gets the churches full endorsement to go as a teacher to the church in Corinth and continue to water the seeds that Paul and Priscilla and Aquila had earlier planted there.
How does the Gospel grow in us? As we come to the end of Acts 18, we’ve seen the Gospel going out to Corinth and Ephesus and then grow through Gospel relationships. But what about us? How does the Gospel grow in us? How does it take root in our lives?
…he was a great help to those who by grace had believed ~Acts 14:26-27 (NIV)
In other words, it only grows by God’s touch, God’s initiative, by God’s miraculous work of breathing on people made of stone and making them come to life again. When you’re made of stone, it’s very difficult to do anything at all, even scratch your nose, let alone bring yourself back to life.
But the grace of God at work is sometimes hard to see. I’ll give an example. My dad’s a reader, he reads a lot, he loves novels and war history and where the good guys beat the bad guys. I’ve been praying for my dad since 1990. That’s a long time and plenty of time to get discouraged that nothing will ever happen. Two and a half years ago, we visited Australia, I knew my dad was attending church with my dear mum, I knew he was even going to Bible study. If you were to have asked him why at the time, I think he’d say, “I enjoy the historical side of things”. So when I was visiting I was excited to ask about where dad was at with God. I think we were out around one of my dad’s famous BBQ’s (wood not gas) and started chatting. I was very discouraged when as the conversation wrapped up, my dad said something like, “Yeah, but Bren, I’m going to church, but nothing’s happened!”. I remember saying to Leaf, “I can’t believe that nothings happening. That doesn’t make sense.” I was really discouraged. About a month later, I heard an incredible story of my dad getting his life together in a big way. And I started seeing things happening. As time went on, I heard that my dad was getting more involved in church and his Bible study group.
A year ago, our family returned to Australia with our collective tails between our collective legs. They were a tough 12 months, we were so beaten down, we finally got to see my mum and dad and had another beer around the BBQ. I was excited to talk to my dad more and see what was going on for him. We talked and he started to talk about his bible readings and things he was enjoying. I could see things were happening. So I asked him a curly question. I said, “Yeah but dad, with all this bible study and going to church, do you think you’ve done enough to be a Christian?” He just looked at me stunned and said, “But it’s not about what we do, it’s about Jesus and his death and resurrection.” Fist pump. It’s by grace that we believe and are saved. Only by grace.
Friends we all need relationships. We want good friends. We want mentors. Many of us would like to be married one day. We long for that small group where people really have each others back. We all want a bestie that will stick by us through thick and thin. You’re thinking, if I had those types of friendships, I’d really be ok. Just one friend like that. The bad news is these relationships are hard to come by. The good news is, that there’s a friend waiting that I’d like to tell you about. A faithful companion (and he doesn’t have 4 legs). A friend who is closer than a brother. A friend who would be willing to put it all on the line for you. A friend who has your back, and who would be willing to take the knife for you. And a friend that will be with you always with no goodbyes. A friend that loves well. This the message of the Gospel. Jesus is that friend. He’s the faithful one who sacrificed his relationship with his Father, he was prepared to lose that relationship, to die, so that we would never have to be cut off from God ever again. This is the Gospel relationship that we all need.
Jonathan Edwards says, all other things in our life are the shadow. But God is the substance. God is the one we need. Jesus is the friend you need. And he comes to us by grace. We don’t straighten up our lives and then go to him. He comes into our lives and then by that same grace he starts to straighten us up. He helps us. And when we find this friendship with Jesus, and he changes us, we don’t sit back and wait for friends to come to us. Because we have Jesus, we go out and we are a good friend, to everyone. Even to people with different skin colour or a different accent to us. We bare the good news in words and deeds and then we stand back in wonder as Jesus breathes on hearts of stone and makes them alive again. Do you need this Gospel relationship with Jesus? Ask him to breathe on you. He will. Maybe even now, you can feel a thawing in your fingertips.