Not Merely Converts
For six weeks now we have been working our way through the greatest story ever told. We’ve learned all kinds of things along the way about how we should be doing church if we are going to rightly stand in the long history of tradition that stretches out behind us. We’ve learned that people best connect to Jesus through the three-fold ministry of powerful words, loving actions, and an attractive community. We’ve learned that the way we survive the myriad of challenges all churches face is by being boldly committed to advancing the message and mission of Jesus. We’ve learned that sometimes this kind of boldness sparks persecution, but that the only response that makes lasting sense is to continue being bold. We’ve learned that when we do our part, pairing our efforts with those of our Father who always does His part, the church grows, and that having as many people as is possible in the church is the point of the whole endeavor. Indeed, if we’re not reaching people with the Gospel message then what on earth are we doing wasting our time and money on all of this for? Last week after taking a week off to catch our breath and celebrate moms we saw that our whole identity as Jesus followers is built on the idea of including everybody. “Christian” is an inclusive identity. If you missed last week, go to the website and listen to what you missed so you can bring yourself back up to speed.
Quite a journey so far, no? Here’s the thing, though. In all that we’ve covered so far, something crucial is missing. We’ve spent the last five weeks talking about how to do what we do, but we haven’t ever really defined what it is that we are to be doing. Well, what is it that we should be doing? And why have we waited until now to clear this up? The truth is that we’ve waited because we already know the answer to the question. Jesus made this clear when He gave the disciples their marching orders. We are to bear witness to the resurrected Christ. When Matthew was wrapping up his telling of the story he put it a slightly different way: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. Simply put our chief task is to make disciples. We are called to make disciples. Most of you already knew that. So why am I taking up your time telling you the next part of our story this morning? Because in the telling I think we are reminded something about our chief task of disciple-making that is all too easily forgotten.
With all of that said, let’s turn our attention to the next part of the story itself. If you have a Bible with you in some form open it up or thumb your way to Acts 13. Now, the more perceptive and perfectionistic folks in the room are going to be wondering why we’re skipping chapter 12. Were I in your shoes, without an answer to that question I probably wouldn’t pay attention to a single word of the sermon. As I was studying and getting ready to preach on chapter 12 for this week it dawned on me that it was a story worth being told by the person who actually experienced it. Making that happen was going to take an extra week, though, so you’ll want to be sure to be here next week and bring a friend to hear a special guest. Conveniently, though, our story this morning actually picks up a couple of years later but in the same place as we left off last week: Syrian Antioch. When we last left Luke’s narrative the Gospel had been presented to the Gentiles in Antioch who received it with gusto. Under the teaching ministry of Saul and Barnabas the church grew there quickly. Yet as with the church in Jerusalem, God’s goal was not to create a new center for church activity and leave it to its own devices. The church was never designed to be an impenetrable fortress, but a series of ever-advancing outposts into enemy territory. And so with this next forward operational base beginning to strengthen to the point that native leaders were taking on the main governance of the church God called the two men who had been leading things to this point to leave. Look there at the text with me in 13:2: “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.’”
With this somewhat enigmatic request by the Holy Spirit Saul, whom we are soon told is also called Paul, launches out on the first of his three major missionary journeys. What comes next is Luke’s report of the events of the first journey. I’m not going to hit every detail of his report—although you should go home and read the whole thing for yourselves, it’ll take you about ten minutes and it’s a great story—but I do want to hit some highlights. I think there are a few places that give us some good advice as we work at our primary task of making disciples. In fact, I think there are five principles found in the story and a sixth at the end that are of paramount importance if we are going to be about our task well. We are called to make disciples. Through the story of Paul’s first missionary journey, we are given some help along the way.
The first principle comes almost right out of the gate. Paul and Barnabas are told to go. Look at v. 4 with me: “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went…” Being sent, they went. Making disciples requires us to go somewhere. But, before you start worrying about where making disciples might require you to go let me make something clear. God may very well not be calling you to go anywhere you haven’t already been before. Now, if He has then you’d better go. But for most folks He doesn’t call us to go somewhere foreign. And yet, the truth is that making disciples requires us to go somewhere. Most of us live our lives on a circular path. We start at home, go to work, go to church, go to extra-curricular activities, go on vacation, and go back home. This is our home path. Now, sometimes God drops people right in our way such that we have to almost walk around them to stay on the path, but more often than not when He calls us to make a disciple it’s going to require us to leave our home path. We have to go somewhere. It might only be across a room, but making disciples requires us to go somewhere. If there’s no going, there’s no making. And if there’s no making…well then we’re not really following Jesus’ example very well. This is why when Paul and Barnabas were sent, they went. So where did they go?
Well, they started by heading south to the coastal town of Seleucia. From there they boarded a ship and made for the island of Cyprus which was where Barnabas was from. There they actually got a chance to proclaim the Gospel to the Roman ruler of the island, Sergius Paulus. In doing this they encountered their first real opposition. Sergius had a Jewish advisor named Elymas Bar-Jesus whom Luke describes as a magician and false prophet. This man began to oppose Paul and Barnabas, using his influence to keep Sergius from buying into their words. Paul dealt with him directly in v. 10: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” In Paul’s response to Elymas we find our second principle: We are going to face opposition when we make disciples. We need to always keep in mind, though, the source of our opposition. Paul got it right. Elymas may have been the vehicle of the problem, but the source was the devil. When we accept the call to make disciples we are entering into a great spiritual conflict that has been raging since the fall and will continue until the great restoration. But, people are not our enemies. We war against ideas, against worldviews, against lies, and, ultimately, against the father of lies. The weapons of this warfare are not physical but spiritual: powerful words, loving actions, and attractive community. In making disciples our opposition is spiritual, so must our weapons be.
Well, Paul and Barnabas eventually leave Cyprus and make for land along the Greek coast. Once there they head inland to another city called Antioch, but this time in a region known as Pisidia. In Pisidian Antioch Paul’s initial attempts to proclaim the Gospel are well-received. He gives this incredible sermon that ends on this equally incredible note. Look at this starting in v. 37: “…but he [Christ] whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers [and sisters], that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” That is just awesome and points us to our third principle of making disciples: Making disciples requires us to share the Gospel in clear, culturally-conditioned ways that point people to the cross. Making disciples is not a show-only affair. It requires both show and tell. Living the life of Christ is really important, but the goal of that in this context is to either invite questions whose answers require words or to back up the words we’ve already spoken. This means, by the way, that we have to be ready and able to speak the Gospel to someone else. We are called to make disciples and this requires telling people about Jesus.
Eventually the Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch got fed up with Paul and Barnabas and all the attention they were getting telling them that they were wrong in what they had always thought to be true. The Jews cobbled together a group of wealthy and influential men and women to heckle the missionaries and turn public opinion against them until they had to leave town. They followed the pair as they went to Iconium and Lystra, agitating the crowds against them in each place. Eventually they succeeded in seeing Paul stoned outside of Lystra and left for dead. Somehow he survived and continued on his mission. And in spite of all he had faced, Luke describes him in v. 52 as “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Herein lies principle number four: Boldly pushing through the opposition we face in making disciples yields for us a harvest of joy. We are going to face opposition in our task to make disciples. We live in a world that is bitterly opposed to God’s way of life and we are actively trying to train people to conform completely to it. Yet we have been called to make disciples. When we are faithful to this task, even in the face of opposition—regardless of whether the opposition comes from external sources or errant internal ones—we receive spiritual rewards. These rewards often take the form of a joy that permeates every circumstance and a deep internal satisfaction that we are fully in line with our God-given design. Being bold in the face of opposition brings us joy. This is exactly what Paul and Barnabas experienced.
There’s one more interesting part of their journey worth mentioning before we get to the last principle. When the pair arrived in Lystra, Paul healed a man who had been lame from birth. Based on this act, the people there were convinced that Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes, his chief speaker. They made preparations to worship the pair and offer sacrifices to them. Even the local priest at the temple to Zeus came to town to join in the affair. When Paul and Barnabas realized what was going on Luke writes in 14:14 that “they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God.” What the people of Lystra were about to do was make Paul and Barnabas’ work all about them instead of God. They were going to put them right at the center of things and worship them. We are called to make disciples. If we do that faithfully and experience a bit of success, there is going to be a very great temptation to make it all about us. We are doing good work, we are reaching people with the Gospel, we are making many disciples, we are being who God made us to be, we, we, we. Yet there is nothing in the world that will short circuit our efforts at faithfulness to our calling than making things primarily about us instead of about God. This is why the fifth principle is so important: When making disciples we must make sure it’s never about us. Paul and Barnabas moved heaven and earth and risked life and limb to make sure that the focus of their venture was where it ought to have been. We must follow their lead.
Well, with the exception of a tiny city called Derbe that receives only passing mention, we have reached the end of Paul’s first missionary journey. From this point he turned around and went home. But he did not go there directly. And as Luke narrates for us, the manner in which he made his way back home brings to light a sixth principle of making disciples that is perhaps the most important of all for us to remember. Listen to what he writes starting in v. 21: “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 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. 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.” What’s going on here? Paul is retracing his steps. He is going back and visiting the places he had already visited. But why? What’s it say there in v. 22 again? To strengthen the souls of the disciples. To encourage them to continue in the faith. To remind that entering the kingdom of God is not an easy, pain-free process. To equip them to the point that they were able to care for and reproduce themselves. But why? Why go through all this trouble? I mean, these folks were already believers. Why not get on to more unreached people in order to shepherd them into the kingdom? Because we’re not called to make Christians. We are called to make disciples. We’re not called to get people to say a prayer that will leave them set for life. We’re called to lead people to take up a lifestyle that will consume their entire being and in the end leave them a totally new person. A transformation of that nature doesn’t happen quickly or easily. It takes a great deal of time and energy on the part of the both the disciple and the discipler. Paul understood this and so instead of leaving these new converts to their own devices, he came back to them in order to spend more time teaching them what they needed to know and preparing their hearts and at least initially more importantly their minds so that their expectations closely accorded with reality, so that they could think in the right ways enabling them to behave in the right ways.
All of this leads us to a statement of the sixth and final principle: making disciples requires a long-term investment in another person. Far too often today we take a short view on things. If we can get another person to say the sinner’s prayer and get baptized then our work is done. We can sit back and relax or even move on to the next person. And perhaps many of you think I’m talking specifically about sharing the Gospel with a friend or even a stranger, and I am, but that the risk of offense let’s hit closer to home. I’m talking about our kids. We are called to make disciples. That includes our kids. It’s so tempting to think that once our kids have made a profession of faith and been baptized—especially in a Baptist church—they are set. We have done our chief duty as parents and ushered them over the line of faith. They have taken up their cultural identity marker and are set. Where they go from here we don’t really have to concern ourselves with because we know they’re “saved.” We’ve brought them up in the Lord and even when they’re old they won’t depart from it. Right? Let me take us back to our sixth principle: making disciples requires a long-term investment in another person. Let me now make an observation that’s hard but true: unless we make this long-term investment in our kids the great likelihood is that while they might maintain a passing sense of the faith and protest loudly that they are in fact Christians, they are not really going to be followers of Jesus, seeking to mimic His lifestyle in every aspect of their lives. In fact I would go so far as to say that short a special action on God’s part if the extent of training in the faith we give our kids is to coach them into the baptismal waters and then bring them to church once in a while, at the point we no longer insist they come, they won’t. And furthermore, they will cease to live out the Christian faith in any meaningful way. My story reflects this: I made a profession of faith and was baptized at 8 years old. Things didn’t really click for me though for another 8 years. But for my parents intentionally creating an environment primed for my continual growth and development I would have never gotten to that point. I would have just been another kid who said a prayer, got baptized, and then walked away to live life however I wanted. The reality is that the discipling that goes on here is not enough. We’re going to do everything we can to equip your kids to not merely live but think Christianly, but the truth is that the hour or two a week we have with them is not going to cut it. We are called to make disciples. And when your kids head off to college, unless they are deeply committed disciples of Jesus Christ who know what they believe and are capable of defending that, a great body of research suggests that their faith is likely to get absolutely ripped to pieces. It’ll be shredded and there won’t be anything left but a cultural identity marker.
So what do we do? Well, we’ve been called to make disciples. Why don’t we try that? We teach the faith to our kids. We don’t content ourselves with their having been baptized. We take that as the beginning point of the journey not the end goal. We work diligently to help them look at and process the world around them through the lens of the Christian faith. We equip them with the tools they need to defend their faith both positively in telling another person about it and negatively against the attacks they will face out in the world. We demonstrate for them the incredible value found in living out the Christian life even when things get tough. We strengthen their souls by teaching the word to them. We encourage them to continue in the faith even when it doesn’t make sense. We create a faith framework that understands and accepts the fact that there will be at times mind-bogglingly difficult seasons of life as they journey to the kingdom. And if you don’t feel equipped to do all of that, that’s okay. That’s nothing to worry about. But it’s also no excuse not to. Get equipped. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I can help. We are called to make disciples.
And, we don’t stop with our kids. We give back our time and our talents and our wisdom and our worldviews here in order to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. That’s what making disciples in the context of the church looks like. We invest in people and we keep investing until they are able to invest in someone else. Then we set them free to do it and start the process over. This is exactly what Paul and Barnabas did. This was exactly how the church was designed to work from the beginning. We are called to make disciples and making disciples requires a long-term investment in another person. When a person crosses the line of faith, we should celebrate. We should have a party because we’ve just witnessed a miracle. It is a miracle every single time a person decides to give up control of themselves and cede it to Jesus Christ. But, when the crêpe paper has been rolled back up and the sparklers and hats put away, we roll up our sleeves and get down to work because this new Jesus follower is by no means equipped for what lies ahead. Their journey has literally just begun and unless we help them along the way they’re not going to make it. So we follow the lead of Paul and Barnabas by coming back alongside them in order to strengthen them, encourage them, and make sure their expectations for the life spent following Christ accord well with reality. This takes time and effort on our part, but it is time and effort that are well spent. We are called to make disciples. We’re not called merely to see people saved in some future, spiritual sense, but in a right now every day living the life of Christ at every moment sense. This is what Paul and Barnabas sought for. We’re heirs to their tradition. Let’s continue in the tradition that matters most: making disciples.