Lessons from Paul's First Journey
Acts 13: 1-12
Lessons from Paul’s First Journey
Last week we had three important things happen at the same general time. First we had an Ethiopian eunuch get converted and baptized by Philip; secondly we had Peter getting called to, really dragged to, the house of Cornelius and baptizing him and his entire family; and then third we had a group of Hellenized Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene that headed to Antioch and began to talk with the Gentle community and converted those Gentiles, and then Barnabas was sent to investigate. He gave thanks to God, baptized the Gentiles, went and grabbed Saul (now named Paul) from Tarsus, brought him back down, and they spent a year in Antioch teaching these Gentiles. I said last week that the Spirit was trying to teach the church that they needed to get moving. They weren’t a Jewish movement, they were a human movement. They needed to go to the ends of the Earth, to use the language that Jesus used in his lifetime.
What is happening now in the story is that a part of the church, namely the church in Antioch, is hearing this call by the Spirit to move into the rest of the world. And so they do something that has never been done before: they commission missionaries. Now the church has been growing up until this point. From the very beginning, from the day of Pentecost when Peter walked out of the upper room, the disciples have been preaching the Good News where they were. They have been missionaries where they were. But they have never left with the intention of converting people. They have fled persecution and then converted people where they wound up; that’s how we got the situation in Antioch. But never have they intentionally left with the purpose of converting another location. Not fleeing, but going.
And importantly I think one of the key lessons of the sermon is that the people of Antioch let these two people go to do it. I want to put this up here, just because I know that this could lead to thoughts and I want to quickly say that I’m not going anywhere this year, as far as I know right now. But I wanted to make this point anyway. Paul and Barnabas were the two people who came out to teach these new Gentiles what it meant and how to live in following Jesus. These have been their spiritual parents for a year. These are the people that brought them from “what is Judaism?” to fully functioning disciples able to hear the Spirit give a call to the church. And these people in Antioch let them go. They let them go with their blessing and they send them on their way.
Being a Christian is often about recognizing the need for others to receive the Gospel, recognizing the need for others to receive your blessings. And Paul and Barnabas certainly have been a blessing to the people. Being a Christian means not holding onto the treasures we have, but allowing our treasures to bless others. And sometimes that just means sharing and we don’t lose our treasure. We just allow it to bless other people. But sometimes it means losing that which we treasure, but being a Christian means allowing our treasures to bless other people and thinking of others first.
Our reading is the beginning of Paul’s first missionary journey. He takes Barnabas and even John along with him, and they travel on their first missionary journey. There are three missionary journeys in the book of Acts, and all take on similar feel. We’re going to look at more of them as we go through the story. But this is by far the shortest, at least by the travel by distance of all of the journeys. But it is notable for being first and for being one that had Barnabas on it. I’m going to try and show the journey on this map here, assuming that I get the video editor to work.
They’re leaving Antioch, and they’re going to go here to the island of Cyprus. They land on the eastern half of the island, they go to the western half of the island, and they preach the good news the entire way across the island to Jews and Gentiles alike. And typically there is one of two reactions from anyone who is there: they either join the church and become baptized and create a little house church in their town, or they become angry at Paul and Barnabas and become severe opposition. We see this especially from the Jews, sometimes Gentiles can have a kind of ambivalent “who cares” reaction, but certainly from the Jews they would either accept it and follow this new Messiah, or become opposition and actively work to get rid of these people. We’ll talk a little bit more about it here in a moment.
They will leave the island of Cyprus and travel from the western tip of the island up into south-central Turkey. If you’re reading the Scriptures, this is the province of Antioch, and that’s a little confusing. So I’m referring to the towns the very few times I refer to anything, and when I say “Antioch,” I’m going to be talking about the town over here in modern day Syria. But they travel up here in the mainland, and they visit the town of the Pisidia, and then they travel north to Iconium, then down to Derbe. Then they go back through all that and then back to Antioch by sea, where they are welcomed with praise of God and celebration by the church. This is a small area, this is a little bigger than West Virginia. But for now they’re just kind of testing out what it looks like to be a missionary.
Now at each of the stops along the way, a similar thing begins to play out. And this will continue into the rest of Paul’s missionary journeys. They walk into the town and they find the Jewish community. They will go to the synagogue if there is a synagogue; sometimes there’s not a synagogue so they go to where the local running, or living, water is and that’s where the Jewish people meet. Wherever it is the missionaries, will go to where the Jewish people are and they will preach the Good News of the Messiah‘s coming. And the Jews will either accept the Good News, or they will reject it. And if they reject it, they become opposition. Then the missionaries will begin to go to the Gentiles, begin to go to the streets, begin to go to the town square, and they begin to present this Good News there as well. They form a little church, and they begin to teach these new disciples what it means to follow the way.
Acts records “the Jews” creating opposition. As I’ve mentioned, there are some who are Jews who don’t oppose but rather join and become Christians. At that point in the book of Acts, the terminology of “the Jews” typically means synagogue leadership and those who reject the good news. And oftentimes they will create opposition. Now I want to point out quickly why they do this, so a little bit of a history lesson. In the Roman empire, the Roman empire had an official religion, which was the Roman gods. So things like Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars. There were gods of each area or city. Oftentimes you would have temples to one of these gods in the town that was supposed to bring that God’s blessings to that particular town. But this is the official state religion. And it was believed by the people of Rome in general that this pantheon of gods, the Olympians, protected the empire. If anything went wrong in it, an earthquake, flood, or fire gets sent to the city of Rome, they would say that the gods were angry at the people, and they would blame a segment of the people for what was going on. Not unsimilar to today.
Now there were religions in the areas Rome conquered. And oftentimes if your religion was old enough you could have that religion grandfathered in as allowable in the Roman empire. And the Romans would let you keep worshiping your God, you didn’t have to worship their gods, as long as you offered a sacrifice to your God in the name of the Emperor. If you offer the sacrifice in your custom to your God in the name of the Emperor, then your God would bless the Empire as well, and you’re fine. However, they did not allow new religions to form. And certainly if you had a religion, and you weren’t willing to recognize the Emperor as your King and Lord, and offer a sacrifice to your God in your custom in the name of the Emperor, then you were a threat and you risked making the gods angry. And furthermore if someone started making waves and it could be traced back to your religion, you could have your right to practice your religion revoked.
So this is where we find ourselves. The Jews are grandfathered in as long as they offer up a sacrifice in old testament tradition in the name of the Emperor. They can keep practicing their religion and they don’t have to bow down to the Roman gods. They don’t even have to bow down to the Emperor, as long as they call the Emperor Lord and Ruler and offer a sacrifice in the Temple in the name of the Emperor. But now there’s this movement of people calling themselves Christians and not only do they refuse to offer a sacrifice or a prayer in the name of the Emperor to their God, they actually refuse to call the Emperor lord or king. And if the Romans ask them to say more about this God, the answer was that it was a human being who lived about 10 years ago who was put to death by the Roman empire for starting an insurrection.
So you might be able to see it this point why the leadership of the Jews, who trying to look out for the people of the synagogue, might look at this and say “the last thing that we want is for the Romans to hear of waves being made against the Empire and the Emperor and the Roman gods, and trace it back to our synagogue or the Jewish faith.” Because they risk having the Roman Legion knocking on their door, they risk having the right to Temple worship revoked. This is really serious for the Jews, provided they don’t buy into Jesus being the Messiah and ushering in the salvation of the Jewish people. This is a really, really serious threat to the people. And so they try to get rid of Paul and Barnabas as quickly as they can.
And this is what we see. There quickly forms an opposition. Every time Paul and Barnabas stop someplace, they start to convert people and form a church. And there forms an opposition. This opposition sometimes works alone, sometimes works with the Roman leadership. Oftentimes they are just trying to get them out of their town, and so they’ll exile or banish these people. Other times they try to get more permanent in their solutions; one of the towns in this missionary journey we see that they try to set up an ambush and stone Paul and Barnabas. But this opposition forms, and then they move onto the next town.
Paul and Barnabas are facing real persecution, and their responses are recorded in the book of Acts. And the response notably is never anything but praise of God. There’s a couple times they shake the dust off their sandals, in reference to Jesus sending out the 72 while he was still alive, but that’s about it. There’s no real anger, there's certainly no retaliation. They just move on to the next city, and the next city, and the next city, and the next one.
Even when they are put in prison, even when they’re actually caught (Paul get stoned and left for dead several times on his missionary journeys); never do they get angry. They’re always praising God. In fact, there’s one story where they get arrested and they convert the person who owns the prison! This is the proper reaction of Christians in the face of persecution. Praise of God, and moving on to the next thing the Spirit is calling you to do. It’s worth noting that they go back through the same towns as they go home, quickly blessing the people in their churches, and move on to Antioch. But they don’t get angry, and they don’t look for vengeance.
Now the other thing that is notable about these missionary journeys is that oftentimes they reach the towns and there is a miracle that happens. Sometimes there will be a healing; here we see a false prophet being called out and a magician getting silenced. Other times we see a miracle of healing, we see demon possession ended, all sorts of different things that happen on these various stops.
And oftentimes I will hear that people kind of get jealous at the people of that age for being able to experience these miracles. I’ll hear something along the lines of “if only I could believe that miracles could happen. If only something like that would happen for me now, then I could believe.” And one thing I want to point out about all these miracles as we go through these journeys is that the miracles very rarely happen in a vacuum. Most times the miracles are done to back up the preacher. So they’ll be preaching about the Good News that we know and love, and then there would be some sort of miracle to back it up. The miracles were never the Good News, they always backed up the Good News.
We are often fascinated by these miracles in our time. They seem so strange to our world, but they were always about removing some obstacle to someone accepting the Good News. And the reality is in our world we understand mental illnesses, we don’t call a demon possession; and we understand regular illnesses, we have antibiotics, we have chemotherapy, we have these things that can work toward at least sometimes healing some of the sickness; we understand more about what goes on in the world. Our obstacles aren’t the same, and so therefore our miracles that work against those obstacles are also different.
So as we go through the book of Acts, which I would encourage you to be reading the book as we go through it, if you’re reading the book of Acts then pray for a miracle that destroys the obstacle you’re facing right now. Pray for missionaries throughout the world as they do their work in sometimes very hostile conditions. And pray for your church as you seek to grow. Spread the Good News where you are as well, and listen to the Spirit this week. Church, I ask God’s blessings for you. Amen.