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Strengthened in the Faith

Date: Apr. 27, 2014

Author: Michael Mark

Acts 15:36-16:5

Key Verse: Acts 16:5

“So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”

Think for a moment about how it feels to be trusted or distrusted. In one of my first jobs out of college, there was a manager from a different department who would constantly come by my desk and ask, “Are you sure your program is going to work?” If he came by once or twice, I would understand, but he would ask the same question several times. I began to think that he did not trust me with my coding, even though I had a record of many successful projects. This made me feel hurt and even a little angry. When someone doesn’t trust you for something you know you can do, it can be upsetting. On a separate occasion, I remember sleeping over at my best friends house with a few other buddies. He made this comment: “I would not trust any of you alone in my house, except Mike.” This made me feel good. He trusted me, and he trusted me for a good thing. This was back when I was in high school and I still remember the moment.

More important than how we feel when someone trusts or distrusts us, is our own faith in God. If we feel hurt or angry when someone does not trust us, how much more would God feel, when his own creation does not trust him who can do all things? Or the happiness we feel when someone trusts us, how much more is God pleased with those who truly trust him? In fact, without faith it is impossible to please God. Heb 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Faith in God also becomes a matter of eternal life and death. All of our sins against God are justified only by faith (Rom 5:1). None of your good works can get you into heaven. Just saying you’re a good person is not good enough, you can never do enough to pay for your sins, and you will die. But God displayed the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:8), who was delivered over to death for our sins. We can have access to this grace only by faith (Rom 4:25, 5:2).

Now do you see how important it is to have faith in God? But in this life we will have many obstacles to that faith. Our very own sinful natures will hinder us from coming to God. Those who do not believe in God will try to pull us farther and farther away from God. They might be very influential and powerful people, or they might even be friends and family. The devil will also try to cause us to doubt God. In order to stand against all of these obstacles, our faith in God needs to be strengthened. This was Paul’s goal in today’s passage, which covers the churches he has already established. He wanted to strengthen the faith of those churches. This goal led to a desire that launched Paul’s second missionary journey.

What was that first desire? Look at v.36, “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’” In Paul’s first missionary journey, he founded churches on the island of Cyprus, then in the city of Perga, then in Pisdian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and ending where it began, in Syrian Antioch. It was now about 5 years from the end of that first journey, and Paul wanted to go back and revisit the churches he had planted to see how they are doing. Paul had a heart for God’s people, and he loved them just as God loved them. You can see how he loved them in some of the letters he wrote to people and to churches. In his letter to the churches in Rome he writes, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Rom 1:11-12).” He writes to Timothy, who he considers as his own son, “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy (2 Tim 1:4).” And he writes to the church in Philippi, “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus (Php1:8).” The common theme there is “I long to see you,” and such was Paul’s heart.

Come back again to the words Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s see how they are doing.” These are such sweet words. “Hey Dan, let’s have some breakfast, I just wanted to see how you are doing.” (For the record, he has invited me to breakfast twice). “Hey Orlando, let’s have some coffee, I just wanted to see how you are doing.” “Hey Jimmy, how you doin’?” These are encouraging words, and among believers we can help strengthen each other’s faith when we meet together. We have had a lot of people come and go from this ministry. It is encouraging to us when Sam and Grace come to visit, and they share some updates and prayer topics with us. Msn. Abigail stopped by to see us this past Friday. It is encouraging to hear back from Moses, Peter, and Johan when they email us. Follow Paul’s example and reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while, and it doesn’t have to be someone who has gone far away. See how some students are doing throughout the week. This is love in action, when we meet face to face, and share our lives and our faith together.

Just as there are obstacles in our faith, obstacles will more than likely come even as we try to love one another. There came a sharp disagreement among Paul and Barnabas, look at v.37-39, “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus.” Barnabas whose name means “son of encouragement,” was perhaps more lenient about John Mark’s desertion. This may have been because he was a cousin of Mark (Col 4:10). He may have also remembered Mark’s mother, who opened her house to the disciples even in a time of persecution. And having a name like “son of encouragement,” he may have wanted to give Mark a second chance.

Paul was opposed to having Mark come along on the second journey because he had deserted them near the beginning of their first journey. Luke, the author of this book, only mentions that he left in Acts 13:13, but gives no reason why, but here we see that it was a reason enough for Paul to exclude him. Mark may have been tired after that trip to Cyprus, he might have been fearful of the growing Jewish opposition, or he might have just missed home in Jerusalem. This may have seemed to Paul a lack of faith or commitment to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentile (non-Jewish) people. Perhaps Paul may not have had anything personal against Mark, but he could not trust him on another journey, and would not give him a chance to go. Mark had left them after they preached to two cities, and Paul and Barnabas continued on their own traveling a few hundred more miles, facing death threats and stonings. Paul needed someone he could trust would be with him the whole way, and Mark did not prove that he could be trusted with that.

Because of this there was such a sharp disagreement that the dynamic duo of Paul and Barnabas split up. It was that bad! Barnabas had been the one to bring Paul to the apostles when they were scared of him. Barnabas had been the one who brought Paul to Antioch where the first missionary journey would start. They became leaders at the church in Antioch. They went into synagogues together, and spoke to the Jews boldly. They were both considered gods in Lystra, but professed their humanity to the people there. They also gave a defense of the Gentile ministry at the counsel of Jerusalem together. In all these situations, most of which were difficult times, they stuck together. But here, in what seems like a small issue, they parted ways. Who was wrong? Was Barnabas wrong for splitting away and insisting that Mark join them? Or was Paul wrong for insisting that Mark cannot go, even at the threat of Barnabas leaving. This doesn’t agree with his intention to strengthen the churches and meet together with them. What happened to love and unity?

It is difficult to say who was right and who was wrong, and it is possible that they both were wrong. This was a sad case of disunity among even the top disciples, but it does show the reality that we are all sinners, even the best of us, even those that are the most encouraging. We should all be on our guard, for Satan can find ways to disturb our unity. Despite the grievous situation, God overruled it for his good purposes. They were both wrong, and had to probably deal with God individually for their sin, but God used this situation to launch two parallel missionary journeys, instead of one, although the Bible only follows Paul’s journey.

It may also be though, that Paul may have been more right than Barnabas. The church accepted Paul’s decision in v.40, “but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.” There is no mention of Barnabas being commended to the grace of God. It seems also, that God accepted Paul’s decision, as v.41 says, “He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” God continued to bless Paul’s missionary work, and the churches were strengthened, just what he had set out to do. Paul may have been right to exclude Mark because he was at that time not a good example of one who was strong in the faith. God may not have wanted someone who was wavering in his faith to be an example to the early Gentile church. The split was not the end – later in the Bible Paul is reconciled to both Barnabas and Mark. Paul mentions Barnabas in his letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor 9:6), which is written after his second missionary journey. In his letters to the Colossian (Col 4:10) church, and to Philemon (Phl 24) and Timothy (2 Tim 4:11), Paul calls Mark his fellow worker and valuable to his ministry.

So Paul took Silas and they went through the region of Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Some of these churches were under assault from Jews who were coming from Judea, teaching the believers, “Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.” This disturbed and troubled the minds of the believers, causing some to doubt the grace of God. They needed to be strengthened so that they would stand firm in their faith, even in the midst of trials. Our faith is also constantly being under assault, by our own sin, and by external forces. Our sins may tell us, “God can never forgive you.” They may tell us, “You’re not doing enough for God,” or, “Why do you still struggle with that sin? It’s hopeless for you, don’t even bother going to God.” External forces may cause us to shrink back from God. Our friends may ridicule God, and we may be ashamed to say we are believers. The worries and anxieties of this life may cause us to give up on God. We may try to do things by our own strength, and find that it’s too hard, and also give up on God. We need faith. We need faith to stand firm, and we need that faith to increase, so that we can stand stronger. Our faith may start as a house of straw or a house of wood that the big bad wolf can blow down, but we need a house of brick.

Where does faith comes from? Faith comes from God. God will make us that house of brick. God will give us faith, and God will give us grace to increase our faith. How does God strengthen our faith? He strengthens our faith first of all through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rom 10:17 says, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Faith comes from hearing the message: and this is the message – Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came to earth as a man. He came to die for us, to pay the penalty for our sins. He was delivered over to death, and was buried. After three days, he rose again from the dead, signifying that the payment has been made in full, and that the power of sin and death have been destroyed. He has obtained for us the forgiveness of all our sins and has made peace between God and you. He now sits at the right hand of God, praying for his people, those who would believe, and one day he will come again as Judge of the living and the dead. No one will escape the judgment, and the Judge will judge justly. Before he comes again, he graciously offers to all a pardon, if they will believe in him, who is the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Turn from your sin, turn from your wicked ways, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We receive faith first through the gospel, because for the rest of God’s blessings to come upon us, we need to be at peace with him. Jesus is the author and perfector of our faith (Heb 12:2) – so it begins with Jesus, and continues with Jesus. Next, God increases our faith through his word. How can you trust in one who you do not know? But we can know God, and we know him through his word. We can come to know God through the Bible. When you are in doubt, or worried, open your Bible and read it. It can become a source of comfort for you. We are also strengthened in our faith through suffering. It sounds counter-intuitive, but suffering can bring us closer to God. It is also a way to test and reveal our faith. How can you know how strong something is unless it is tested? And our suffering is not in vain. We should not suffer as a criminal or murderer, but we can praise God if we suffer as a Christian. 1 Pet 5:10 says, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” Each time we go through a trial with God, we can see his strength, and learn to trust him more. Finally, we are strengthened through fellowship with one another. Through fellowship and meeting together, we can express the love of God to one another, and mutually encourage one another in the faith.

As sin and the world may assault us, let us remember that God is gracious, and has provided his Son Jesus Christ to pay for all our sin. We do not need to burden ourselves with works and worry about our salvation – that has all been done through Christ. God has given us hope in Christ, and he has given us grace, and he will increase our faith so we may stand stronger against sin and the devil’s schemes. Put your faith and trust in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul and Silas continue their journey from Cilicia, to Derbe, and then to Lystra. Lystra was the town where the people thought Paul and Barnabas were Greek gods, and tried to worship them. Paul and Barnabas did not take the credit, and preached the one true God of heaven and earth. Paul was stoned in that city, and here we see him going right back! In fact, this is the second time he is going back to Lystra after being stoned there. Here we are introduced to Timothy. Timothy was a disciple – he was already a believer in Jesus Christ. His mother was Jewish and a believer, but his father was Greek. He had come from a lineage of believers, starting from his grandmother Lois, to his mother Eunice. They may have been converted during the time Paul and Barnabas visited them, and now this young man Timothy was growing in the faith.

The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Lystra and Iconium were about 20 miles from each other – but here was a young man who was spoken well of by many. Kind of like Jimmy. Paul saw a great potential in a young man like Timothy, and wanted to take him along on his journey. Timothy had a gift from God, which Paul had reminded him to fan into flames. He had the gift of the public reading, preaching and teaching of Scripture, according to 1 Tim 4:13. One day he would become Paul’s successor, and there are 2 books of the Bible bearing his name. These are actually letters Paul wrote directly to him. Paul had considered him like a true son.

Look at v.3, “Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” Paul did what? Paul circumcised Timothy. The reason this might seem contradictory or confusing at first is because in the last chapter (Acts 15), there was a huge discussion on whether or not circumcision was required in order for a person to be saved. The conclusion was no, a man does not need to be circumcised in order to be saved. But we see here that Timothy was circumcised.   Why?

First, it was because he was half Jewish. His mother was Jewish, but his father was Greek, so his father would not have taken him to get circumcised.     Second, he was circumcised so that he could minister with Paul to the Jews, wherever they would go. It was a custom of Pauls to visit the synagogues in the cities he evangelized. As the verse says, he was circumcised because of the Jews, who all knew his father was a Greek. The Jews would have considered Timothy an unclean person, and would not allow him into the synagogues to speak. So for their sake, Paul had Timothy circumcised so that the gospel would be preached to them. Timothy did not have to be circumcised to be saved, and Paul did not require it. This was done primarily out of love, to promote unity, and to bring the gospel to the Jews. Paul even writes in 1 Cor 10:20,22, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law...I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Verse 4 reads, “As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.” To recap briefly, these were the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” These decisions were reached with the goal of not making it difficult for the Gentiles to come to God. They were provided to promote unity between Jews and Gentiles; it was a compromise for them to get along. The Jews absolutely abhorred the things in the list, and the Gentiles had particular weaknesses for them – so this would help the Gentiles keep pure and enable them to fellowship with the Jews. The other goal was to keep the Gentiles from backsliding out of grace, as these were particular temptations to them. These decisions declared that salvation was by grace alone, and not by works, allowing people from every nation, tongue and tribe to freely come to God.

What was the result? Can we all please read v.5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Again the churches were strengthened. In the one sense (in v.41), the churches were strengthened so that they can be established and stand firm. Here (in v.5), the sense is that the churches were strengthened so that they begin to mobilize and bear fruit. The church was strengthened in the faith: internally, they became mature and strong Christians. They also grew daily in numbers – so externally, they were continuing to preach the gospel to save souls daily, growing in number. It’s like a man who was crippled or lame, who could do nothing, and then suddenly, he is healed, he regains control of his legs, and he can begin to move. The crippled man is healed to walk. It’s also like a large fruit tree. As a seed or a sapling, it can get eaten by birds or blown away by the wind. But once the tree matures, takes deep roots and grows a large trunk, it beings producing fruit. The tree is strengthened in order to bear fruit.

So how does God strengthen us, the church in this way? God strengthens us to bear fruit through Christ. Once we were dead in our sins, we could do not good thing. But Christ gives us life, and the ability to obey him. So the first way to increase our strength to bear fruit is to remain in Christ, to abide in Christ. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, fix your eyes upon Jesus. Look to Jesus for strength, wisdom, and all you need. Trust in Jesus, as we sang today, ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” Jesus told his disciples in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Second is to obey the word of God. Notice in v.4, “they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.” To obey. We must study the word of God, and we must obey the word of God. You might ask, “Obey? Why do I have to obey anything? What happened to grace?” Ah yes, you were saved by grace, you were not saved by your obedience. But now that you are saved, you are given the power to obey, a power you did not have before. This power is the Holy Spirit in you. And this command to obey is not so that you could be saved, or be “more saved,” but the command to obey is so that you may bear fruit, and show yourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ. God will help you to obey. He will even give you the fruit. That’s the grace of God. Depend upon it.

Third, God increases your faith to bear fruit as you love one another. Timothy was circumcised for the sake of preaching the gospel to the Jews, and the church continued to grow in number. His love for others produced fruit, more people were brought to repentance and faith in Christ. We do not have to love one another out of our own strength, because apart from God we will fail at this. But we love because God lives in us, and so we live in love: and God lives in us when we accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we love one another, we can help strengthen each other in faith, we can help one another overcome the world, and we can help others to overcome the world. 1 John 5:2-5 sums this all up nicely: “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

So in the passage Paul has a desire to see how the believers are doing. This desire launches the second missionary journey, and in this journey, Paul strengthens the churches that he founded. They were strengthened in faith. Faith is a necessity of life. Think back again how you feel if someone trusted or distrusted you. I believe we get that understanding from our Creator, the Most High God, who desires that we believe in him. Without faith it is impossible to please God. God will give us faith through the gospel of Jesus Christ. God will increase our faith, so that we may stand strong in our belief of the gospel. God will also increase our faith, so that we may bear fruit by remaining in him, obeying his word and his commands, and loving one another. May God strengthen your faith in the author and perfecter of our faith – the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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