The Advance of the Gospel of Grace (Acts 15:36-16:10)
As we continue our series in the Book of Acts called “Pulled In, Pushed Out,” we are starting to see the Gospel advancing to the ends of the earth. Churches are being planted, leaders raised up and disciples are made as Paul and Barnabas take the Gospel of grace everywhere. This series has been really refreshing and inspiring to me! Last week we saw that the Gospel of Grace must be protected. People were adding to the Gospel. The Gospel said, “Jesus + nothing=salvation.” Some taught, “Jesus + circumcision=salvation.” In other words, when Jesus dies and says, “It is finished,” He was just kidding. The fine print said, “Jesus + circumcision=salvation.” Today, we have different forms of this:
Jesus + baptism or Jesus + prosperity or if we are honest today, Jesus + successful career or Jesus + being married or Jesus + fulfilling ministry=salvation. We are all guilty of adding to Christ’s work every day! Adding to His work always subtracts and ruins it.
Despite the controversy, God moved the Gospel of grace forward. Today we are looking at how God continues to move the Gospel of grace forward. Recently in our Friday small group we talked about how we were on fire for the Lord once when we got saved and perhaps now we feel like we cooled off. We see the same sin patterns getting worse or old habits that we can’t get rid of. To add to that, interpersonal conflict (ministry would be great if there were no people), disappointment about life, etc. all make us feel the Gospel of grace is not advancing in our lives. I want to propose to you today that the Gospel of grace is a flood that cannot be dammed. Tell the Sun to go dark tomorrow. Impossible! Exactly. Let’s start with this:
- The Gospel of Grace advances despite conflict in ministry (15:36-41)
After the first missionary journey, Paul says to Barnabas, “Let’s go back to where we all went and see how everyone’s doing.” No google hangout or skype back then, so you actually had to go places. Today we have a lot of hit-and-run evangelism. Paul’s goal was not evangelism, but to make disciples. The main imperative or command in the Great Commission was not to “go,” but to make disciples.
Paul starts packing up for the second missionary journey. Barnabas shows up and right behind him is cousin John Mark. Remember the first missionary journey? Acts 13:13. Mark bailed on them. We don’t know why. Some say he was homesick. Others say he didn’t like Paul. Still others say he was scared of the mountains. Paul wasn’t happy about his defection. So Barnabas says, “Mark’s coming again.” Paul replies, “No way!” Barnabas, “Way. He’s coming. He’s my cuz and he needs a second chance. I’m the son of encouragement.” There is a “sharp disagreement.” In other words, things got heated. The tenses here indicate that both were adamant about their position. It was a continual quarrel—unending, unyielding, ongoing, heated, intense, deep disagreement between them that resulted in them going separate ways.
Who was right? Paul was looking at it from the vantage point of ministry. He had the big picture in mind. Going on a ministry trip is no Sunday School picnic. They were going into places where they would face death every day. They would face opposition, persecution, hardship, and sickness. Paul knew that there was no place for a quitter on a trip like that. He needed people he can depend on.
On the other hand, Barnabas was looking at it from the vantage point of the person. When Barnabas looked at his young cousin, he may have said, “Paul, maybe you’ve written this guy off, but I’m not writing him off because God has not written him off. I believe in him even though he has failed. And I want to give him another chance. We serve a God of grace. Besides, you used to kill people.”
Who was right? Luke doesn’t tell us. If you’re people-oriented, you’ll probably move toward Barnabas. If you’re task-oriented and you want to get the job done, you may move toward Paul. Regardless, the Gospel of grace moved forward. Before the trouble, you have two men (Paul, Barnabas) on one team going to one place. After the argument is over, you have five men (Paul, Silas, Timothy, Barnabas, John Mark) in two teams going to two different places. From two in one place to five in two places, thus the Gospel is now being spread by more people in more places than ever before.
Amazingly, the ministry continued and the person was redeemed. Paul commends Barnabas as a fellow worker for Christ in 1 Cor. 9:6. There seems to be no animosity there. What about Mark? Tradition says he started hanging out with Peter (1 Pet. 5:13), someone who also bailed on the Lord. Most scholars think Peter helped Mark pen Mark’s Gospel. Fifteen years pass and Paul is imprisoned in Rome. At the end of his letter to the Colossians, he says Mark is with him. John Mark and Paul are not only friends, but now that Paul is in prison, who’s there taking care of him? That quitter, John Mark. At the end of his life, Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Get Mark and bring him with you because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” (1 Tim. 4:11).
This is the power of the Gospel of grace! The Gospel advances through even conflict. This is not an excuse to quarrel but note some lessons here:
- Ministry happens in teams. Notice Paul doesn’t say, “I don’t need any of y’all!” I can do this by myself. I know we have our church friends, neighbor friends, work friends and family and family friends. What if we introduced people in those various circles to each other? Sometimes ministry can happen that way!
- Ministry will get messy. There is no perfect church and if there is one, don’t join it, because you will ruin it. Ministry will get messy, but we are not a museum, but a hospital. We can’t stop the mess from happening, but we can allow the Lord to turn it into His message.
- Work hard at relationships. Sheep bite. You have teeth and some of us have fangs. Only cultivating a culture of gospel of grace can help us in relationships. Relationships take hard work. Work faster at repentance and forgiveness. The Bible calls both the offender and offended to seek reconciliation (Matt. 5; 18). We are all porcupines with sharp quills. We are someone’s porcupine and someone is ours. Let’s avoid triangulation and making people pay for hurting us by telling others about it. It takes our hearts always going back to the Gospel
- The bigger your gospel: The gentler your heart; the quicker your repentances; the fewer your gripes; the more your thanks.
- Don’t idolize Bible or Christian “heroes.” Paul is not Jesus. Neither is Barnabas. All of them have flaws. Don’t make anyone your hero until they die. Martin Luther in his own writings says, “I’m a difficult man to get along with.” DL Moody in an act of rage pushed a reporter down a flight of stairs. Everyone needs the Gospel of grace, even the best Christian leaders.
- Ministry disagreements are not always bad. Someone asked me why we have so many denominations and churches. Isn’t it horrible?! I agree some of it was bad and unnecessary, but in the end, I see it as all regiments of the same army. Some denominations have gone AWOL, but many of them keep the basic doctrines of faith, but may differ on some things. None of us can claim that we alone have it all right. They add diversity. Some churches remind me that I need to be more reverent when I come to church. Other groups remind me there is a Holy Spirit and my theology cannot simply be, “Father, Son and Holy Scriptures.” This is the beauty of the body of Christ.
The Gospel advances despite conflict. Secondly,
- II. The Gospel of Grace Advances Through Surrendering of Our Rights (16:1-10)
Paul and Silas end up in Derbe and Lystra. Lystra is where Paul got stoned (Acts 14:19). Incredible courage to go back there! But if he hadn’t gone to Lystra, he wouldn’t have met Timothy. He was the son of a spiritually mixed marriage. It seems like his dad had died or left (not sure), but through his grandma Lois and mom Eunice, he was a devout Jew (2 Tim. 3:15) and all three became believers probably during the first missionary journey. Being both Jewish and Gentile, Timothy had access to both cultures—an important qualification for missionary service at that time.
Paul asks Timothy to join the team. He was a young Timothy would end up being Paul’s right hand man and “child in the Gospel.” But notice he takes Timothy and circumcises him. What? Why? Didn’t Paul read Acts 15 where you no longer need circumcision to be saved? This wasn’t a salvation issue. This was a ministry issue. Sometimes what cannot be required for salvation can be offered for the sake of the gospel. This is the whole principle of “To the Jew I became a Jew to win the Jews” (1 Cor. 9:20). This is by surrendering our rights.
He knew ministry to the Jews would be seriously hindered if Timothy had not been circumcised. Notice the Gospel advancing as a result of surrendering rights for the sake of the Gospel and they encourage the churches. Sometimes I wish I can go back in time to the time I left my old church. I got saved and the next opportunity I got, in my zeal without knowledge, I went ahead to bash the church. A more wiser approach would have been to study the church, its doctrines and I know the Gospel is in the liturgy and to use that to win them. Again, this must be done without compromising the truth.
Don’t you have rights to preach the Gospel the way you want to? Yes, but give it up for the sake of the gospel. What are some ways we can as a church work on surrendering our rights for the sake of the Gospel here at LH?
a) Surrender our rights to our church preferences
I know almost all of us have come from different churches. I am sure a lot of those churches had great ways of doing things structurally and organizationally. Many of you have shared those things with me and the leadership team and you have been gracious in doing so. I am thankful for the insight and knowledge you bring. It is a gift to us. However, we might not decide to go that route and we might even be wrong for not taking that route, but it will mean a surrender to our right for our advice to be heard and taken for the sake of the gospel.
b) Surrender our rights to our social preferences
We must surrender our rights to prefer to talk and eat with who we want. Our natural gravity of our heart is toward those most like us, whether its people of our skin color, former denomination, shared history or even personality. We have all different kinds of activities at Living Hope. What would it mean instead of saying, “I don’t feel like doing that activity and so I’ll just go home” and you thought instead, “I will die to my self and my rights and for the sake of the Gospel be here and build community with my brothers and sisters.” One more:
c) Surrender our rights to self-determine our lives
Notice in Acts 16:6 and 7 that Holy Spirit stops Paul and his companions from going to places. Then in Acts 16:8-10, we see God leading them to Macedonia. Does the Holy Spirit stop us like this and lead us to other places and how do we know? Rom. 8:18 says those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God. The Spirit of God does close doors as well as open them. But remember that the Spirit of God would never lead you to sin. Remember that it can be subjective as well. You might think the Spirit is leading you after you eat that taco. Get in God’s Book and get godly people to help you as the Scripture says, “with a multitude of counselors there is much wisdom.”
David Livingstone, missionary, felt called to China, but ended up in Africa. William Carey felt called to Polynesia, but ended up in India. Adoniram Judson wanted to go to India, but ended up in Burma. Do you just rejoice in the Spirit’s guidance as well as restraint? The point: We can’t control our lives. We have to give up our rights to self-determine our lives. We can try to take care of our body and we should, but that won’t guarantee we won’t get sick or cancer. And the more we see that and surrender our rights to have answers for why things happen and dictating to God as our secretary to do things for us in our way and our time, the more the Gospel will advance through us.
We are self-addicted, self-asserting rights-demanding sinners. Can the Gospel of Grace advance through us? The only way we can persevere through conflict and surrender our rights is not to try harder, but to believe the Gospel. I was at a conference for South Asian leaders last week and people kept saying things like, “We need to do something for South Asians! Nothing is being done.” I remember I got angry. “What about Living Hope? Are we not a legit church that ministers to all people including South Asians? Aren’t we somebody!” I wanted to exert my rights.
The Spirit of God came and checked my heart with a Gospel rescue. “Robin, I was Somebody, so you are free to be no one. You are already discovered, so you don’t need other’s approval to be considered important or significant.” We cannot be proud, self-asserting followers of a humble Savior. As John Stott says, “Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.” Sin turns you inward; the gospel turns you outward. Sin enslaves you by making you big. The gospel frees you by making you small.
The Gospel tells me that I cannot claim my rights when I follow a God who willingly gave up His for our sake. When we talk about the Incarnation, we don’t mean it was just an event. We mean it was the moment-by-moment choice of Christ to lay down his privileges, his rights as God, and to submit to ungrateful sinners every second in order to effect our salvation. When He was tired, He could have turned on His omnipotent powers to have energy, but He didn’t. He gave up that right to identify with us. And then at infinite cost to Him, the Lord went to the cross. Jesus Christ, who had all the power in the world, saw us enslaved by the very things we thought would free us. So the Sovereign became a servant (Philippians 2). He laid aside the infinities and immensities of his being and, at the cost of his life, paid the debt for our sins, purchasing us the only place our hearts can rest, in surrendering to Him.
Tim Keller talks about the acclaimed foreign film Three Seasons. It is a series of vignettes about life in postwar Vietnam. One of the stories is about a Hai, a cyclo driver (a bicycle rickshaw), and Lan, a beautiful prostitute. Both have deep, unfulfilled desires. Hai is in love with Lan, but she is out of his price range. Lan lives in grinding poverty and longs to live in the beautiful world of the elegant hotels where she works, but in which she never spends the night. She hopes that the money she makes by prostitution will be her means of escape, but instead the work brutalizes and enslaves her.
Then Hai enters a cyclo race and wins the top prize. With the money he brings Lan to the hotel. He pays for the night and pays her fee. Then, to everyone’s shock, he tells her he just wants to watch her fall asleep. Instead of using the power of his wealth to have sex with her, he spends it to purchase a place for her for one night in the normal world, to fulfill her desire to belong. Lan finds such grace deeply troubling at first, thinking Hai has done this to control her. When it becomes apparent that he is using his power to serve rather than use her, it begins to transform her, making it impossible to return to a life of prostitution.” 
Knowing he did this will transform us from the inside out, as Hai’s selfless love did for Lan. Why wouldn’t you want to offer yourself to someone like this? Selfless love destroys the mistrust in our hearts toward God, for love so amazing and so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.
Pritchard, R. “When Christians disagree,” http://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/1993-10-31-When-Christians-Disagree/ accessed 8 August 2013.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (p. 326). Chicago:
Taken from http://rockedbygrace.blogspot.com/2011/04/every-time-we-look-at-cross-christ.html accessed 8 July 2013.
Keller, Timothy (2008-09-25). The Prodigal God (pp. 87-88). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.