Acts 15:36 – 16:5
A. Division of labor 15:37-16:3
1. The issue behind the “issue”
Yes, there were “issues” but they must not cloud the central issue: brethren in new churches need follow-up. Of equal importance, the gospel must advance; anything that would hinder it cannot be tolerated. After several years have passed and the rift between Paul and Mark is healed, Paul refers to Mark as a “fellow worker for the kingdom of God” Col_4:11 and someone who is “useful for ministry” 2Ti_4:11 This is further evidence of Paul still being a zealous man but toward the building of the kingdom and not its destruction.
2. Barnabas and John Mark
uncle/nephew – perhaps relationship influenced Barnabas; yet his loyalty to Mark is not out of character. He had stood by Paul to defend him soon after his conversion, thus his defense of Mark fits his reputation as a loyal encourager.
Returned to Cyprus, Barnabas’ home territory. There is no indication in the text that Barnabas’ intentions changed as a result of the division with Paul. He had agreed to the missions trip already, probably went to Cyprus for the same purpose Paul went in the other direction. Barnabas’ activities from this point on are absent from the biblical record.
3. Paul and Silas (later Timothy, also)
Silas, likely a Hellenistic Jew, a Roman citizen, leader in the church at Jerusalem. His choice as a traveling companion and co-laborer shows Paul’s determination not to be a “lone ranger”. Given Barnabas’ abandonment of Paul, Paul could have easily left Antioch on his own to revisit the churches just as Barnabas had been sent alone years earlier to Antioch. Instead, Paul chose Silas and left only when he had the endorsement of the church at Antioch on his journey (cf. Act_15:40). Even though it was common for the apostles to take their wives along with them as they traveled, wives were never the ones depended on to keep them accountable. They had another laborer alongside to help carry the load of gospel work.
In choosing Timothy as a companion, Paul was not only looking at present accountability but also future continuation of his work. Paul showed no desire to be a “sole source”, to have everyone dependent on him to do it all. While the role of an evangelist in Paul’s mind covered more than simply gaining converts, he knew there would be a need for someone to carry on after he was no longer able ( 2Ti_4:5 ) and eventually exhorted Timothy to that end.
An integral part of 3-self churches is the ability to be self-propagating. In order for a church to reproduce itself, that is, begin a church in another location, there must be a leader to undertake the work. The leadership must reproduce if the church is to reproduce. Two means are open – “they appointed elders in every church” Act_14:23 ; Timothy and John Mark both were mentored by older, more seasoned men until they were equipped for independent ministry. Hence Paul’s 4-generation model for equipping the saints: The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2Ti_2:2
4. additional resources to accomplish additional work
Providentially God made two teams from one. Although the separation may not have been handled ideally, godly men may otherwise have given in to personal opinion/emotion, God used it for good and for the advancement of the gospel. A further outworking of God’s Providence was that since Paul went in the opposite direction from Barnabas, he arrived at Lystra (Timothy’s home) near the beginning of his journey thus giving Timothy much more time and opportunity to be instructed.
B. Discipling/Mentoring 16:4-16:5
We’ve seen Paul’s focus on the central issue – the advance of the gospel. It is also important to recognize his pastor’s heart. Yes, he was an evangelist; but the initial gospel presentation to those who had not previously heard it was not his only task. His work as an apostle and pastor was far more comprehensive while at the same time including evangelism. Having the gospel message at the front of his mind, being ready to proclaim it under any circumstances and at any time, even seeking out opportunities for gospel proclamation did not overshadow the need for discipling ministry.
“Visit” in the New Testament has a far richer meaning than what we give it today, i.e., a social call. ἐπισκεψώμεθα episkephometha, visit from episképtomai, from same roots as ἐπίσκοπος, elder, and means “to look upon, care for, exercise oversight” Vine’s. In its various usages, it always includes the concept of action – to visit someone for the purpose of doing something that relates to their specific need (Jesus – sick and in prison and you did not visit me Mat_25:43; God has visited his people Luk_7:16; pure religion …to visit widows and orphans Jas_1:27). Paul intended to “visit the brethren in every city” for the purpose of providing pastoral or shepherding care.
A qualified pastor, in addition to recognizing the specific needs of his flock, knows human nature – its weaknesses and tendencies – and especially the particular needs of God’s people situated in and surrounded by a thoroughly pagan culture with little readily available support.
Paul knew that amidst so great lightness and inconstancy of men, and as their nature is inclined to vice, if there be any thing well ordered among them, it doth seldom continue stable, and for any long time; and especially that churches do easily decay or grow out of kind, unless they be looked to continually. …Again, even those who have their anchor firmly fixed in the truth of God, do not cease notwithstanding to be subject to diverse tossings, whereby, though their faith be not overturned, yet hath it need of strengthening, that it may be underpropped and stayed. …it is not without cause that Paul is so careful for his scholars, lest they behave themselves otherwise than is to be wished. Calvin on Acts 15:36
If the church is not continually reinforced, “underpropped and stayed”, it will over time be reassimilated by the culture. That is one of the recurring themes in Keith Underhill’s reports on the Rendille converts and a concern of his that they not return to their former ways. Paul’s mission, then, on his second trip was:
1. confirming not converting
a. the churches 16:5a
Paul’s intent was to minister to the brethren which he and Silas did; yet from the inspired historian’s point of view, it was the effect on the church which was important. From our 21st century vantage point, we would see nothing wrong at all if Paul had struck out on his own as a street preacher and been content to acquire a personal following with no formal connection to a church. Instead, his first efforts in any location were directed toward reforming the existing church (synagogue) wherever it could be found, a local fellowship in its absence (cf. Act_16:13).
Paul carried on none of his labors outside the context of the church. He had the support and commissioning of the church at Antioch. He directed his labors first toward the established church. Only when the gospel message was rejected by the established church did he countenance believers leaving and then for the specific purpose of raising up another church. Paul did not endorse believers leaving the synagogue or local Jewish fellowship or even a pagan worship center never to return to the church. He expected them to be under the care of a local church and directed his personal ministry toward the local church. Even his letter to Philemon was also addressed to the church in his house.
b. established in the faith 16:5b
solidified in their thinking
Having the Jerusalem council circular letter in hand, Paul and Silas could instruct the young believers in the various churches. Yes, the essence of the Gospel as proclaimed to them was accurate and complete. “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Act_13:38-39 However, out of deference to Jewish brethren and their scruples, they should observe certain non-obligatory customs so as not to cause offense and to maintain peace in the church. Not only is the gospel important, so also is Christian charity.
Two things are necessary for thought patterns to be established or solidified – review and reinforcement. The instruction must be repeated (students don’t get it all the first time) and it must be contextually reinforced (they won’t get it in a vacuum). Ideas do not persist in isolation; they must be connected or associated with other things in order for us to remember them. Dots must be connected to form a memorable picture in order for the principles to be retained. Paul did both of those things with the result that their thinking on matters of faith jelled or solidified into biblical patterns.
c. increased in number 16:5c
Luke links two things together here: solidified faith and increased numbers.
“Let Christians improve in character, and converts will multiply daily. A morally improved church will swell the number of converts. This confirmatory work, this work of improving the character of Christians, is pre-eminently the work of Christians in this age”. David Thomas, Commentary
According to our text, Paul’s focus was on strengthening and building up the church, not on increasing its numbers. Yet the result was just that – the churches grew in both spirituality and size. Is that true of 21st-century evangelistic efforts? Or have we gotten things other way round, focusing on growth in numbers while ignoring issues of godliness?
[T]he world has come into the church and the Church has become worldly. The line is not as distinct as it was. …We have been told that we have to make the Church attractive to the man outside, and the idea is to become as much like him as we can. …The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first. That is how revival comes. D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Sermon on the Mount, p.37
USN&WR poll on leadership and confidence in leaders taken 09/04/07 – 09/17/07: 20% of people polled have great confidence in educational leaders, 27% in medical leaders, 40% in military leaders, 21% in religious leaders. Perhaps this is just another indication that “the world has come into the church”.
According to some observations on church planting made by John Piper a week ago, “One American denomination recently found that 80% of its converts came to Christ in churches less than two years old.” But here in America, we’re losing the war since only 1500 new churches open for every 3500 that close (same source).
1. right purpose
Our purpose must be God’s purpose – to bring glory to himself as he builds his church. The amazing thing is that we have the privilege of participating with him in the building project. Our part is to make disciples, followers of Christ, who will be added to the church by Christ as he builds it. But we must not lose sight of the goal – that God would be glorified, worshiped as he deserves to be, ultimately as the Psalmist prayed that “everything that has breath [would] praise the Lord” (Psa_150:6). For him to be properly worshiped and glorified, men must know him and know how to please him.
2. right method
- When we labor in the context of a local church to build up the saints in knowledge and righteousness, “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph_4:12) the result is that outsiders are drawn into the local assembly and are converted. The building up of the saints must include recovering the initial zeal for the gospel found in new believers in new churches. Remember Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “stir up (kindle afresh, NASB) the gift of God that was in him” (2Ti_1:6).
- We must be careful to follow the example for evangelism given to us in Acts – men going out with the sanction of a local church to plant and strengthen other churches who will then repeat the process. This same model is also indicated by Paul’s series of rhetorical questions asked in Rom_10:13-15.