The Sharp Disagreement of Paul and Barnabas: Who Was Right?

Acts 15:36–41 records a disagreement that arose between Paul and Barnabas. Paul asked Barnabas to join him to check in on the churches that were planted in Acts 13–14 (Acts 15:36). In wanting another to help, Barnabas suggested John Mark (Acts 15:37) who had “left them and returned to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13). Since John Mark “had withdrawn” and “not gone with them to the work,” “Paul thought best not to take with them one” who had done such a thing (Acts 15:38).1

Barnabas was not convinced by Paul. In fact, in Paul himself, Barnabas showed that he was a man to give someone an opportunity to serve in ministry when others would not (cf. Acts 9:26–29). Barnabas was apparently convinced that Mark had learned his lesson and was worthy to serve again. But, as it was, “a sharp disagreement” parted these two great men (Acts 15:39).

In giving careful attention to what follows in Acts 15:39–41, it seems that neither Paul nor Barnabas were wrong, as disappointing as it was to see them disagree. Notice:

  • Rather than one or the other seeing the churches again, Barnabas took Mark to see the believers in Cyprus (cf. Acts 13:4–12), and Paul took Silas to go beyond to Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:39–41). So, no one disagreed so as to abandon the trip. Everyone kept on ministering.
  • Though Paul stubbornly refused to accept John Mark and parted ways with Barnabas, the church nonetheless commended Paul to God’s grace for the trip ahead (Acts 15:40). “Commended” in Acts 15:40 is in the singular, referring to Paul in particular (but obviously having Silas in view). The commendation was not for Barnabas and John Mark.
  • While this commendation was not to Barnabas and John Mark, it does not follow that the church did not approve of their ministry. In the end, Barnabas was doing what he was doing at the initiation of Paul (cf. Acts 15:36).
  • The church in Jerusalem seems to have approved of both Barnabas and Paul as well. John Mark came from there (Acts 12:25), and Silas did as well (Acts 15:22). Being one to explain Jerusalem’s letter to Antioch (Acts 15:32–33), it would have been helpful for Silas to spread this word even further (cf. Acts 16:4).

As time went on, we see Paul speak of both Barnabas (1 Cor 9:6) and John Mark (Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11) with approval. If perhaps there is any blame in the situation, perhaps it belongs to John Mark for abandoning the trip in Acts 13.

Whatever the case may be, we see an instance in the early church where two leaders disagreed over a matter of personnel. In God’s grace, the disagreement stopped no one from serving, and, in fact, more men served as a result. Even in disagreement, if both parties are seeking the honor the Lord, good things may still happen in the end.

  1. All biblical quotes are from the ESV. []

An Encouraging Passage for a Church Searching for a Pastor

Multiple Scriptures instruct churches as to how to go about finding a pastor. 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9 list out requirements for the pastor—a pastor must desire his role, be able to teach and administrate, have an exemplary character, and be confirmed by the church that these things are so.  Acts 6:1–7 gives a play-by-play example for how to “appoint” deacons to the church, instructive for how to “appoint” pastors as well (Acts 6:3; Titus 1:5)—leaders lead, and congregations decide in the process.1

In several ways, Acts 11:19–26 is an encouraging passage for churches without a pastor as well. To clarify, as it speaks of Barnabas and Saul (Paul), I realize these men are unique in the history of the church with respect to their caliber and calling. Paul was the foremost apostle to the Gentiles, and Barnabas was shoulder-to-shoulder with him in this ministry (cf. Acts 13:1–3). At the same time, though their role was something beyond a local church, they more or less functioned as Antioch’s first pastors, and thus their example is instructive and encouraging for churches without a pastor today.

The Role of Acts 11:19–26 Within Acts as a Whole

The church was birthed by the Spirit, grew and spread in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (Acts 1–6; cf. 1:8). Persecution drove its followers out of these areas, and Saul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 7–9). Peter, the foremost apostle to the Jews (cf. Gal 2:7–8), saw the Spirit poured out on the Gentile Cornelius and his household and told Jerusalem about the matter (Acts 10:1–11:18). When we arrive at Acts 11:19–26, we have been left to anticipate how God would use Paul to take the gospel to the uttermost end of the earth. Acts 11:19–26 begins to tell us how this happens, and the rest of the book of Acts could be broadly summarized as recording how Paul took the gospel to the world (Acts 13–28).

A Summary of Acts 11:19–26 

Though driven from Jerusalem by persecution, Gentiles continued to give the gospel, and  many more Gentiles were saved (Acts 11:19–21). The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to lead the believers in Antioch, and the church flourished under his ministry (Acts 11:22–24). It is here in particular that we have one of our examples of a church without a pastor receiving someone who more or less functioned as a pastor.

As the passage goes on, Barnabas realized that the church could use another good man as well, and perhaps he saw Antioch as a Gentile church that could become the base of operations for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. So, he left to “look for Saul,” “found him,” “brought him to Antioch,” and the two taught in Antioch for a year (Acts 19:25–26). Here again we find an example of a church adding a man who functioned as a pastor.

God’s work through these two and the church was so effective that the surrounding community coined the term “Christians” to apply to the believers in Antioch (Acts 11:26). They lived like Christ, spoke of Christ, and were marked off as a group of people that were united around Him.

How Acts 11:19–26 Can Encourage a Church Without a Pastor

With this understanding of Acts 11:19–26 in mind, let’s consider the passage with an eye on how it can encourage a church searching for a pastor.

First, be encouraged that the Lord can grow a church without a pastor.

As believers scattered to Antioch, they gave the gospel to Gentiles, “preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). Because “the hand of the Lord was with them… a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). All of this took place without any mention to the leadership of these believers.

While every church should ideally have a pastor and even multiple pastors as necessary, a healthy group of believers will continue to make disciples and function as they ought in the absence of a pastor.

Second, God can use the greater body of Christ to help a local church find a pastor.

Upon hearing of the Lord’s work in Antioch, “the church in Jerusalem… sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22). When Barnabas saw this marvelous outpouring of “the grace of God, he was glad” and powerfully preached to them, being the “good man” that he was (Acts 11:23–24). As a result, again, “a great many people were added to the Lord” (Acts 11:24). The hand of the Lord can work mightily through a thriving church  that has been blessed with a gifted leader.

Just as Jerusalem was a help to Antioch then, churches can enlist the help of others in seeking out pastors today.

Third, pastors can help find pastors.

In Acts 11:19–26, we have not only one but two examples for finding a pastor for a church. As the church grew, Barnabas saw the need for more leadership. The fact that he had to “look for Saul” in Tarsus implies that he did not know where he was except for general location of the city, and it was a city of 500,000 people. Finally, he “found him” and “brought him” back (Acts 11:25–26).

Churches sometimes struggle to find a pastor, but, as helped by the leadership of its church or other leaders in the body of Christ, the church’s hard work pays off, and the Lord can bless a church with a needed pastor, just as He did for Antioch.

Fourth, a church continues in God’s grace with its new pastor.

Notice that, all along the way, Antioch flourished in the grace of God. Whether without Barnabas, with Barnabas, and then with Barnabas and Saul—the hand of the Lord was upon the life of this church every stage of the way.

That a church continues in God’s grace means that God can bless a church while temporarily without leadership. Adding a pastor obviously helps to organize the church to take the Great Commission even further. Either way, God’s grace is evident before and after a church has found its pastor.

Fifth, a pastor should lead the church towards finding his successor.

This point comes after Acts 11:19–26. As Barnabas and Saul ministered in Antioch, the church eventually added three more men to its leadership—Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen (Acts 13:1). Because of their unique calling, Barnabas and Paul passed the baton to these men to carry on the pastoral work of the church while they went to give the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13–14). We can guess that Barnabas and Paul likely played a key role in growing these leaders, and the church was able to continue with an established leadership, even as Barnabas and Paul went away.

Ideally, a pastor today may find it helpful to train a pastor before he leaves, or he may find it helpful to simply lead the church in finding its next pastor and then stepping down when the new pastor comes. Or maybe he can outline the process, step aside, and let the church take it from there. Every church is different, and no two transitions in leadership are quite the same. One way or the other, though, a church should have a plan to find its next pastor, and, as God is gracious, the church will have an idea of who that person is as well.

Conclusion

In all the above, what is evident for Antioch, if nothing else, is this—God sees when a church is without a pastor, can bless it in a pastor’s absence, can bless it by providing a pastor, and will continue to bless it when a pastor arrives. If possible, a church and its pastors should raise up pastors from within the congregation. At the least, pastors should lead the church in finding who will lead the church in the future or leave the church with a plan to do so. If your church is without a pastor, may you be encouraged that God can bless you as He did with Antioch long ago.

  1. All quotations are from the ESV. []

Liberty, Limits, and Love: An Example for Us Today in the Prohibitions of Acts 15:20

In Acts 15:1–35, the Jerusalem Council concluded that requiring Gentile believers to be circumcised and obey the Law was wrong (Acts 15:2, 5, 10, 19). Salvation is only “through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11).1

At the same time, James did ask to “write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20). While sexual immorality is obviously wrong (and worth mentioning because of its frequency among the Gentiles), it seems that the other three matters were somehow related to the law. The reason for their prohibition involved what was “read every Sabbath in the synagogues” from the Law of Moses, something done “from ancient generations” and “in every city” by “those who proclaim him” (Acts 15:21).

Using the Law, then, to figure out why these other three matters were forbidden, Leviticus 17:10–13 clearly forbids both the eating of blood (Lev 17:12, “No person among you shall eat blood”) and the eating of animals that had not been drained of their blood (Lev 17:13, “Any one… who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood”). This last prohibition seems to be the point of reference for “what has been strangled” (Acts 15:20). If an animal died by strangulation, it would not have been drained of its blood. If its meat were eaten, it would have been with the blood still in it. Thus, whether eating blood directly or in the meat of an animal, both were forbidden by the Law.

As to “the things polluted by idols” (Acts 15:20), this is also a matter of food, synonymous with “what has been sacrificed to idols” (Acts 15:29). While Paul would give further instruction on the matter in 1 Corinthians 8–10, James’s present concern (to which Paul gave no objections) was probably along the lines of Romans 14:15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (cf. Rom 14:13–23). In other words, if the Gentiles really loved their Jewish Christian brothers, they would not eat things that the Jewish Christians denied and offend their sensitive consciences. The Gentiles would give up their liberty to eat these things so as not to hinder their fellowship (cf. 1 Cor 9:19–23).

In learning from how James led the church then, we see that one’s liberty is not a matter of license to do as one pleases in the presence of all. Rather, Christian love limits certain practices for the sake of fellowship with others. When it comes to something questionable, the church should always be more careful than not. Limiting one’s liberty is not necessarily legalism. If done correctly, it is an act of love.

  1. All quotations are from the ESV. []

How to Preach So That Disciples Persevere: An Example in Acts 14:21–22

The life and teaching of Christian leaders plays a part in the salvation of those who hear us (1 Tim 4:16). It’s important that we know how to speak God’s Word in such a way so as to move others to persevere. We should work at it. God is obviously the one to do such a work, but He can work all the more through those who work hard at their preaching and teaching. This being said, let’s learn something of how to preach for others to persevere in Acts 14:21–22.

Luke records of Paul and Barnabas, “21 When they had preached the gospel to that city [Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 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” (Acts 14:21–22 ESV).

In Acts 14:22, we see the content of the preaching of Paul and Barnabas to churches that needed to persevere in the face of persecution. Paul and Barnabas would repeat this ministry again in Acts 15:35 and Paul alone in Acts 18:22–23. It was a ministry of preaching and teaching to people who faced persecution and needed to persevere.

Their preaching in Acts 14:22 is given three descriptions, instructive for us as preachers today who likewise want to see disciples persevere. Our preaching should include…

“Strengthening the souls of the disciples” 

To “strengthen” (epistērizō) is “to cause someone to become stronger in the sense of more firm and unchanging in attitude or belief” (Louw-Nida). It overlaps with the related verb “strengthen” in Acts 18:23 (stērizō—same verb minus the prepositional affix; Paul was “strengthening all the disciples”—same place, same activity later on). What is said for stērizō could be said for epistērizō. From other uses of this verb, then, we could say that…

Preachers strengthen the souls of the disciples through teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:11–12; 16:26). While God uses believers to strengthen one another, it is ultimately Him and His Son who strengthen believers through the Spirit (cf. 2 Thess 2:17; 3:3; 1 Pet 5:10).

“Encouraging them to continue in the faith” 

The verb behind “encouraging” (parakaleō) is variously translated in other verses as “urge,” “exhort,” “appeal,” “beg,” “implore,” “plead,” “invite,” “ask,” depending on each context. While we should not pack every possible sense of the verb into each usage, noting this range of translation helps us understand something of what Paul and Barnabas were doing in their preaching. They were passionately persuading their fellow believers “to continue in the faith.” “The faith” involved their belief, yes, but it also involved the content of their faith, the doctrine of Jesus Christ and salvation through Him at the very least. So then, just as it was for Paul and Barnabas, so also it is for us today…

Preachers should preach in such a way so as to exhort, appeal, and urge their fellow believers to continue believing what they have believed and to continue to live according thereto.

“Saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”

With this description, we have a particular instance of what Paul and Barnabas were “saying”—“through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” As noted above, the Jews had chased Paul and Barnabas out of these cities before. Harassing the Christians thereafter likely took place as well. They probably saw upon Paul the marks of his stoning. Whether verbal, physical, by one, or by many, “tribulations” would come. Knowing that persecutions will come…

Preachers must warn others of persecution that might come and that persevering even through this will bring them into the kingdom of God.

This may all sound rather mundane and obvious, but it is a matter of whether or not some may enter the kingdom of God. We strengthen and encourage and warn give hope for the sake of those who hear. So, ask yourself: How well do I really work at preaching the gospel with precision and power in order to strengthen the souls of those who hear me? How often do I earnestly appeal to these dear disciples to truly persevere in what they believe and hold to be true? And how often do I warn them of what tribulations may come in this life and encourage them of the kingdom that will come?

Hopefully we are already attempting to preach like the example we see in Acts 14:22. If not, we need to brush up and put some work into what we say from God to others (cf. 1 Tim 5:17). May God help all of us who preach to strengthen, encourage, warn, and give hope to His disciples!

Preach, Be Bold, Conversion, Repeat: The Cycle of Events in Acts 13:44–52 and 14:1–7

Within Paul’s first missionary journey to the Gentiles in Acts 13–14, Luke gives two quick accounts in Acts 13:44–52 and Acts 14:1–7 to show the play-by-play of how events usually transpired in the cities that were evangelized.

First, Paul would attend a synagogue on the Sabbath and preach the word of the Lord (Acts 13:44; 14:1). There was something of a method to this in Paul’s statement, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you” (Acts 13:46), that is, to Jews. Perhaps Israel’s special calling by God among the nations inclined Paul to preach to his own people first.

Second, though some Jews would believe, many would not and would even verbally contradict Paul in the settings where he spoke (Acts 13:45–46; 14:2). This included attacks on both the content of the message and the messenger himself.

Third, instead of backing off and finding a more receptive response elsewhere, Paul and Barnabas responded by boldly preaching God’s Word (Acts 13:46; 14:3). Since the opposition was not yet a threat to their lives, they stayed on and preached all the more.

Fourth, many people believed as a result of the bold witness of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:48; 14:1, 4). Some people believed when the gospel was preached initially, and others came to believe later as it was boldly preached in the midst of opposition.

Fifth, opposition to the gospel became organized and violent (Acts 13:50; 14:5–6). Whether leading the city’s elite to expel Paul and Barnabas or even execute them by stoning, Paul and Barnabas eventually did leave these cities out of fear for their lives. But it was not without a rebuke—“they shook the dust form their feet against them” when they left from Antioch to Iconium (Acts 13:51).

Sixth, the work of God continued in the disciples left behind and with the messengers who journeyed on (Acts 13:51–52; 14:7). Though their evangelists were forced away, the disciples in Antioch “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). After leaving Iconium, Paul and Barnabas “continued to preach the gospel (Acts 14:7). God is powerful to use persecution as a means of spreading His Word.

From the above, we can learn from Paul and Barnabas. We must preach the gospel and preach it boldly, even when opposition comes. Then, should a persecution come that threatens one’s very life, while men can hurt our bodies but not our souls, we do not unnecessarily put ourselves in harm’s way. Finally, even when organized persecution targets Christianity’s leaders and somehow removes them from a work, God will continue the work that they left behind, and those leaders take the gospel with them wherever they might go.

Christian Leaders Must Boldly Preach God’s Word

Two themes every leader should notice in Acts 13:44–14:7 are the Word and preaching boldly.

As for the first theme, the Word is called “the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44, 48, 49), “the word of God” (Acts 13:46), and “the word of grace” (Acts 14:3). It is characterized by its source and author, that being the Lord God. From the context, it is also something that people gather to hear (Acts 13:44), imparts eternal life to those who accept it (Acts 13:46), which is evidenced through rejoicing and glorifying this very Word (Acts 13:48). As God blesses, it can spread throughout a region (Acts 13:49). Being a means to salvation, God’s kindness to those who believe, it is characterized by grace (Acts 14:3).

Being of such importance, a matter of eternal life or death, it is no surprise that this Word must be preached boldly, our second theme, especially in opposition. Acts 13:44–52 and Acts 14:1–7 record two accounts that are similar for their chain of events: the gospel was preached, the Jews opposed the preachers, the gospel was preached boldly, many believed, and organized persecution chased the messengers away. Nonetheless, believers remained behind, and the gospel continued to go forward.

But just what is this boldness when it comes to boldly preaching the gospel? One lexicon describes the act of preaching boldly as to “speak freely, openly, fearlessly” (BDAG). Similarly, when the noun boldness is used, it can mean “courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness” (BDAG). From Acts, preaching boldly and boldness is something that marked the preaching of the gospel by the apostles (Acts 2:29; 4:13; 9:27, 28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 26:26; 28:31). The whole church prayed for this boldness and spoke accordingly as well (Acts 4:29, 31). Paul requested others to pray that his preaching would be with boldness, “as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19–20). It is an open, fearless, courageous, and confident manner of preaching. It stems from a love for God, a conviction concerning His truth, and an intense desire to see it savingly at work in the hearts of those who hear it.

Christian leadership (i.e., leading a number of Christians in some manner) is inseparable from boldly preaching God’s Word. This being said, from what we have seen above, we could say that our leadership will often be as effective as we boldly preach God’s Word. There should be something evident to our followers that we are convinced of the truth that we preach, that they should be convinced of it themselves, that it is a matter of their eternal life or death, and that God’s saving grace is theirs to have if they only believe His Word. We speak of these things without fear of what may come, and in fact, with courage because we anticipate the grace that God will give through the message that is preached.

May God move us as leaders to boldly preach His Word!

 

God Raised Jesus for You

One of the reasons that God raised Jesus from the dead involves believers like you and me. Paul states, “And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David’” (Acts 13:34 ESV).

In the phrase “he raised him,” it is the Father who raised Jesus. The “he” who “has spoken” is the Father who spoke in Isaiah 55:3, the quotation that ends Acts 13:34. But when the Father says, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David,” the “you” is plural, just as in the Hebrew of Isa 55:3. This “you” refers to the readers of Isaiah, and for Paul, his listeners, both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Acts 13:13–16).

In other words, this quotation of Isa 55:3 does not directly prophesy the resurrection of Christ as, say, Ps 16:10, quoted in Acts 13:35. It does, however, imply that there must be a resurrection because of what is promised. If the Christ had been put to death (cf. Acts 13:26–29), then He would necessarily be raised from the dead in order for God’s people to enjoy the blessings promised to them.

And just what are these blessings? In Isa 55, they involve hearing God, coming to Him, and finding life for the soul (Isa 55:3a). They include forsaking unrighteous thoughts to think the thoughts of God and find pardon and compassion in Him (Isa 55:6–9). These are the blessings of salvation that come from repenting of one’s sin and placing one’s faith in Christ in order to find forgiveness and freedom in Him (cf. Acts 13:38–39).

Isaiah promised these spiritual blessings through the Davidic King all throughout his book. The child who would sit on David’s throne would eliminate gloom, anguish, and darkness and give light, joy, and peace instead (Isa 9:1–7). The shoot from the stump of Jesse would judge the poor with perfect righteousness, treat the meek with equity, and rid His enemies with a word (Isa 11:1–4). The chosen Servant would bring justice to the nations, establish His law upon the earth, and be the light that opens blind eyes, frees the prisoners, and breaks them out of their dungeons (Isa 42:1–7). He would be the Servant who brings Israel back to God and be the light who brings salvation to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:1–6). His proclamation has been and continues to be good news to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, and liberty to the captives (Isa 61:1–3).

If God has promised these blessings to His people by means of the covenant He made with David, then He has promised to them through Jesus, the Davidic King. If the King was killed, then God had to raise Him from the dead. Only then could we still receive the blessings promised to us.

Praise God that Jesus was raised for us to have eternal spiritual blessings through Him!

Psalm 2:7 in the NT: The Announcement of a King

In Acts 13:32–33, Paul teaches that the promise of a Davidic king who would rule forever (cf. Acts 13:22–23) has been fulfilled in part through the resurrection of Jesus. Since Jesus had been put to death (cf. Acts 13:26–29), God raised Him up in order for Ps 2:7 to remain true of Him: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”

Psalm 2:7 was written by David and could be applied to Himself. He had been begotten by God as His son in the sense that He was the king of Israel. This language echoes the covenant God promised to David concerning the kings of Israel in his line: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Sam 7:14). Likewise, Ps 89:26–27 says of the Davidic king, “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father’…And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” The greatest application of these words is obviously to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalm 2:7 is applied to Jesus multiple times in the NT. He was first announced as God’s kingly Son at Hs baptism. The Father declared from heaven, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17; see also Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22). With the addition of “beloved,” the first phrase of the Father’s words quotes Ps 2:7. The second phrase is a quotation of Isaiah 42:1, identifying Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering Servant.

At the Transfiguration, the Father again identified Jesus in terms of Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1, adding Deut 18:15 as well—Jesus was the greater Prophet to come (Deut 18:15, “it is to him you shall listen”). The Father stated, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt 17:5; see also Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:35).

Two NT letters mention Ps 2:7 as well. Peter recounts the Transfiguration in 2 Pet 1:17, and Heb 1:5 and 5:5 quote Ps 2:7 in application to Christ to show how He is superior to angels and the Levitical priests.

But, while Jesus has been announced as the Davidic king, He is yet to sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem. Just as David was anointed king and given the Spirit but waited for a time for his kingdom (cf. 1 Sam 16:1–13), so also Jesus was baptized, received the Spirit, and waits for a kingdom all His own as well (cf. Rev 3:21). The difference between David and Jesus, however, is that, while David was on the run from His enemies until he became king, Jesus currently sits enthroned with the Father over all things until He comes again to put down His enemies and take His earthly kingdom to Himself (Heb 10:12–13). When He does come, “then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt 25:31). What a glorious day for the Son that will be!

Why a Tree and Not a Cross?

Acts records three times in gospel explanations that Jesus hung on a tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29). Why speak of a tree? Why refer to the material of the cross instead of the cross itself?

Luke likely wanted his readers to assume that Peter and Paul explained in full what Luke had recorded in short. The mention of a tree would recall Deut 21:22–23, and, assuming the tree was explained as it was in Gal 3:10–14 and 1 Pet 2:24, perhaps Deut 27:26 and Lev 18:5 were recalled as well.

Consider Deut 21:22–23: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance” (ESV). 

Deut 21:22–23 taught that, for criminals who died in a tree as a means of capital punishment (perhaps by noose, or, in Christ’s case, crucifixion), the criminal was cursed by God. But what is this curse? 

Galatians 3:10–14 answers this question: “10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ 12 But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (ESV).

Gal 3:10 quotes Deut 27:26 to promise a curse to those who do not perfectly obey the Law. On the other hand, Gal 3:12 quotes Lev 18:5 to promise life to those who obey the Law’s commandments. In being contrasted with life that comes to the obedient, the curse is thus death for the disobedient—a death that is physical, spiritual, and eternal. The curse implies the absence of faith and thus the righteousness of God (Gal 3:11). The curse also implies the absence of the Spirit (Gal 3:14). The curse, then, is death to the one who disbelieves and disobeys God.

Assumed in Gal 3 is that no one perfectly obeys the Law and that all are therefore under this curse (cf. Gal 3:10). Thankfully, we find in Gal 3:13 that our sinless Christ was cursed for us by dying on the tree to redeem us from this curse. He lived a life of perfect obedience to the Law and then died a death that He did not deserve for those who indeed deserved it. By faith in Him, we find our curse removed and receive the Spirit, righteousness, and life (Gal 3:14).

Peter teaches the same truths in mentioning the tree as well. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24 ESV). 1 Pet 2:24 teaches that the purpose for Christ dying on the tree was to bear our sins, and that, by believing in Him, we would die to sin and live to righteousness.

So why mention the tree and not the cross? To speak of the tree recalled the curse of death for breaking God’s Law, and all deserve this curse because everyone has broken God’s Law (cf. Deut 21:22–23; 27:26). But Christ did not sin and did not deserve the tree. He deserved life for perfectly obeying the Law (cf. Gal 3:12). In dying such a death, then, He was able to take the curse of the Law upon Himself for others who had sinned (cf. Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24a). When these sinners place their faith in Him, they find the curse removed and receive life and righteousness instead (cf. Gal 3:11, 14; 1 Pet 2:24b).

By recalling the tree, so also would one recall a trail of gospel truths. Praise God for sending Christ to die on the tree!

6 Ways to Preach a Great Sermon: Learning from Paul in Acts 13:16–41

Paul was obviously an excellent preacher, and Acts 13:16–41 records the longest sermon by Paul in Acts. From the many things that we could learn, here’s at least six.

Exhort your listeners.

In Acts 13:15, Paul and Barnabas were invited to give a “word of exhortation.” Hebrews, itself a written sermon, refers to itself as “my word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22), a phrase worded almost the same as the phrase in Acts 13:15. Paul would not only teach the Scriptures, but he would exhort and encourage his listeners to do something about what he said. In this case, it would be to accept the message of salvation that centers in the Savior Jesus Christ. He would also warn them of judgment to come for rejecting his message. In other words, get to the “So what?” and passionately press the meaning of the doctrine upon your listeners. Exhort them.

Call out your listeners.

Paul called upon his listeners at least three times while they were listening—“Men of Israel and you who fear God” (Acts 13:16); “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God” (Acts 13:26); and “brothers” (Acts 13:38). As Luke’s record was shorthand, Paul may have called them to listen all the more. A passionate love for the listeners who hear you will likely naturally move you to verbalize the name of your audience time and again. People’s heads will pop up. Eyes will lock onto yours. It helps them listen and feel your passion. Call them out, and do it appropriately.

Organize your thoughts.

Paul repeatedly shifted his thoughts each time he addressed his listeners in the references just mentioned above. He summarized Israel’s history (Acts 13:17–25), showed the fulfillment of prophecies in Christ (Acts 13:26–37), and called his listeners to find freedom and forgiveness by faith in Jesus Christ (13:38–41). Notice as well—ended with a strong appeal to his audience to act upon the truths that he had given. Work hard, prepare, and organize your thoughts so others can follow, and (at the least) end with application.

Have a big idea.

Paul spoke of a Savior according to promise (Acts 13:23) and summarized Acts 13:17–25 as “the message of this salvation” (Acts 13:26). In emphasizing “to us” from Acts 13:26, he clarified who the “us” was not and how the death and resurrection of Christ could provide for them salvation (Acts 13:26–37). Paul ended as he focused on the specifics of salvation—forgiveness and freedom through Christ (Acts 13:38–41). His sermon was all about salvation through Jesus Christ. Likewise, rather than giving people a handful of scattered ideas, stick to one big idea, and let everything flow from there.

Use Scripture to prove your point.

Paul quoted a number of passages: 1 Samuel 13:14; Psalm 89:20; Deuteronomy 21:22–23; Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 55:3; Psalm 16:10; Habakkuk 1:5. He also summarized the Bible from Genesis to 2 Samuel with reference to Jesus Christ. Using Scripture to prove your point from Scripture will strengthen the conviction of your listeners that what you are saying is true.

Get to Jesus Christ.

For Paul, this was incredibly easy. His topic for the hour was none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Other texts, however, may not specifically mention Him. Nonetheless, I find that, even if it’s just a minute or a so in a sermon, every Christian needs and wants to be reminded of the gospel and how the text at hand eventually gets there. If nothing else, you can work from your text to its setting in its book to its setting in its testament and eventually its relation to the story of the gospel in the Bible as a whole. This takes preparation, but it’s worth the effort. Not every text mentions Christ directly, but if we work at it, we can survey the layers of context and eventually find a way to tie our text to Him.

Preaching Better Week by Week…

Learning how to preach a great sermon never ends, and it is up to God as to whether or not the sermons we preach are great or not. I am certainly not an expert on this topic myself, and others could say these things better than I could. Nonetheless, we should learn from the examples given to us in Scripture and imitate what they do as best we can. Hard work will yield progress over time (cf. 1 Tim 4:15-16). So how can we improve our ability to implement these lessons above?

For the first two above—exhorting and calling out your listeners—I find that meditating on the death of Christ and His love for the church has been my greatest help in fueling my own love for those who hear me preach the Word of God. Read the Gospels over and over. See the love of Christ poured out for us on the cross. Love people like He does, and you’ll find yourself preaching to them with a love that naturally makes verbal appeals to them again and again. Maybe you’ll explicitly call them out. Maybe not. However you communicate, they will know that it is to them.

For the next two points—organizing your thoughts and having one big idea—two resources that have been helpful to me are the books listed below. I’d encourage anyone learning to preach to read them again and again.

  • Haddon Robinson. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014.
  • Donald R. Sunukjian. Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007.

For the fifth point—Scripture proves Scripture—I’d suggest a great resource, The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, a work in public domain that is helpfully available online (https://www.biblestudytools.com/concordances/treasury-of-scripture-knowledge/) and available through several Bible software programs. The page from the link above states, “For generations, the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge has been an enduring cross-reference resource for Bible students worldwide. This highly respected and nearly exhaustive compilation of cross-references was developed by R.A. Torrey from references in the Rev. Thomas Scott’s Commentary and the Comprehensive Bible. With nearly 500,000 cross-references it is the most thorough source available.”

For the last point—getting to Christ—Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard Patterson’s Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011) is an excellent resource for how to interpret the Bible, layer by layer, and to appropriately tie its themes together.

One Last Thought

A blog post makes no one a great preacher, and the resources recommended above just scratch the surface on the matter. For me, after 6 years in a pulpit, a handful of preaching classes before that, coaching from my pastor at my previous church, and listening to countless sermons by great preachers—all of these things have maybe helped me to start realizing how I need to improve my preaching. It takes time and work and humility and the grace of God. May God help us all as we seek to preach His Word and the glorious message of salvation in Jesus Christ.