An Overview of Acts 20:17–38

The text of Acts 20:17–38 has a certain gravity that has endeared its words to the hearts of many. It contains someone’s last face-to-face words to a group of people (Acts 20:25, 38), summarizes what an excellent ministry should be (Acts 20:18–21, 25–27), and shows a resolve to live and die for the gospel (Acts 20:22–24, 33–35).

Moreover, this text is written deeply in the hearts of many pastors. Not only does Paul give us himself as an example for gospel service by reviewing his three-year ministry in Ephesus, but his charge to the Ephesian elders endures for pastors today: 1) pay attention to yourself, 2) pay attention to your flock, 3) watch out for false teachers inside and out of the church, and 4) do all of the above because God purchased the church with His blood (Acts 20:28–31; cf. 1 Timothy 4:15–16). These imperatives and their reason for obedience are central to the ministry of every pastor.

For a quick walk through this passage, Paul calls the Ephesian elders to him in Miletus, some 25 miles away (Acts 20:17–18a). His address can be broken into three sections, the first two sections each looking to the past and then the future (Acts 20:18a–21 and 20:22–24) and a third section looking back one more time to provide an example for the future service of the elders (Acts 20:33–35).

In the first section of Paul’s address, Paul reviewed his faithful ministry in Ephesus (Acts 20:18b–21) and then looked ahead to the conflict awaiting him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22–24). What Christian does not want to echo the words of Paul in Acts 20:24? “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”

In the second section, Paul looked back his ministry again, now informing the elders that he would never return (Acts 20:25–27). In light of this absence, Paul warned them to mind themselves and the flock, entrusting them all to God and His word (Acts 20:28–32). In the third section, Paul reminded the elders of his selfless service, an example for them to follow (Acts 20:33–35). Finally, the passage closes with prayerful and tearful goodbye (Acts 20:36–38).

All Christians can learn from the example of Paul in this passage. We all want to be faithful to God, come what may, and finish our service well. And, when we’re gone, what we’ve left behind is sufficient for others to repeat the disciple-making process. For pastors in particular, this passage is incredibly rich. Paul is a stellar example of living for the gospel, and his charge to the elders is one for us to remember today—watch yourself and the flock, a people God purchased with His blood.

 

All quotes ESV

Motivation for Making Disciples: Jesus’ Words to Paul in Corinth in Acts 18:9–10

Jesus encouraged Paul in Corinth, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10). These words are encouraging to us today as well, giving us multiple motivations to give the gospel to the lost.

We are motivated to make disciples by the presence of the Lord.

Paul could be fearless and vocal for the gospel because Jesus promised him, “I am with you.” As seen in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18), this promise is to us today and for exactly the same reason—making disciples. The presence of the Lord is that of the Lord Jesus who possesses universal authority and accompanies us until He comes again (Matt 28:18, 20). With His help, who can be against us to thwart His purposes?

We are motivated to make disciples by the protection of the Lord.

Paul was uniquely promised, “no one will attack you to harm you,” and Paul therefore suffered no injury in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:11–17). Already in the book of Acts, however, the apostles had been arrested and beaten, Stephen and James had been martyred, and the church experienced other persecutions as well. While we wish we could claim physical protection at all times when we go out for the sake of the gospel, sometimes God allows His servants to fall to an unholy sword. Even then, however, our soul is eternally safe. We should therefore “not fear those who kill body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28), even if it means suffering physical death. Being willing to uphold the name of Christ shows one’s faith to the end, and Christ Himself will acknowledge such a one before His Father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:32).

We are motivated to make disciples by the people of the Lord.

Paul was told in advance that some of the Corinthians yet to be evangelized were part of the “many” that were “my people,” that is, people who belonged to God (Acts 18:10). God knows the beginning from the end and who would respond to the gospel in faith. Their faith was patently certain and could be promised as such to Paul. Paul simply needed to give the gospel in order for them to believe. While we may wish that Christ would identify the cities where disciples will be made, we already have His promise to go to the nations of the world wherein He will build His church (Matt 16:18; 28:19). We simply need to give the gospel and make disciples of those who believe.

Churches Helping Churches to Keep Pastors in the Word

Acts 18:5 records, “When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.”

It might seem that Luke is merely telling us that Paul was evangelizing the Jews when Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth from Macedonia. A closer look at Acts 18, however, shows us how generosity from others can free ministers to further the work of the Lord.

When first in Corinth, Paul financially supported himself by making tents with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2–3). Paul later told the Corinthians that though he had the right to receive compensation for his spiritual labors (1 Cor 9:3–12a), he did not make “use of this right” in order to keep from putting “an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 9:12). Paul had them keep their money so they would not suspect him of serving for money alone.

As time went on, however, Paul apparently stopped his secular labors and engaged in spiritual labor alone. Paul went from making tents to being “occupied with the word” (Acts 18:5). The Greek word for “occupied” is used elsewhere by Luke to describe how crowds would “surround” someone (Luke 8:45), enemies that would “hem… in” their victims (Luke 19:43), and “holding” someone “in custody” (Luke 22:63). Whereas Paul previously split his time between a secular vocation and spending his Saturdays in the synagogue (cf. Acts 18:2–4), we might say that he was now able to be surrounded by, hemmed in, and held in custody by the Word. The ministry of the Word now dominated his attention.

But what did Timothy and Silas do to change Paul’s situation? The answer lies in what Paul told the Corinthians later: “I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way” (2 Corinthians 11:8–9). In Macedonia was Philippi, and Paul told the Philippians this: “And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only” (Philippians 4:15). Paul was in Philippi before he came to Corinth (cf. Acts 16:11–34).

So, matching Acts 18:5 with 2 Corinthians 11:8–9 and Philippians 4:15, we could conclude that, when Timothy and Silas came from Macedonia, they brought a financial gift from the Philippians that freed Paul from making tents in order to make disciples alone.

From this example, we learn in principle that, whereas a church may not be able to fully financially support a pastor, sometimes God provides that financial support through others. And if those finances are provided, the church can rejoice and use them for his support.

 

All quotes ESV

Faithful to the Finish: Overview of 1 and 2 Thessalonians

The author of 1 and 2 Thessalonians is Paul (1 Thess 1:1; 2:18; 2 Thess 1:1; 3:17) who wrote both of these letters during his during his 18 months in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:1–18a, esp. 18:11). In hearing of their welfare from Timothy (cf. 1 Thess 3:1–10), Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians. Paul then wrote 2 Thessalonians, perhaps after the courier of 1 Thessalonians returned and told Paul of how they continued to fare.

A snapshot summary of each book is given below and a survey of each book’s contents as well.1

The Message of 1 Thessalonians: If you are truly converted (1:2–2:12), even when you suffer (2:13–16), you will live as Christians (4:1–5:22) and persevere (2:17–3:13; cf. 5:23–24), knowing that the day of the Lord is coming (5:1–11). This is an apostolic message for all Christians today (cf. 1:1; 5:25–28).

1 Thessalonians was written to encourage believers concerning…

Conversion (1:1–10): Paul thanked God that the Thessalonians were truly converted (1:2–5) and that it was widely known because of it occurred in persecution and involved rejecting idols (1:6–10).

Criticism (2:1–12): Paul answered criticisms of error, impurity, deception, man-pleasing, etc. with the fact that he was like a parent who worked to serve his children.

Calamity (2:13–16): the Thessalonians were experiencing the same afflictions as the Jews in Judea, and their persecutors would be judged.

Continuing (2:17–3:13): Paul wanted to see them but was hindered (2:17–20). He sent Timothy and heard that they were persevering in spite of persecution (3:1–10). He prayed that they would continue in the faith and stand in perfection before the Father when Christ comes again (3:11–13).

Conduct (4:1–5:22): They were to abstain from immorality (4:1–8), keep to themselves, and work hard (4:9–12). They could be encouraged that the living and heaven-dwelling saints would be reunited at the Lord’s coming (4:13–18). The day of the Lord would come quickly, and they were live for salvation from this wrath (5:1–11). They were to honor pastors, be at peace, work with the struggling, do good in all things, rejoice, pray, give thanks, and hear when the Spirit speaks (5:12–22).

Conclusion (5:23–28): Paul prayed for them to conclude their lives by standing perfect before God (5:23–24) and gave his own request for prayer (5:25), a greeting (5:26), a command to read (5:27), and final prayer (5:28).

The Message of 2 Thessalonians: God will comfort you in suffering (1:1–12), especially if you are thinking correctly about the end (2:1–17) and living in light of that day (3:1–18).

2 Thessalonians was written to…

Comfort the discouraged (1:1–12): After introducing the letter (1:1–2), Paul thanked God for their growing faith and even spoke of boasting of their perseverance in suffering (1:3–4). Their suffering was for sanctification, and their persecutors would suffer when the Lord came again (1:5–10). Paul prayed that their faith and God’s power would be at work in them to glorify the name of Jesus (1:11–12).

Correct the deceived (2:1–17): Paul told them to remember his end-times teaching and to reject forged letters and false prophecies—the day of the Lord has not come because neither has the antichrist and the apostasy (2:1–5). The antichrist is presently restrained but will be revealed, deceive many, and be destroyed by Christ at His coming (2:7–12). In contrast to such a dismal picture, Paul thanks God for choosing and calling of the Thessalonians to salvation and thus prays for God to comfort and establish them in their faith (2:13–17).

Confront the disobedient (3:1–18): Having prayed for them and asking for prayer (2:16–3:5), whoever was still being a lazy busybody was to be excluded yet admonished as a brother (3:6–15). Paul prayed for the Lord’s peace, presence, and grace, and clarified that the handwriting present was indeed his own (3:16–18).

  1. For a helpful look at both the text and some helpful notes for 1 and 2 Thessalonians, see John MacArthur, One Faithful Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019), 119-44. []

God’s Grace in the Midst of Rapid Leadership Change

From time to time, Luke records dual-episodes in Acts to show the similarities and contrasts between events in the life of Paul. We see this in Acts 17:1–9 and 17:10–15. In both instances (in Thessalonica and Berea), Paul and others evangelized (Acts 17:1–3, 10), people believed (Acts 17:4, 11–12), others persecuted the missionaries (Acts 17:5–7, 13), and Paul was forced to leave (Acts 17:8, 14–15). The contrast between the two is that the Berean “Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica” (Acts 17:11).1 That is, whereas the Thessalonian Jews were split in believing that Jesus was the Christ, the Berean Jews eagerly received the gospel at large.

Paul stayed in Thessalonica perhaps 3–6 months, and he was briefly in Berea as well. In both instances, just as the believers came to know the gospel, so also they had come to know Paul as a spiritual father who quickly had to leave. How did they process his departure?

1 Thessalonians was written shortly after Paul’s departure, and the letter is replete with how this quick departure was difficult. He had worked as a tentmaker in their midst and thus shared his very life with them (1 Thess 2:8–9). Paul mothered and fathered these believers in their newfound faith (1 Thess 2:7, 11). They believed the gospel in spite of the Jewish opposition and thus persevered together (1 Thess 2:13–16). Such bonds would have tightly tethered their hearts together as one.

Nonetheless, “We were torn away from you,” Paul recalled (1 Thess 2:17). What pain of heart this must have been. As a result, “We endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face… again and again, but Satan hindered us” (1 Thess 2:17–18). And why did he repeatedly attempt to see them again? Because these dear people were Paul’s glory, joy, and crown—his reward for service to show Jesus at His coming (1 Thess 2:19–20).

Unable to go himself, Paul sent Timothy in his stead, desperately wondering if the persecution was too much for them (1 Thess 3:1–5). Upon Timothy’s return, Paul found out that they were persevering, still thought of him kindly, and longed to see him (1 Thess 3:6–10). Of course they would. He had faithfully given them the gospel and nurtured them in the faith, taking nothing in return, and in spite of the persecution. In this was love—that Paul imitated Christ and gave himself in this way for his spiritual children. He prayed for them to persevere and for the Father and the Son to work in them until Christ came again (1 Thess 3:11–13).

Even though Paul could not return, as we saw, Timothy was regularly back and forth these early days (1 Thess 3:1–10; see also Acts 20:5). Besides this, the Thessalonians had respectable men who were over them, labored in study, and admonished them in the Word—in a word, elders (1 Thess 5:12–13). Thus, in Paul’s absence, God’s grace was to have other good men brace them up to keep running the race that their Lord had run before them. Perhaps we might assume that something like this situation was God’s grace to Berea as well.

From the above, we can see that, even when unexpected changes come about, and even when it concerns the leadership of the church, the Good Shepherd is not inattentive to His sheep. One man is not the church, and as gifted as he may be, Christ can guide His people through a change of leaders. What He did then He can do for us today. May God be likewise gracious to our own churches when we experience this kind of thing.

  1. All quotes ESV. []

To Claim or Not Claim Civil Privileges: The Interesting Example of Paul in Philippi

Paul cast a demon out of a fortune-telling Philippian girl who was being used by her owners for gain (Acts 16:16–18). Her owners thus accused Paul and Silas of 1) being Jews, 2) disturbing the city, and 3) promoting customs unlawful to Romans (Acts 16:19–21). Paul and Silas were sorely mistreated as a result (Acts 16:22–24). Interestingly, even though they were falsely accused (the owners’ real concern was their loss of income), Paul and Silas, both Roman citizens, did not bring attention to their Roman status in order to receive a fair trial and avoid being beaten. But Paul shamed their captors over the matter later (Acts 16:35–40). Why did Paul not speak up at first but only later point out his Roman citizenship?

The answer to this question is found in Paul’s reply to the command to leave in peace. He pointed out their Roman citizenship, that they had been beaten unfairly and publicly, and thus refused to be released secretly (Acts 16:37). Fearing discipline from their own higher-ups on the matter, the magistrates were forced to give Paul and Silas an apology and personally release them from the prison (Acts 16:38–39). This apology and release would have been more or less a public “walk of shame” that admitted their wrongful treatment of the missionaries.

This being said, it seems that Paul and Silas said nothing of their Roman citizenship at first so as not to argue for their Roman status over against the gospel. It would have sounded something like, “Charge us with what you’d like, but we are Roman citizens. So, you cannot thrash us.” While that would have been good and fine for them, where would that have left the newly converted Lydia and her household? They could still be targeted, and persecution could have wilted the newly budding Philippian church.

As to why Paul finally spoke up in prison, he and Silas were already on record for being willing to suffer for the gospel. Now, in making the magistrates publicly admit their wrongful treatment, while the city at large was not converted to Christianity, the people would at least see that their officials were now being civil to the Christians. Perhaps Paul had this effect of the public apology in view. The Philippians obviously had an initial bias against whatever they viewed Christianity to be, but now they would have to tolerate the Christians and would be less likely to treat them as they did Paul and Silas, especially as the two would leave soon leave the city (cf. Acts 16:40).

As Christians today, perhaps we can learn from Paul and Silas that we should use wisdom when invoking any privileges to avoid persecution. We should defend the gospel itself before we defend ourselves, and we should also defend other Christians from civil mistreatment if it is in our power to do so.

Gentiles Who Practiced Judaism and Became Converts in Acts: Believers Who Believed? Or Drawn by God and Converted to Christ?

The book of Acts has a number of terms to describe people who followed Judaism to a degree and would become followers of Christ. Their descriptions make them sound like believers who naturally accepted Christ when they heard of what He did for them, but this was not necessarily the case. These terms include proselytes, devout, worshipers of God, and those who feared God.

Proselytes (prosēlytos) included those who heard the mighty works of God in their own tongues (Acts 2:11), Nicolaus from Antioch (Acts 6:5), and synagogue-attending converts who followed Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43). For the latter, they were even described as devout proselytes (sebō prosēlytos; Acts 13:43). Being a proselyte could describe one’s present (Acts 2:11) or past (Acts 6:5) adherence to Judaism.

Those who were devout (sebō) or worshipers of God (sebō theos) included those who would believe the gospel, such as the devout proselytes in Pisidian Antioch (13:43), Lydia (Acts 16:14), devout Greeks in Berea (Acts 17:4), devout Athenians who attended the synagogue (Acts 17:17), and Titius Justus who housed Paul (Acts 18:7). There is one instance in which the devout were synagogue adherents but persecuted Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:50). So, a devout person might apparently deny the gospel, indicating an absence of faith to begin with. This being the case, whether or not those who believed in Christ had faith prior to hearing the gospel is hard to say. What we do know is that, for some of them, their time in the synagogue prepared them to accept the Messiah (e.g., Lydia). For others, however, it did not (Acts 13:50).

Another term for devout (eusebēs) describes Cornelius and one of his soldiers (Acts 10:2, 7). Cornelius was also one who feared God (or, a “God-fearer”; phobeō theos; Acts 10:2, 22), as were Paul’s non-Jewish listeners in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16, 26). In these instances, Cornelius would believe the gospel, and Paul’s God-fearing listeners would follow his gospel. As with the devout and worshipers of God, whether or not these individuals had faith prior to accepting the gospel is hard to say. For instance, Cornelius is described as devout, upright, fearing God, a giver of alms, and eagerly obeying the angel that told him to send for Peter (Acts 10:2–8, 22). At the same time, before believing the gospel, he had been considered unclean by Peter and the Jews (Acts 10:28; 11:3), likely because he had not fully converted to Judaism. He probably followed the OT in many ways but had not been circumcised (Acts 11:3; cf. Exodus 12:48). This being the case, though fearing God to a degree and being slowly but effectually drawn to saving faith over time, he needed to hear the Word of God about Jesus Christ, be granted by God the repentance that leads to life, and believe this message in order to be saved (Acts 10:34; 11:1, 14, 18).

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. []