As we close this series I think back over the last two years. I think about the birth of a notion that scared me half to death. I think about conversations with Amanda about what it might look like to start a church, what we’d love to do, ministries we’d like to start, people we’d like to reach, mission trips we wanted to take, and basically wondering how on earth we were going to accomplish this monumental task. I’d always thought that I would like to be a part of a church plant, but I always wanted someone else to do the hard work and then pay me to come on staff once it had already been started. I never thought God would ask me to do the hard work. So we started talking about it, not really making plans, but just talking.
Then I met Tim. He’d just come back from Brazil and he was crazy. To Tim there wasn’t any future. There was right now. For Tim it was always, what can we do right here, right now? I wanted to move to Dallas to join my friend Paul in his church plant and then have them send us out somewhere to plant our own church later down the road. It was always “someday” with me. The longer I could “prepare” the more I would be ready, but I realize now I was just trying to delay the difficulty as long as possible. For some reason, though, I was drawn to Tim and his energy and passion. I really thought he would be a great partner to start something like this. As Amanda and I continued to pray about what we were supposed to do we talked with friends and family. The longer we prayed, though, the longer we stayed where we were. We began to see the need for another work right here in Kilgore. With more than 11,000 people unreached in this city (representing close to 80% of the population) we began to develop a passion for this area. All this time Tim was being drawn away from his former church and toward something different.
So we began to meet. At first Tim and I would meet for breakfast every so often. Then it became every week. God began to knit our hearts and passions together for his Kingdom. Then our families began to meet and pray about exactly what God wanted us to do. From this group of 5 people praying on the floor of Tim and Angie’s living room we developed a core of 8-10 people. We started meeting weekly to try and develop a plan and some organization. We talked to anyone we could get to sit down in a room with us, seeking wisdom and direction. All this time we were praying about what to do. At the beginning of June this small group began meeting every Tuesday night at the Capps’ house. These weekly meetings were very sweet times of worship, Bible study, and prayer, seeking God’s will the whole time.
This brings us to September 5th and the official launch service of Cornerstone Fellowship. We’ve seen some wonderful worship celebrations and have seen growth from nothing to more than 50 people the last two weeks. What’s really cool to see is that absolutely none of it has anything to do with us. It’s not because we’re the answer to everything wrong with church. It’s not because everyone else is doing anything wrong. We simply want to be obedient and faithful to scripture. God has been faithful to us. We must be faithful to him. He’s done everything he told us he would do. When he asks something of us, we have to do it.
We’re going to continue to be a new church for a while. We’ll have to figure out who we are slowly. We’ll make mistakes and have to pick up the pieces on occasion. Through the whole process, though, we pray that we honor God and help grow his Kingdom. We must become a missional church, a fellowship that is united behind a single vision and purpose, one that reaches beyond these walls to engage a world that is in desperate need of a savior.
This morning we’re going to be back in the book of Acts, working through chapters 13-15. Starting in chapter 13 there is a significant shift in the story. From humble beginnings with the original disciples and followers of Jesus, we’ve witnessed the birth of a movement. The original followers of Jesus have received the Holy Spirit and have been scattered across the known world, taking Jesus’ message of love and hope to everyone with whom they’ve come in contact. The message has gone forth from Jerusalem into the whole world. From this point on, things are going to be different.
In Acts 13 we encounter Barnabas and Saul again. Barnabas had taken an interest in working with Saul. Together they stayed in Syrian Antioch for a year. This time served not only to strengthen the brothers there, but to train Saul. At this point the believers recognized the need to have Godly men travel to other groups of believers and strengthen them as well. After praying and seeking the Lord’s will, they commissioned Barnabas and Saul to go.
They sent Barnabas and Saul out.
They didn’t sit around in a little group and talk about how cool it was to be Christians. They didn’t gather together and wear Christian t-shirts. They did the work of the Kingdom. They sent Barnabas and Saul out to preach the gospel and strengthen other believers.
They sent Barnabas and Saul out. There’s a message in that statement.
Barnabas and Saul started out in Cyprus. Their pattern was to go into the local synagogue and worship with the Jews. They would usually offer some sort of encouragement or exhortation and preach the gospel first in the synagogue. Typically if there were any believers in the area they would invite Barnabas and Saul to preach more of the gospel and encourage their group. In that way Barnabas and Saul would be able to spread the message of Jesus to the whole area.
While in Cyprus, Barnabas and Saul had an interesting encounter with a magician (sorcerer) named Bar-Jesus who also went by the name Elymas. Elymas was traveling with the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus, who was known as a man of intelligence. He had heard of Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear what they had to say. Elymas opposed them, however, possibly sensing that they had a real authority that he didn’t possess. Frustrated Saul (who was also called Paul, possibly turning from the name of the Christian-persecutor) rebuked Elymas and the Lord blinded him. At this show of power Sergius Paulus believed and Luke says he was “astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” Luke does an interesting thing with this story. In one moment a man was blinded (physically) and another had his eyes opened (spiritually) to the gospel. Isn’t this the way the gospel works sometimes? When we preach the truth some people believe but some refuse to see. We never know how people are going to respond, we must simply be faithful to our calling.
From Cyprus Paul and Barnabas travelled to Antioch in Pisidia. This is a different Antioch. The disciples were first called Christians in Syrian Antioch, this is Pisidian Antioch. There is also a shift in scripture at this point. Up to this moment the two companions had been known as Barnabas and Saul, with Barnabas’ name always coming first, perhaps because he was the teacher and Saul was the apprentice. At this point, however, they became known as Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas had done his job. He had trained his apprentice and now was turning over the role of leadership to Paul. From this point forward, the book of Acts becomes about the missionary journeys taken by Paul and his companions. It is also important to note that John Mark, a disciple who had been with Barnabas and Saul left the group.
Paul and Barnabas were now in Pisidian Antioch. As was their custom they went to the synagogue to teach. Paul stood up and gave a stirring message similar to Stephen’s sermon before the Jewish council. Starting with Moses in Egypt he described how God had been working the whole time to bring about his plan for reconciliation and salvation for his people. Through the story of Saul and David he told of God’s continued redemptive plan and how his Messiah would come through the Davidic line. Then he came to John the Baptist. John’s story is often neglected because we fly straight through it to get to Jesus, but it is of utmost importance, especially for the Jews. John’s witness was that the plan God had put in motion with Abraham, what was promised in the Davidic line and talked about in the prophets was here! The Messiah was coming! The Jews had waited for so many thousands of years and now they didn’t have to wait any longer. If we miss this, as many of the Jews did, we will miss the true significance of Jesus. Jesus was the culmination of a plan put in place 4000 years before. God worked expertly through time to bring about the promised Messiah at the perfect moment in history. Then Jesus, who was killed unjustly, rose from the dead. Paul points out that he didn’t stay in the grave, nor did he ever return to the grave. Jesus was the first person to rise from the dead and not go back. What Jesus offers is freedom: freedom from death, freedom from sin, freedom from everything.
When he finished speaking many people begged them to come back the next Sabbath and teach them more, so Paul and Barnabas stayed around to continue teaching. The next Sabbath, however, the Jews became jealous of the large crowds Paul and Barnabas attracted so they spoke against them. Paul and Barnabas spoke boldly to the Jews and the crowds “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.” How tragic! To have the truth right in front of you and to reject it! At this, however, the Gentiles rejoiced because eternal life had come to them. They had the opportunity to respond positively to the word spoken. Again, when we preach the truth sometimes people accept it, other times they reject it. We cannot make a decision for someone; we must simply preach the truth.
After this the Jews stirred up some of the leading citizens in the city to persecute Paul and Barnabas, so they left Antioch and proceeded to Iconium.
At Iconium and in Lystra, the next two cities Paul and Barnabas visited, they preached the gospel and many people believed. In Lystra Paul actually healed a man who had been crippled from birth and had never walked. People were amazed by this work and began to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods, calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes. In both of these cities, however, the Jews from Antioch had followed Paul and Barnabas and stirred up the crowds to persecute them. In Lystra, Paul was stoned and dragged out of the city left for dead. The disciples gathered around him and got him up and he went on his way, never ceasing to preach the message of Jesus. Chapter 14:21-22 says “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, 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.” They appointed elders in every church and commissioned them to carry out the mission of the church.
They were church planters. They went into city after city gathering the believers together and appointing people to be leaders over them, commissioning them to the work of the gospel. They recognized the power of a community of believers to strengthen one another and work together for the common goal of spreading the gospel. They were the first church planters.
I love the statement in 14:22 “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” It takes away the false vision we have of becoming Christians and all our problems being solved. If anything, it seems to point out that we might face more difficulties as disciples of Jesus. We might struggle more. We might face even more hardships to accomplish the work God has for us. We might be persecuted. We might be stoned and left for dead. We might be killed. But through the tribulation we enter the kingdom of God. Through the hardship we have a hope that we will endure in the end.
Chapter 15 of Acts deals with the Jerusalem council. What happened was some of the Jewish believers began to require the Gentile believers to hold to the Jewish customs, specifically the covenant act of circumcision. The question before the council was “should all believers become Jews also and keep the Law of Moses?” It seems the Jewish believers still thought that being Jewish was necessary for salvation and that the Law was vital. This became such a big debate that Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and even James the brother of Jesus got involved. The issue at stake was no small one. This would set the course for future generations.
This is the basic question: Does salvation require the atoning work of Jesus and my adherence to a code of belief (Mosaic Law) or is Jesus’ sacrifice enough? This would set the stage for much of the rest of the New Testament. At times it seems that salvation is through faith in Jesus alone and at other times it seems that works are a part of salvation. Which is it? What’s the real truth?
Peter would address the gathering by saying:
God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
What can we add to salvation that hasn’t already been done for us? Can we hope to accomplish more than Jesus did? Why, then, do we burden ourselves with a liturgy to which we require adherence when it literally accomplishes nothing? This has been the problem in the church we’ve been fighting for so long. Don’t create traditions and rules that really have no scriptural basis just because they make you feel better about what you’re doing. Peter said, “…neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” the burden of the Mosaic Law. We can’t keep it ourselves! Why on earth would we make Gentile converts keep it who don’t even know it?!
Even James (who would later write the letter in which we find the discussion about a work-less faith) said not to trouble the Gentiles who turn to God. Good acts don’t bring about salvation, they follow salvation. We don’t do good deeds in order to be saved but because we are saved. Giving to the poor doesn’t accomplish anything for us, but as transformed people, we will give to the poor. Abstaining from sinful things doesn’t save us, but as followers of Jesus we will turn from anything that could corrupt our lives. We will turn from these things. The life of a Jesus follower mimics the life of Jesus himself.
This was a turning point in the life of the church. This was a major theological milestone. Paul would later write to the church at Galatia, a church of Gentiles, “By grace you have been saved…not of works, lest any man should boast.” Salvation is accomplished by the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, not by maintaining the Mosaic Law.
After this council the leaders sent a letter to all Gentile believers encouraging them in their faith and exhorting them to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, blood, any animal that had been strangled, and sexual immorality. This was the limit of things from which the Gentiles had to abstain. Paul would later revoke the prohibition on food sacrificed to idols, saying that if a believer was having dinner with a non-believer, to eat whatever was given to him, so as not to offend the host. The grace of God is enough.
What kind of gospel do you preach? Is it a gospel founded on the work of Jesus or one dependant upon your own works? Is it a gospel that preaches the sacrifice of Jesus or one that extols the virtues of man? Only the gospel of Jesus is the good news. Everything else is a religion of tradition, with no real power or salvation.
Jesus is enough. He is all we need. There’s nothing else needed. If we lose everything we have, but gain Jesus we have everything. If we lose Jesus, but gain the world we have nothing.
As we conclude this series and look to the future our desire is to be a missional church. We don’t want to be the cool new thing. We don’t want to lose momentum when the new wears off. We want to be missional. We want to unite behind one purpose, with one mission, to reach the 11,000 disengaged people in Kilgore and the 300,000+ people living in Northeast Texas.
This is the mission we’re on. We have one purpose, but many methods. Our methods are as numerous as the number of people we have, as plentiful as the talents we each possess. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter and protect the exposed. We must love widows and orphans, love people wherever they are, and meet needs wherever we encounter them. We have to be messengers of light to a world that is hopelessly in the dark.
I want to finish with the statement Paul made earlier. “Through tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” The work is hard and the risk is great. There are many who will reject the gospel. There are many who will be hostile towards us, even those who are “church people.” We will face opposition at every turn. The reward, however, is worth it. We receive the Kingdom of God. We get the blessing of joining the Father in his work. We get to be a part of what Paul later calls the “ministry of reconciliation,” leading others into a relationship with the Father.
As we go forward, we look towards next week. Next week is “Small Group Sunday.” We will spend the whole morning talking about the benefits of being in a small group. We will look into scripture and learn about community. We will see that we were designed to be in relationship with one another. Come next Sunday and plan to be a part of a small group.
As we continue in worship I’d like to encourage you to search your own heart. Perhaps you’ve never thought of the gospel as just the work of Jesus. Maybe you’ve heard your whole life that you have to act a certain way to be acceptable to God. Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as hopeless, a loser. I leave you with this. Jesus paid the sacrifice for your sins. You don’t have to go through life wondering if you’re worth anything. God loves you. He sent his son so you might have eternal life. We invite you to begin that new life right now, today. Find Tim or me if you have any questions. We’d love to pray with you.
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