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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART TWENTY-NINE

SERMON DELIVERED ON 04-13-19

       Today we will return to my series on the Book of Acts which I began in October of 2017.  We previously got as far as the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 with a sermon on 12-08-18.  We then moved into a mini series of seven sermons on what is and what ain’t as to Old Covenant Law versus New Covenant Law, I concluded this mini series three weeks ago with a sermon on what is holiness under the New Covenant compared to the Old Covenant.  So today we will return to the Jerusalem Conference and go on from there.

       As you may remember, some Christian Jews travelled from Judea to Antioch Syria and were teaching Gentile converts to Christianity they must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas strongly disputed with them about this and it was decided Paul and Barnabas and other believers would go to Jerusalem to discuss this matter with the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem church.

       After much discussion it was decided that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses. That is what prompted my seven sermon mini series on the whole issue of what exactly is the Law of Moses and what Laws of the Old Covenant are present within the New Covenant.

       After the decision was made by the leadership in Jerusalem that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses, it was decided to send Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch Syria along with Judas and Silas from the Jerusalem church with a letter outlining their decision.  Here is that letter.

       Acts 15: 23-29:   The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul-- men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:   You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

       The phrase in this letter that says, not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements, is telling them there concerns about being told they had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses were considered and it was decided they would not be burdened with regulations beyond those outlined in this letter.  As I previously covered in this series, the requirements outlined in this letter were not some new form of legalism being enforced upon the Gentiles as being necessary for salvation. All indications are that these prohibitions were set forth to shield the Gentile converts to Christianity from returning to behaviors that were very common among their Gentile friends, behaviors which many of them may have previously practiced.  Plus these practices were particularly offensive to Jews.  Part of the goal here was to facilitate harmony between Jew and Gentile Christians. 

       It should be noted that the decision made at the Jerusalem conference was a decision concerning Gentile converts to Christianity. There is no indication this decision was seen as applicable to Jewish converts to Christianity.  As we have seen thus far in our journey through Acts and will continue to see, Jewish converts to Christianity by and large continued to keep the Mosaic regulations and believed they needed to. At this point in the development of the Christian Church, Jewish converts simple added Christ to the mix of Old Covenant regulations.

       After the letter was read it is recorded the people were glad for its encouraging message. It is further recorded that Judas and Silas said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers which means they probably elaborated on the letter that came to them from the Jerusalem leadership as to what it meant going forward.

        After spending some time there, it is indicated that Judas and Silas returned to Jerusalem while Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch.  Some time later Paul invited Barnabas to travel with him to go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where they had previously preached to see how they were doing. 

     We have previously covered the missionary journey embarked on by Paul and Barnabas and their companion John Mark as covered in Acts 13. This is referred to as Pail’s first missionary journey.  This journey began in Seleucia, continued on to Salamis on the eastern end of the island of Cyprus and then to the far western Cyprian town of Paphos.   From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John Mark left them to return to Jerusalem.  From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch.  Then they traveled to Iconium. 

       We also saw that John Mark and left them when they were in Pamphylia to return to Jerusalem. We are not told in Acts 13 why John Mark returned to Jerusalem but as we will now see in Acts 15, John Mark leaving was perceived by Paul as a desertion of the work they were called to do. When Paul and Barnabas decided to revisit the towns they had previously preached in, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them but Paul felt this to be unwise because John Mark had abandoned them in Pamphylia.  

       Acts 15:37- 41: Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.     

       So, all wasn’t peace and harmony between Apostle Paul and Apostle Barnabas.  Yes, Barnabas was also an apostle as seen in Acts 14:14. These men vehemently disagreed over the issue of John Mark traveling with them.  Paul felt strongly that John Mark had failed them in the past and apparently had not forgiven him for that.

       In an earlier sermon in this series I showed how Apostle Paul had the Hebrew name Saul and the Roman name Paul.  Well John Mark had a Hebrew name and a Roman name as well.  His Hebrew name was John and his Roman name was Mark.  Colossians 4:10 shows John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas.  This relational status between Barnabas and John Mark was probably a strong factor in Barnabas wanting John Mark to accompany them on their trip.  Paul, however, would have nothing of it and the dispute led to Paul and Barnabas parting ways.

       We see several such disputes between Paul and others of the Church leadership. I have previously covered Paul calling out Peter for becoming squeamish about eating with Gentiles when some of Peter’s Jewish friends arrived from Jerusalem.  From all appearances, Paul had a very strong personality and firmly stood his ground when he disagreed with someone including fellow apostles.

       At any rate, Barnabas and Paul parted ways and Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus.  Paul chose Silas with whom he traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Silas had previously returned to Jerusalem after having accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Antioch after the Jerusalem Conference.  At some point they must have hooked up again.  We are not told when or how.

       Acts 16:1-3:  He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 

       While we today see circumcism of the male foreskin as an automatic part of the birthing process, this has not always been the case historically.  While we know the Hebrews practiced circumcism from the time of Abraham going forward, the Greeks and Romans placed a high value on leaving the male foreskin in tact.  The Romans actually passed laws prohibiting circumcision. In paintings and statuettes of men from the Greek/Roman era, you will see the foreskin uncircumcised.  The special value accorded to the foreskin in Greek culture is reflected in Greek medical literature where the physician Galen who lived 129 to 210 AD writes that the foreskin was among the most brilliantly useful adornments of the body.

       It is apparent that even though Timothy had a Jewish mother, he being circumcised or not circumcised was a determination made by his Greek father.  Since at this point in history, circumcism was not a common practice among Greeks and Romans and Romans actually had laws prohibiting it, it is likely Timothy’s Greek father, being the head of the household, had prohibited the circumcism of Timothy even though Timothy was half Jewish.          

       Even though Paul understood that circumcism was not essential to salvation or being pleasing to God, we see throughout his ministry that Paul continued to have sensitivity to Jewish customs and the Mosaic regulations in general which he, himself, had lived by all his life.  Therefore, in order not to cause a negative reaction from the Jews who knew of Timothy’s background, Paul had him circumcised, which I would think would have been a rather painful experience as an adult.  

       Acts 16:4-5:  As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. 

       It is very apparent that the decisions rendered at the Jerusalem Conference as to what was required and not required for Gentile converts to Christianity became part of the very fabric of the message preached from that point going forward.  As we will see, the decisions reached at the Jerusalem conference regarding Gentile converts to Christianity didn’t set well with some Jewish Christians and continued to be an issue as seen in Paul’s letters.

       Acts 16:6-8: Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.  This is the beginning of what is generally seen as Paul's second missionary journey.

       It is to be noted that the Spirit of God was an active dynamic in the decisions Paul and his companions made as to where they went and didn’t go to preach the Gospel. Just how was this accomplished?  Did they hear a voice speak to them?  Did they simply have a strong feeling come over them? Did they have a vision or dream? Did an angel appear to them?  

       A possible key to seeing how the Holy Spirit led them to make the decisions they made and for that matter leads us in making the decisions we make is found in what Paul wrote to Timothy about the Holy Spirit.

       2 Timothy 1:6-7:  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self discipline. 

       When we are baptized and have hands laid on us to receive the Spirit of God, what is it that we actually receive?  Paul says we receive a spirit of power, love and self discipline or self control as some renderings of the Greek state it.  The Greek word translated “power” is dunamis from which we get our English word dynamicIt is defined in Greek Lexicons as strength, ability and power.  When you see in Scripture how the Spirit of God is seen as working, it is seen as providing the human spirit with the ability to see things and make decisions from a Godly perspective.  The Spirit of God is seen as actually uniting with the human spirit to provide the human spirit with Godly thoughts.

       1 Corinthians 2:11-13: For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.

       When it is said that Paul and his companions were kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia and not allowed by the Spirit of Christ to enter Bithynia, it doesn’t necessarily mean God through His Spirit directly intervened to facilitate the decision to avoid these places.  It may simply mean Paul and his companions utilized the Holy Spirit within them by properly evaluating the circumstances they were facing and making the appropriate decision as to where and where not to go.  

       I am reminded of narrative in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 where Paul is dealing with certain questions about marriage. Paul is dealing with a number of issues pertaining to marring or not marring within the overall context of what he calls the current crisis. The crisis is not identified.  It may have pertained to the developing persecutions under Roman Emperor Nero.  It may have pertained to the gathering clouds of war with Rome which led to the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem.  This event had repercussions for the entire Near East at the time.

       Whatever it was Paul meant by current crisis; Paul is basing his advice about marriage based on this crisis.  He advises that if people felt they must marry they should do so to avoid sexual immorality.  However, he says it would be better if they didn’t marry because of current circumstances.  He concludes a rather lengthy dissertation about this matter by advising that it is OK for a woman whose husband dies to remarry but concludes she would be happier if she didn’t 

       1 Corinthians 7:40: In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is--and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

       Is Paul saying the Spirit of God was orchestrating his thoughts on these matters and he was simply mouthing words facilitating by the Spirit of God?  Or is he simply saying that because he has the Spirit of God, he is confodent in the decisions he is making?

       It is instructive that several times during his dissertation about whether to marry or not marring, he distinguishes between what he, Paul, is saying about these matters and what Jesus had taught about such matters. If you read through the entirety of chapter 7 it becomes apparent most of what Paul writes are his own thoughts and not the teachings of Jesus on matters of marriage.  In fact you can easily distinguish what Jesus said from what Paul said.     

       In Paul saying almost as an afterthought, ”and I think that I too have the Spirit of God,”  he is pretty much saying that he feels pretty confident he has properly analyzed how to best deal with the issue of marriage during the current crisis because he knows he has God’s Spirit and He knows having God’s Spirit gives him the ability to exercise valid judgement over various matters. It could be in this manner the Spirit of God was involved with Paul and his companions choosing to avoid going to certain cities on their missionary journey. With the help of the Spirit of God they were able to properly assess situations and determine where to go and where not to go.   

       Again, we are not told how it was that the Holy Spirit steered Paul and his companions away from going into certain regions to preach the Gospel. It could have been something very direct and obvious and it could have been more in line with the kind of thing we see in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

       Returning now to the travels of Paul, Silas and his companions, we see them leaving Lystra and travelling throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia and in bypassing the cities they were led to avoid, they came to Troas.  We will pick up on their activity in Troas in the next sermon in this series. 

PART THIRTY