“The ‘P’ Word” – Acts 13-14
Epiphany 2 – January 14, 2018
a. Reviewing the Book of Acts
In my series of sermons on the 100 Essential Bible passages, we have already heard from some stories from the Book of Acts. Last year we heard about these accounts from the first 10 chapters of Acts:
Jesus’ ascension back into heaven, the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day, the sharing that took place in the early Christian church, the first martyr, Stephen, Philip and the Ethiopian man,
Peter and the Gentile centurion Cornelius, the conversion and mission assignment of Saul / Paul.
For the next four weeks we are going to finish off the story of Paul’s journeys in Acts.
b. The ‘P’ word
Sometimes words (especially bad words) are known by their first letter – c word, f word, p word. The p word? You might wonder what p word I’m talking about. It’s… proselytizing. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines proselytize in this way: to induce someone to convert to one’s faith. “To induce” implies two other p words – pressure, and persuasion. The word ‘evangelism’ can have the same negative connotations. In fact, last Sunday our discussion from the book Loved & Sent used three words to describe negative societal impressions of evangelism: manipulative, colonial, and fear-based. Those impressions are spoken in statements like: “Christians just preach at you,” and “They shove the Bible down your throat,” and “I got the ‘Jesus lecture.’”
Maybe proselytizing isn’t the best word. Maybe evangelism isn’t either. But the concept of sharing one’s faith with others is definitely a “Jesus” thing. We call it the Great Commission: “Go, and make disciples” (Mt.); “Go and preach the Gospel” (Mk.); “As the father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn.); “Christ’s ambassadors” (Paul in 2 Corinthians). Perhaps a softer word is the one Luke uses in Luke 24 and Acts 1: witnesses.
c. The flowchart of Acts
Just a quick note about the flow of the Book of Acts. Before He ascended, Jesus said: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That is a flowchart of the witnessing activity of the apostles. Acts 1-7 take place in Jerusalem. Acts 8 takes the Gospel to both Judea and Samaria. Acts 10 and 11 moves farther north to Caesarea, and to Antioch in Syria. It was in Antioch that the message about Jesus was also spoken significantly to non-Jews, and that the believers were first called Christians. Chapter 13 sees the Gospel begin to go to the ends of the earth – to the island of Cyprus and then into present-day Turkey.
- Missionaries Paul and Barnabas
That’s where we’ll pick up the story. Paul and Barnabas were commissioned as missionaries in Antioch, and after travelling through Cyprus came to Pisidian Antioch. They went to the synagog on the Sabbath Day. That was their usual starting point, because the Jewish people in a town already had a relationship with God, and were looking for the Messiah to come, so they would be the most receptive. After the Scripture readings, the synagog rulers asked for the visitors to offer a word of encouragement. Paul got up to speak. We want to pay attention to his attitude and his approach and differentiate between the ‘p’ word – proselytizing – and the softer witnessing.
Paul began with respect. He addressed his audience: “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God.” Then he gave a Jewish history lesson that his hearers well knew. Through Moses God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and He gave them the promised land of Canaan. He gave them judges to lead them, and then kings, including the famous king David. God has raised up one of David’s descendants – Jesus – to be the long-promised Saviour. Then he addressed them with respect again: “Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles.” That’s who his audience was in the synagog that day. It was the Jewish men who came to hear and learn God’s Word. The women and children were to be taught at home. But there were also non-Jews there, Gentiles, who wanted to learn and trust in this God of the Jews.
Once Jesus gave the Jewish scribes and pharisees in Jerusalem “what for” because they deserved it for their self-righteous attitudes and platitudes. He called them a “brood of vipers.”
Paul was much more respectful to these people that he was meeting for the first time. He needed to speak in language and terms that they would relate to, with a message that would pique their interest. So, he addressed them with respect.
In our discussion of the book Loved & Sent last Sunday, someone made a comment about how people don’t really respond to “fire and brimstone” messages. In his Pentecost Day message to the people in Jerusalem, Peter appropriately used a “fire and brimstone” approach. He said, “You people of Jerusalem put Jesus to death, but God has made this Jesus – whom you crucified – both Lord and Christ.” They understood that they were responsible for the death of Jesus, but they were also cut to the heart and asked how to respond. Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.”
In Paul’s case, in Antioch, he couldn’t point a finger and accuse those Jews and Gentiles of crucifying Jesus, so he just told them that it happened. He said, “The people of Jerusalem asked Pilate to have Jesus executed, they took Him down from the tree and laid Him in a tomb.”
Then Paul emphasized the positive side of the story: “We tell you the good news… God raised Him from the dead… never to die again. And His disciples were eye-witnesses of all of it.” Then Paul made the application personal to his hearers: “I want YOU to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and everyone who believes is justified, is saved.”
They encouraged the synagog worshipers to continue in the grace of God, and they were invited to speak more about those things of Jesus the next Sabbath. This was far from the ‘P’ word – the story doesn’t read like proselytizing at all. There was no pressure, no persuasion, just the positive message about Jesus and an implied invitation to consider it, to believe it, and to be saved.
Paul needed courage in the face of opposition for as he travelled from city to city his message about Christ met with mixed reactions:
Antioch – the whole city – gathered, but the Jews were jealous and talked abusively against Paul’s message. The Jews rejected the message but the Gentiles embraced it, honoured the word of the Lord. The Jews, again in retaliation or out of jealousy, stirred up God-fearing women and the leading men to persecute Paul and Barnabas so that they were expelled from that region.
They moved on to Iconium where a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. Again, some Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the apostles. The city was divided about them, and some developed a plot to mistreat and stone them, so they fled.
In Lystra they healed a man lame from birth. The crowds believed Paul and Barnabas to be gods – Zeus and Hermes – in human form, and wanted to offer sacrifices to them. Paul claimed they were mere humans. Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium. These trouble-makers had already heard Paul’s message and persuaded the Lystra crowd to stone Paul, drag him out of the city and leave him for dead. But he recovered and went to the next town with Barnabas.
The next town was Derbe and God blessed their preaching with a large number of followers of Christ. After Derbe, they went back and appointed elders / leaders in the church of each of the towns where they had preached.
So, yes, these missionaries needed courage and stamina and strength and determination to get the message of Jesus out into a religiously pluralistic and sometimes hostile 1st-century world.
The Holy Spirit spoke to the Christians in Antioch and urged them to set aside and send out Paul and Barnabas for this mission work. The people prayed and fasted and placed their hands on them in something like an ordination service. But when you’re set apart and sent, there is also some accountability that is required. So, we find that, at the end of Paul’s first Missionary journey, he and Barnabas return to Antioch and the believers gathered together to hear the report of all that God had done through them, and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. This accountability was modeled by Jesus in Luke 10 as He sent out 72 disciples two by two into the towns and villages where He intended to go. When they came back they returned with joyous reports about the Kingdom of God. If there is a sending out, there is usually a desire to hear how things are going so that partnership in prayer and joy in kingdom activity can be shared.
- Missionaries you and me
Let’s apply all this to our lives. Although we may want to avoid the ‘P’ word altogether, we still have Jesus’ great commission to be witnesses where God has placed us (and maybe even to the ends of the earth). As we consider carrying out the great commission, without the stigma of proselytizing, we can use the same principles as Paul and Barnabas used on their first journey.
First, we want to be respectful of our audience. That might mean understanding something about them. Paul did this later when he went to Athens. He looked around to intentionally learn something about the religious milieu of the city, the religious background of the people. Then he used that knowledge to begin his conversation with local people. In Loved & Sent, author Jeff Cloeter shared some key ways to witness in a relational and respectful way:
Build and invest in relationships; earn the right to be heard; be OK with questions; tell your story and why you follow Christ; tell THE story about a God who loves the unlovable and proved it in blood; pray; know that God uses even weak and sinful people.
Second, like Paul, we want to emphasize the positive. People need to hear the Law of God, but to hit them over the head with it right away will probably not be productive and fruitful for God’s kingdom. You don’t want to start off by announcing, “Repent or burn in hell!” Accentuate the positives of our Christian belief. If the person you are talking with has some sense of a divine being, you might want to direct them to understand that a complete knowledge of God comes only by a consideration of Jesus Christ, who was God on earth in person. Lead them to Jesus’ great teachings, His loving compassion for people, and especially His self-sacrifice on the cross so that people might be made right with God, even though we are all sinners. Emphasize that being made right with God is His free gift to us; it’s not something that we have to deserve or buy or earn. God wants us to be in heaven with Him forever, and He sent Jesus to be the way.
In our Gospel reading today in John 1, Philip simply said to Nathanael: “We have found the one… come and see!” That’s what we can say, too: “I have found Jesus to be the Saviour.”
Third, be courageous about your witness even in the face of opposition. When I was a pastor in Winnipeg, one year we installed a bank of phones in the entrance of the church to make 10,000 phone calls to the people living around the church. We wanted to send them information about the church, and invite them to a celebration Sunday. The program that we used advised us that 9 out of 10 people would not agree to receive the information. But we were not to be discouraged. We needed to focus on the 1 out of 10 that would receive the information, that may be looking to have Jesus as part of their life again, or maybe even for the first time. Even Jesus, when he told the parable of the farmer sowing seed in the field, said that some seed fell along the path and was eaten by birds, some seed fell on rocky places where it couldn’t send down roots, some seed fell among thorns and was choked out, and some seed fell on good soil and grew and bore fruit. In this parable, Jesus, too, was advising us to not be discouraged as we scatter the seed of God’s Word into people’s lives. For some, that Gospel message will not be accepted, for others it won’t take root, for others it will be choked out by the things of the world. Jesus wants us to focus on those who are receptive. Even if we are opposed and criticized and persecuted, we can persevere in our witness, for it is God’s message, we are God’s messengers, and God will accomplish what He wants with His Word when He wants and among whom He wants. Have courage.
Fourth, just as Paul and Barnabas reported back to the church about their travels with the Gospel, it is wise and encouraging for us to be accountable to one another as we share our witness about Jesus. For the last year and a half, we have encouraged people to record spiritual conversations on a sheet on the bulletin board, and we have prayed for those with whom we have had those conversations. Please continue to record those random conversations as you have them with friends, neighbours, co-workers and family members. It would be great to hear stories publicly each month, and I would make time before the offering so that we could listen and pray for those people. That would fit right in with the accountability we heard about with Paul and Barnabas.
Let’s leave the ‘P’ word – proselytizing – out of our vocabulary for the time being, and maybe even the ‘E’ word – evangelizing. But let’s keep the ‘W’ word – witnessing – as we share our faith in Jesus, share our love for Jesus, share our joy in Jesus, share our hope in Jesus with those who, like the ancient people in Turkey invited Paul to give a message of encouragement. That’s what we have in Jesus – a message of encouragement, a message of hope, a message of salvation. Amen.