Acts 13:1 – Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul [who was also called PAUL].
2 – While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
3 – So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
I have a confession to make. I own a collection of comic book super-hero T-shirts. I have a couple with the SUPERMAN emblem on the chest…just like the Man of Steel. I have a Flash T-shirt. It’s red with the lightening bold emblem. I have a Spiderman T-shirt, a Captain America T-shirt, a Green Lantern T-shirt, and so on. I wear these shirts on vacation and on my day off—almost never in the pulpit—but I have them because since I was a kid I have loved comic book Superheroes. The stories of their adventures were both entertaining—and inspiring!
The reason I bring this up is because this week in our reading from THE STORY we covered the life of a man that I have always thought of as a super-hero of the faith, and if you did your reading then you know I’m referring to the Apostle Paul. God used Paul in amazing ways! I know he wasn’t SUPER-POWERED in the “comic book sense” but he was definitely supernaturally EMPOWERED by the Spirit of God, which is how Paul was able to overcome incredible obstacles and take God’s Story—the Gospel message—all over the known world.
By the way our Bible Study in RBC CAMP this summer focuses on the life and ministry of Paul.Perhaps today’s message will help prepare our VBS workers for that important week of teaching. In fact, if you are a teacher think of this as an intro to the orientation you will have later today.
One of the interesting things about superheroes is the story of their ORIGIN. For example, as all comic book lovers know, Green Lantern got his power ring from a dying alien. Spiderman got his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. The Flash got his super-speed as a result of a chemical explosion in his lab…and these stories are interesting in a “comic book sense” but they don’t begin to compare to the story of Paul’s origin—and of course his is not fiction. It really happened. I know you are probably familiar with it but let’s do a quick review. Before he became a world-traveling super-missionary named Paul—he was SAUL, a Pharisee who was passionate about persecuting Christians…people he thought of as a threat to Judaism. Saul was right there at the forefront of the opposition to Christianity. He was there when Stephen was stoned to death. In fact, he held the coats of the guys who cast the first and second and third stones at this young deacon so they would be able to throw more accurately and with greater force. But Paul didn’t stop at “coat holding.” No—this zealous Pharisee went on to make it his goal in life—his singular passion to hunt down and imprison believers. Then early on in his career of persecution something happened. Saul had been sent to Damascus to round up a band of Christ-followers and on the way he met the Risen Jesus Himself. Our Lord temporarily blinded Saul but ironically that experience opened his eyes so he could see Who Jesus was. As a result Saul became a believer himself and everything changed for him. Saul is a living illustration of the verse from 2nd Corinthians that he would later write. It says, “If anyone be in Christ He is a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come…” (5:17) And THE NEW definitely came to Saul because he decided to stop persecuting Christ-followers and start telling people to follow Christ as he had done. From then on he was known as PAUL and he is probably the greatest missionary ever—a true “super-hero of the faith.” I ADMIRE him and stand in AWE of his achievements.
Speaking of achievements, the book of Acts tells us that Paul took three—maybe four—lengthy missionary journeys on which he established at least ten churches. At first he went to synagogues and reached out to Jews but after their rejection of his message Paul became primarily a missionary to the Gentiles. And that is very interesting. I mean, you would think that God would use a Gentile believer to reach the Gentiles—not a Jew—and especially not a legalistic Jew like Saul….but He did. That’s one thing we have seen over and over again in THE STORY. God chooses and uses the least likely people to accomplish His purposes so as to better display His glory. The fact is God can and will use anybody—He can even use you and me in amazing “super-hero caliber” kinds of ways!
As I said, with God’s help Paul took the Gospel all over the known world and in his “free time” he also wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. In fact, it seems to me that God used Paul to give the Gospel writers the idea to put their accounts of Jesus’ life on paper because Paul’s letters were the first New Testament books to be written.
Now—we don’t have time to trace all of Paul’s missionary journeys but I do want us to look at the first so we can get an idea of Paul’s tactics and his passion for missions. Then I want us to look at some truths that we see in Paul’s life, principles we need to embrace if we want God to use us in amazing ways.
As we read a moment ago, Paul’s mission work began when his home church—the church in Antioch—obeyed the Holy Spirit and sent both him and a man named Barnabas off on the first ever post-resurrection church-sponsored mission trip. From Antioch these two men sailed to the island of Cyprus where they preached and taught its residents about Jesus. Then they went to Paphos which was the seat of the Roman government in that region. They preached there and many of the Roman officials decided to follow Jesus. From Paphos they sailed to Perga in Pamphilia. And at this point their companion, John Mark, got a little homesick or something. We don’t know what happened. But for some reason John Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back to Jerusalem. Then Paul and Barnabas traveled about a hundred miles on foot to Pisidian Antioch where they preached in the synagogues and both Jews and Gentiles responded and decided to become Christ-followers. From Pisidian Antioch they headed to Iconium where, after preaching and teaching for quite a while, jealous Jews ran them out of town, so they went to Lystra. Paul preached there but those Jews from Iconium had followed him to Lystra and they caused a mob to rise up and stone him. They dragged him out of the city and left him for dead. From there Paul and Barnabas went to Derbe where they preached and then they traced their steps back and visited the churches they had established along that first missionary journey route, helping them strengthen their infrastructure and develop their own leadership, etc.
That’s a quick overview of Paul’s first missionary journey and I’m sure you agree it would have been a pretty tiring trip. I mean, Paul was middle-aged at the time and he didn’t take plane rides. He went by foot or by boat. It would have been very difficult for him. In his book, The Atlas of Bible Lands, Barry Beitzel describes the physical demands like this: “The New Testament registers the equivalent of about 13, 400 airline miles that Paul would have journeyed. He would’ve sailed across stormy seas. The roads would’ve been primitive paths, many of which were unsafe and largely controlled by bandits. And there would have been mountainous terrain.” So these missionary journeys that Paul took were arduous and dangerous trips. I don’t believe he could have made these journeys without God’s empowerment.
Okay, what are some things we can learn from this HERO of the faith? What are some qualities in Paul’s life, things that marked his journeys that should mark ours? Relying on the writings of Kyle Idelman and Max Lucado, I want to mention four and suggest you think of them as Paul’s “super-powers.”
(1) One thing we see in Paul was his unstoppable COMMITMENT.
Paul was VERY passionate about his work—absolutely COMMITTED to the Great commission. But, perhaps a better Biblical word would be “faithful.” I mean, as I said, Paul’s journeys—and his work was very difficult at times—but Paul was faithful every step of the way. His commitment was such that he never gave up. Nothing stopped him from doing the Lord’s work. You know, many of us assume that if we are following God on a journey, things will always go well. We think there will be no “bumps on the road.” In fact, when things go smoothly we oftentimes see that as a sign that God is with us and His hand is on us. And if things don’t go well, sometimes we think, “Well, that must mean that God isn’t with us and somehow we misunderstood His will. Time to go home.” Well, I’m not sure where we get that kind of thinking, but it isn’t from the Bible. In the Bible Jesus told us if we followed Him we WOULD have trouble and Paul certainly did. As we read through his journeys we find out that things didn’t always go well. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul lists the different challenges that he’d experienced along the way, and here’s what he says. He says, “(I have) been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked. I have known hunger and thirst; I have been cold and naked.” That sounds pretty rough doesn’t it? I mean, if these kinds of things happened on your family vacation, you probably wouldn’t say, “We had a great trip!” Of course not! Paul went through a lot of difficulties and challenges but that kind of thing never stopped Paul. He was too committed to give up. He was faithful in what God had called him to do.
As I said a moment ago, in Acts 14 it says that when he was in Lystra Paul was dragged outside the city, stoned and left for dead. But do you know what verse 20 says? After he was stoned and left for dead it says, “He got up and he went back into the city.” When I read that I wondered if one of the rocks hit him in the head or something. I mean, he must have not been thinking clearly to go back in that city where there were people who had just tried to stone him to death. Why would he go back? Simple—Paul was committed to sharing the gospel. And we read later that he visited the city again. He came back to it to check on the Christians there. Listen, if Acts 14 was my biography, that’s not how it would go. If I went to a town and I preached there and they stoned me and left me for dead, my story would read, “And Mark got up and stumbled off, groaning in pain.” I wouldn’t get up and go back into the city. I would probably leave and say, “I gave them their chance. I’m moving on.” But not Paul, because he was committed to the mission. He was committed to what God had called him to do, even ahead of his own safety, his own security—certainly his own comfort. He was faithful despite opposition.
And this is something that many of us need to hear. You see, you can have talents and you can have gifts and you can have resources, but if you’re not faithful none of that will matter. Listen, the most effective servants in this church are not necessarily the most talented and gifted; they are the most faithful and we see that in the fact that they show up. They show up and they serve week after week after week. They’re faithful people—committed!
With that in mind I want to challenge each of you as you go on your life’s journey. I know it’s hard sometimes. I know we get tired and worn out. It’s easy to grow weary in well-doing. But we must never quit. We must let commitment mark our journey.
There’s a movie that came out a number of years ago and it’s a favorite of mine, called Rudy. How many of you claim RUDY as a favorite? If you do then you know that the movie is a true story about a guy named Daniel Ruettiger whose nickname was Rudy. He was only 5’6’’ and 165 pounds and he had dyslexia so his grades were bad but he had a dream to attend the University of Notre Dame and play on their football team. Well, after attending a small college he was accepted to Notre Dame in the mid 1970’s he actually made it on the team as a walk-on. Now, walk-on’s don’t get to suit up for the games, much less play. Walk-ons like Rudy were just on the practice squad but he was committed and he gave it his all every day. There’s this one scene in the movie where one of the more talented and gifted players named O’Hara is reaming Rudy out. And the coach comes over and he says, “O’Hara, what is your problem?” And O’Hara says, “It’s the last practice of the season and Rudy acts like it’s the Super Bowl.” And the coach turns to O’Hara and he says, “O’Hara, you just summed up your entire sorry career in one sentence. You need to be more like Rudy.” Well, I think for some of us that might be how we end up looking back on our lives as Christ followers. We look back and think, “I always meant to be a little more intentional. I meant to actually work at serving God a little harder.” But we look back and see that our walk looked a lot more like Clark Kent than Superman. Our look back shows that we lacked this “super-power” known of as commitment.
So moms out there on your journey, I know it’s hard and I know you get tired and it’s easy to kind of coast through parenting. But would you commit to being passionate about what God has called you to do—would you commit to waking up early and praying for your children, to intentionally pouring your life into your family? Don’t quit. I know we don’t say “thank you” enough. I know it is hard. But hang in there and be faithful. And husbands, would you commit to doing the hard work of spiritual leadership in your home? I know it’s hard to come home from work, and you’re tired and you just want to kick back in the recliner. And you tell yourself, “Well, I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll get serious about this. I’ll be more intentional tomorrow.” I’m asking you—I’m challenging you—to do it today, to say you’re going to be committed to this; you’re going to be faithful. I know it’s hard, but your families need you so you don’t give up. Would you commit today to being more faithful as a dad? As followers of Jesus, let’s all be more committed by saying, “This service today isn’t going to be just a gas station where we swing in and we fill up and then we go on our way and forget about it. Instead we will make EVERY day count for Jesus. We’ll strive to grow to be more like Him. We’ll share our faith when given the opportunity. We are committed to this!” If you want to make that kind of commitment, would you raise your hand! Thanks! That’s more thrilling than the end of RUDY!
(2) A second attitude or quality we see in Paul is his unsinkable JOY.
I mean, I’m amazed at the fact that Paul was able to be joyous even in the kind of difficult circumstances he was forced to endure. In Pisidian Antioch when they were establishing the church there, they were preaching the Gospel, and things seemed to be going really well. Acts 13:44 says that, “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” I would call that a great attendance. Wouldn’t you?! I mean, everybody from the town showed up to hear the Word of the Lord. But then it says, “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and they talked abusively against what Paul was saying.” So right when it seemed like things were picking up and going well, they start to face opposition. Verse 50 tells us that, “The Jews stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.” Then we read that Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust off their feet” and moved onto the next town but verse 52 it says, “And they were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” That’s not what I would expect at this point. But that’s the way Paul was. Joy marked his journey even in times like this when it made no sense, even when things were tough. It was like he could SEE things others couldn’t—things that brought him this unconquerable joy.
We could learn something here because for many of us, joy is completely dependent upon circumstances—dependent on what we can see. I mean, we’re joyful as long as our health and our finances are good. We’re joyful if the person we voted for wins the election or if we win the March Madness office competition deal. By the way I did that this year! I get to keep the trophy in my office until next year and that made me happy. That’s the way most of us are. When things go good we are JOYFUL. But when things get bad—we are not. Most of the time our circumstances determine our joy, but that’s not the way it was for Paul. When times were tough he was still joyful and he was able to be that way because His “joy-source” was the Lord. We need to be like that because the joy of the Lord is our strength, not our circumstances.
Another example of Paul’s joy is in Acts 16 when he was on his second missionary journey. This time he was traveling with Silas and he was in Philippi. When Paul freed a girl from demon possession—a girl whose demon-inspired fortune-telling had been providing a lot of income for her owners. A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with rods, after which they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape, so he put them in the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks. Then in verse 25 it says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” And be sure you get the picture. They were sitting in a dark, damp dungeon with your back aching and bleeding and rats crawling all around them and Silas says to Paul, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” and Paul says, “Time to have a worship service?” and Silas says, “Exactly.” And they did! They sang joyful praises to God. How does that happen? How do you just start praying and worshipping in the midst of such suffering? How do you sing songs of joy under THOSE circumstances? Well, basically we have to get mature enough that, like Paul and Silas, we know when a Christian is in the center of God’s will, he or she is never UNDER the circumstances. We have a loving Heavenly Father Who is sovereign OVER every circumstance of life—the good and the bad. Paul and Silas had enough confidence in God to know that He was still in control—that He could and would use even this painful situation for their good and His glory. I’m reminded of a quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon who once said, “It is easy to sing when we can read the notes by daylight; but the skillful singer is he who can sing when there is not a ray of light to read by. Songs in the night come only from God; they are not in the power of men.”
You know, whenever I go home to Dover I almost always find my way up to my late father’s study and spend some time leafing through the boxes that are there filled with his sermons. On one such visit I came across a sermon my dad preached on Paul’s life. In his message he referred to Paul’s joyful attitude by saying that Paul and Silas had “SEEING HEARTS.” Dad was saying these two looked at their situation not just through PHYSICAL eyes—but through the “eyes” of their hearts, which is a way of saying they looked at their beating and imprisonment through the eyes of faith. In other words, these two missionaries didn’t let their circumstance choose their attitude. No—they made a conscious CHOICE to trust God’s Spirit. Paul and Silas decided to look at their situation through the eyes of faith and that “super-vision” gave them their joy. Now, when I say this I’m not referring to wishful thinking or naivete. No, for maturing believers like Paul and his companions, joy is based on FAITH—a hope that is sure and steadfast. It is a conscious decision to look at life from the perspective that confidence in God provides. It’s a commitment to put our trust not in the ever-changing circumstances of life, but rather in our God, Who, as James 1:17 says, “does not change like shifting shadows.” This leads me to mention a third quality in Paul that we should emulate.
(3) I’m referring to His unshakable TRUST in God.
Paul trusted God’s sovereignty. He knew God was always in control even when it might appear otherwise. We see an example of this in Paul’s second missionary journey. This time he was accompanied by Silas and Timothy. On his first missionary journey they enjoyed success after success. In Acts 14:27 Paul excitedly reported that God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” And He did. God opened doors into Cyprus, Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. Acts 16:5 says, “These churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number daily.” But on Paul’s SECOND missionary journey a point came when God closed the doors they wanted to go through. In Acts 16:6-7 it says, “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.” Let’s review what happened here. Paul set his sights on Asia. Yet God blocked the way. We don’t know how but He did and He still does that kind of thing. The fact is God owns the key to every door. Revelation 3:7 says, “He is opening doors no one can lock, locking doors no one can open.”
Lucado writes, “As God’s story becomes yours, closed doors take on a new meaning. You no longer see them as interruptions of your plan but as indications of God’s plan.” This is what Paul learned. God blocked his missionary team from going north, south, or east. Only west remained and at this point Paul had a door-opening vision. Acts 16:9 says, “Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’”
The closed doors in Asia led to an open-armed invitation to Europe we he started the first church there in Philippi. From then on the gospel continued to spread in this new continent. This experience helped Paul to learn to trust that God uses closed doors to advance His cause and we’ve seen this over and over again in THE STORY. For example, God closed the womb of a young Sarah so He could display His power. He shut the palace door on Moses the prince so He could open shackles of the Jewish people through Moses the liberator. He marched Daniel out of Jerusalem’s gate so He could use him in Babylon. And remember—God’s goal is people. He closed the door on Asia so Paul could meet Lydia. He put him behind prison doors so he could lead that jailer and his family to Jesus. The fact is, God loves people and is able to use closed doors to open hearts (Lucado).
In the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, Colt McCoy, the University of Texas quarterback had enjoyed four years of open doors. He was the winningest quarterback in the history of collegiate football. But in the National Championship Game, the most important contest in his university career, a shoulder injury put him out of the game in the first quarter. “Slam” went the door. Colt spent most of the game in the locker room but like Paul he trusted God. After the game he said, “I love this game. I’ve done everything I can do to contribute to my team. It’s unfortunate I didn’t get to play. I would have given everything I had to be out there with my team. But I always give God the glory. I never question why things happen the way they do. God is in control of my life. And I know that if nothing else, I’m standing on the rock.” Even on a bad night Colt gave testimony to a good God. I wonder—did God close the door on that game so he could open the door of a heart? Colt’s father would say so. A young football player approached Brad McCoy after he returned from the game and asked, “I heard what your son said after the game but I have one question. What is ‘the rock?’” McCoy responded, “Well, son we sing about Him at church.” And he began singing the hymn,
“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame but holy lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.”
So, God closed a door for that quarterback so He could give that young man a chance to hear about Jesus. Well, Paul saw that kind of thing all the time so he had a deep TRUST in God’s sovereignty and love.
Now, how can we have Paul’s attitudes? How can we get his “super-powers?”
(4) Well, Paul would tell us the secret is having the right travelling COMPANION.
And he would not say it was Timothy or Silas or John Mark or even Barnabas. He would say the only right travelling companion is the HOLY SPIRIT. In Acts 1:8 Jesus said, “You will receive power.” When? “when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” And that’s what we see in the Book of Acts. He was the constant companion for Paul and the Apostles which is why the Holy Spirit is mentioned fifty-seven times in the Book of Acts. In fact, some call the Book of Acts—the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES but it would be more accurate to call it THE ACTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT because it was the Holy Spirit that enabled Paul and the other apostles to be committed and joyful and to have their trust in God. It was the Holy Spirit that empowered them to make those long journeys and to heal people and cast out demons from slave girls and teach with power and authority. It was the Holy Spirit that opened the right doors and closed the wrong ones.
Now, many people wonder: “What is the Holy Spirit?” And a quick answer is this. The Holy Spirit is not an “it.” He’s a He. He’s a Person. More specifically He is the Spirit of God Himself. Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He encouraged the disciples with the promise of the Spirit’s coming. Remember? In John 14:16 He said, “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Counselor (the Holy Spirit) to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” Now there are two Greek words Jesus could’ve used for another. He could’ve used heteros, which means “another of a similar kind,” or He could’ve used allos, which means “another of exactly the same kind.” And when Jesus is promising the Holy Spirit, He uses allos. He doesn’t say, “I’m going to send you somebody who’s kind of like Me.” He says, “I’m sending you someone who is exactly like Me.” This is why, as someone once put it, “The Holy Spirit is Christ in the Christian.” It is Christ IN YOU that is your hope of glory—CHRIST IN YOU that gives you the power to become the kind of “super-missionary” Paul was.
In his best-selling book called Into Thin Air, the author, Jon Krakauer, tells about some of the hazards that plagued the climbers as they attempted to peak Mt. Everest. He tells about a man named Andy Harris who was one of the expedition leaders but he stayed at the peak a little bit too long after the other climbers had descended. Harris was making his way back down by himself when he became in dire need of oxygen. So he radioed to base camp, knowing he would not make it without oxygen. The other climbers who’d already descended said, “We left him some full oxygen tanks. Does he see them?” Harris said, “Yes, they’re right here but they’re not full; they’re empty.” “Have you checked ‘em?” “I haven’t checked ‘em, but they’re empty oxygen tanks.” At this point they quickly realize that Harris is deprived of oxygen, and because he’s deprived of oxygen he doesn’t realize that what he needs is right in front of him. The climbers on the radio pled with him, “It’s right there! Those tanks are full.” But he wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t listen. His body has never been found. I share this story because the Holy Spirit is the oxygen of the Christian life and it doesn’t work without Him. You can no more live the Christian life on your own power than you could walk on water on your own power.
Paul puts it this way in Galatians 5, “Since we live by the Spirit (since this is where we find commitment and joy and the strength to trust God no matter what)…Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Let’s make sure that every step of the journey He is our constant companion and that our prayer each day is, “God, would You remind me to draw on the power of Your indwelling Spirit? Would You help me to learn to hear and heed Your inner, still small voice?”