The Work of Missions (Acts 14:21-28)

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As we approach the closing verses of Acts 14, we find Paul and Barnabas reaching the end of their first missionary journey. They had been away from their local church for perhaps two years. Much had transpired, much was experienced and much was accomplished for the glory of God.

But further, this missionary journey, and especially this closing passage, teaches us much about how the local church should do the work of missions. It highlights the biblical need for competent and proven men to be commissioned by and sent from the local church. The local church was clearly God’s means for the accomplishing of the Great Commission in the book of Acts—and it still is.

As we come to the close of our studies in Acts 14, I want us to focus on the work of missions. I want us to focus on what we should expect of our missionaries and therefore how we should pray for them, how we can help them and how we can train those whom we send.

Let me say a brief word about this latter issue. This is a vital matter for the local church. We have the responsibility to guard the gospel and to guard the wider kingdom. We must therefore be careful about whom we send and what we expect of them.

One of our church families recently completed an adoption process. One of my daughters works as a social worker for the adoption agency through which the process was completed. In speaking to my daughter and witnessing the process undergone by this church family, I was sometimes amazed at the screening process involved in gauging whether a potential family is a suitable fit for a particular child. A great deal of very careful effort goes into selecting precisely the right family for each child. As I reflected on this process, I realised with some sadness that the local church frequently lacks a similar sort of carefulness when it comes to screening those it sends to the missionary field.

In this passage we will observe several aspects of what we should expect of those who do the work of missions.

They Evangelised with a View to Conversions

Our text opens very simply by informing us that Paul and Barnabas “preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples” (v. 21). As we have seen previously, the term “preached the gospel” is a translation of the Greek word euaggelizo, which means to evangelise.

Wherever these missionaries went, they were together for the gospel. We should expect those that we send to do exactly this.

Unfortunately there are many who are given the title “missionary” who do about everything but evangelise. Those who are involved in parachurch, administrative capacities are often referred to as “missionaries.” I am not suggesting that these people are not necessary to the missionary endeavour. There is certainly a place for administrative positions under the umbrella of missions, but even so the fundamental requirement is that the person be not only evangelical but also evangelistic.

When Rob Bell was asked a few years ago hoe he would define the term “evangelical,” his answer highlighted everything but the need for gospel-centred evangelism. “I embrace the term ‘evangelical’ if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.”1

There is no doubt that working together for change in the world, caring for the environment, and extending to the poor generosity and kindness is “a beautiful sort of thing.” But that is not what defines an evangelical.

Those whom we send, and those whom we support, must be grounded in the gospel. They must know it. They must be able to proclaim it and must have a proven passion to do so.

It must be emphasised time and again that the church has been left on earth for the purpose of evangelising and disciple-making. There are plenty of good things that the church can be involved in, but only one which it must be doing: evangelising with a view to disciple making.

They Educated with a View to Edification

Verse 21 tells us that they not only “preached the gospel” but also “made many disciples.” This is the biblical order. Evangelism is the first step in disciple-making. These missionaries educated the new believers with reference to all things that the Lord had commanded and the result was edification. They were built up in the faith to the glory of God.

It should be noted that the disciples made were connected to a local church (v. 23). Our church’s working definition of a “missionary” encompasses this viewpoint. According to our missions policy, a “missionary” is someone sent from a local church to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in another culture with a view to the planting of a local church. The emphasis is on making disciples and planting churches.

This is important. If missionaries are not actively engaged in making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ with a view to the establishing of a local church, then it is doubtful that the term “missionary” should be applied. By the way, we should test the ability to make disciples before we send them as a missionary. Getting on an airplane will not transform one from being fruitless to being fruitful. Paul and Barnabas had a track record before they were ever sent (see 11:23-26). We have the right—indeed, the responsibility—to ask, “Where is the fruit?”

It is of interest that a couple of disciples are later mentioned in the New Testament who came from this ministry in both Lystra (Timothy, 16:1-3) and Derbe (Gaius, 20:4). It is wonderful when disciples persevere, but missionaries also know the pain and sorrow of those who do not.

John 15:1-8, 16 gives a biblical measurement of whether one is being edified.

They Established Them in Their Faith

With v. 22 we have a new aspect of what it means to be a missionary. According to the latter part of v. 21 these men returned to three cities where they had previously ministered, each of which was a place of previous persecution. Nevertheless we see that these missionaries had the heart of a shepherd and so they returned to help the churches there. As they did so, they went about “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (v. 22).

Harrison notes, “It took courage to return to the very places that had resisted the gospel and mistreated its messengers, yet the decision to return was not dictated by bravado but by the practical necessity of shepherding the converts.”2

A missionary needs to be thorough in his work of the ministry. Not only must he make disciples and plant churches, but he must also help those works to be strong, self-sustaining and self-propagating. We see something of this in this section. As Charles Erdman wrote,

Evangelization, in the case of Paul, did not consist in a mere, superficial, hasty heralding of the gospel, but in establishing a permanent work. At great personal risk he revisited the new converts, comforting them, instructing them, and seeing that “elders” were appointed for them “in every church.” A proper missionary program has as its aim the establishment on the field of self-governing, self-sustaining, self-propagating churches.3

The first thing that they did was to “strengthen the souls of the disciples.” The word translated “strengthen” means “to support further,” i.e. to re-establish; to confirm. The primary idea seems to be that of fortifying them. One can assume that this was accomplished by further exposition of the Scriptures in a setting of meaningful fellowship. This is the pattern that was set in Acts 2, and we can be certain it was followed thereafter:

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

(Acts 2:42-47)

Note that they did this at great personal risk, for these cities were places where they had previously experienced persecution.

They Exhorted Them to Persevere

True believers persevere in the Lord (see Luke 8:11-15). But they need help as they do so. These missionaries provided such help as they came alongside the disciples and encouraged them by fortifying their faith. No doubt, they taught them Scripture, which pointed them to the character of God by which they were emboldened to “continue in the faith” (v. 22). “Believers must not only be taught sound biblical truths but also exhorted to practice them. . . . Exhortation is teaching’s inseparable companion.”4

But further, “Paul exhorted the church members “to remain true to the faith,” which they had received from him. A number of similar expressions are used in different parts of the New Testament to indicate that there was a recognizable body of doctrine, a cluster of central beliefs, which the apostles taught.”5

In other words, they churches were expected to be the pillar and ground of the truth. They were to guard the gospel.

What stands out particularly to me in this verse is that these missionaries very honestly laid out the demands of the Christian walk. They told the disciples the truth: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (v. 22). The word translated “tribulations” here means “to be afflicted, anguished, burdened or troubled.” “The kingdom of God” can be defined as “the rule of God in the heart of men.”

In short, Paul and Barnabas told the new disciples to expect afflictions and troubles as they grow in their submission to the rule of God in their hearts and lives. And, of course, the context of this admonition was very appropriate, since they themselves had been persecuted in these very cities! “The same pattern of suffering and glory exemplified in Jesus’ life must be theirs as well if they are to know the full measure of the reign of God in their lives.”6 Paul and Barnabas “acted on the principle that Jesus had come ‘not to make life easy but to make men great.’”7

The New Testament evidence is unanimous in this regard. Consider just a few sample texts, which speak of the reality of persecution that necessarily accompanies allegiance to Christ:

  • Romans 8:17—And if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
  • Philippians 3:10-11—That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
  • Colossians 1:24—I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.

As MacArthur notes, “perseverance in the Christian life is a ceaseless warfare against the forces of the kingdom of darkness.”8 Sadly there is a movement abroad that minimises this reality and seeks to water it down by compromising the message.

The church of our day desperately needs to grasp the mature reality that to follow Christ is costly. Let us beware of a “comfortable” Christianity. Christianity is not “cool” and never will be. It is countercultural and therefore offensive. Be prepared for a fight of faith. Be ready for war. As Calvin wrote, “For though God handle some men more courteously and gently, yet doth he pamper none of his so daintily that he is free from all tribulations.”9

I would imagine that an element in this exhortation was also that of admonishment. Perhaps some were wandering from perseverance and these missionaries would have come alongside of them and warned them of the danger of falling away. Those who care for souls will themselves be willing to face affliction in order to help others to enter the kingdom.

Paul and Barnabas cared for their converts. They were “real’” with them and the result was that they were encouraged to persevere long after these missionaries left.

They Equipped Them with Elders

The text tells us that these missionaries “appointed elders in every church” (v. 23.). This was done in every locale and it was always in the form of a plurality of elders. This is the norm.

Roland Allen has observed, “The first and most striking difference between his (sc. Paul’s) action and ours is that he founded ‘Churches’ whilst we found ‘Missions.’”10. And churches need leaders—biblical elders.

You have to appreciate the fact that they left behind men who would care for these converts. They left the churches in the hands of those who were mature and capable to shepherd the flock of God.

Missionaries (and pastors) need to be always seeking to train men who can both come alongside them in the work of the ministry and whom they can leave behind when they leave. I can testify that I have always sought to do so and I am more committed than ever to do so in the time that I have left at BBC. We need to be deliberate about this. We also need to be discerning enough to train and appoint the right men for the job.

It is interesting that they “prayed with fasting” over the elders who were appointed (v. 23). This was a serious undertaking, which required serious dependence upon the Lord. The church left in the wrong hands is disastrous (Acts 20:28-30)!

They ordained elders to care for the flock. This is essential work for the missionary. For a church to persevere healthily it must have biblically qualified leaders.

It is amazing how quickly these men were able to do this. Why were they able to do so?

I suspect because these men had a synagogue connection and so a foundation was laid. But having noted this, we must say that this is not provable. No doubt these missionaries poured themselves into the lives of these men and so they matured beyond the “norm.” I suspect that if we had the same passion and commitment we could do the same.

They Entrusted Them to God

Having “prayed with fasting” over these new converts and leaders, the missionaries “commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (v. 23). The text then records their journey home to Antioch (vv. 24-26).

Stott notes that “they did not set up a mission organization; they left them and went home”10 and that “indigenous principles rest ultimately on the conviction that the church belongs to God and that he can be trusted to look after his own people.”12 This is a vital step in the work of a missionary. Just as these men had been entrusted to the care of the Lord, so they entrusted these churches to the care of the sovereign. Yes, they used means (“elders”), but ultimately they relied on God’s grace.

In the immediate, context it is possible that it was the elders were being “commended,” but I would also extend it to those whom the elders were to lead: the church.

They Exited from Them

There comes a time for the missionary to leave. Paul and Barnabas did so. But once they left, they returned home. Interestingly, while they hadn’t stopped in Perga to preach on their way to Derbe and Lystra, they stopped there and ministered on their return journey. They were thorough!

It is important to note that these missionaries returned to their home (sending) local church. They were not mercenaries but biblical missionaries. Biblical missionaries respect, honour, love and minister to their local church. Note what these two missionaries did.

The Returned to Their Local Church

“And after they had passed through Pisidia, they came to Pamphylia. Now when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed” (vv. 24-26). Their return to Antioch highlights the issue of accountability of missionaries to the local church.

They came back to “give account” of the work that they had completed. And how was it gauged whether their work had been completed? They had made disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and left behind a local church that would do the same.

It seems that the church at Antioch was one to which Paul and Barnabas were happy to return. Sadly, there are many missionaries out there of whom this cannot be said. As local churches, we must strive to be churches to which our missionaries want to return.

They Reported to Their Local Church

Having return to Antioch, the missionaries “gathered the church together” and “reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (v. 27).

Paul and Barnabas “reported what ‘God had done through them,’ literally ‘with them,’ ‘in conjunction with them, as his instruments, his agents, his co-workers.’”10 Their report was not a once-off Powerpoint presentation. The tense of the verb “reported” “contains a hint that more than one service was needed for the full account that the apostles were prepared to give.”14

Notice that they were not confused about to whom the credit belonged. They reported “all that God had done” and how “He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” As Paul would later say, missionaries could plant and water, but only God could give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6). Since the grace had come from God alone, the glory must go to God alone.15 “The kingdom of heaven is indeed set open to us by the external preaching of the gospel; but no man entereth in save he to whom God reacheth out his hand; no man draweth near unless he be drawn inwardly by the spirit.”16

By the way, this answers the question with reference to what specifically the ministry was that they had fulfilled. They made disciples of the Gentiles and left them in local churches. This was proof that the Gentiles had saving faith.

They Reconnected with Their Local Church

Having returned to Antioch, “they stayed there a long time with the disciples” (v. 28). During their time in Antioch, they were refreshed (and refreshed others) and were rewarded (benefitted) by the fellowship of the saints.

Having concluded our study of this chapter, I trust that we will have a better grasp of what it means to be a missionary and the work that we should expect of them. This is vital for our day.

Resources are not infinite and we need to invest missions monies and personnel wisely. This model is a source of such wisdom. Whom is God preparing to send from your local church to do the work of missions? When He reveals that to you, know that you have the model by which you can confidently send them.

Show 16 footnotes

  1. Michael Paulson, “Rob Bell on faith, suffering, and Christians,” http://goo.gl/MrRDX, retrieved 4 November 2012.
  2. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 237.
  3. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 122.
  4. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:55.
  5. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 235.
  6. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:438.
  7. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 119.
  8. MacArthur, Acts, 2:55.
  9. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 19.1:26.
  10. Stott, The Message of Acts, 235.
  11. Stott, The Message of Acts, 235.
  12. Stott, The Message of Acts, 236-37.
  13. Stott, The Message of Acts, 235.
  14. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 239.
  15. Stott, The Message of Acts, 239.
  16. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 19.1:31.