Strengthening and Establishing the Local Church (Acts 14:21-28)
Rev. Erik Veerman
Strengthening and Establishing the Local Church
30-40 million. That’s the estimated number of local church congregations in the world. Christian congregations.
3.24 billion. That’s the estimated number of people who live in an unreached area or people group - where there is almost no Christian Gospel witness or churches. 41.7% of the world’s population.
Despite the millions of churches throughout the world, the Gospel is still going to the ends of the earth. There’s still more disciples to be made and churches to be planted.
The reason I’m highlighting churches – meaning local congregations – is because Scripture’s model for Gospel missions centers around the local church.
• It’s local congregations who send out workers for the harvest – making disciples… calling people to faith in Christ and strengthening them in the faith.
• When people come to faith in Christ and there’s not a local church in the area. A local church is established.
• That church then becomes a place for worship, for prayer, for teaching, for ministry… and then that church becomes a church who sends out workers for the harvest to make disciples, to encourage people in the faith and establish new churches
The 30-40 million church congregations in the world today began with these congregations here in Acts. The local church in Jerusalem, then Antioch in Syria, followed by these others - Iconium, Antioch in Pisidia, Lystra, and Derbe.
These verses at the end of Acts 14 – Do not give us a model for missions and discipleship, they give us the model for missions and discipleship.
As we’ve worked our way through Acts… the local church has been emphasized in different ways. It’s like different camera angles.
• Remember Acts 2:42 – “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That was the very first expression of the church. That camera angle focused on the main thing the local church should focus on. We call those the ordinary means of grace – the word, prayer, and the sacraments, which happen in worship.
• Then, remember Antioch in Syria. The end of Acts 11 and the beginning of Acts 13. The church in Antioch were the ones who sent out the apostle Paul and Baribas on this missionary journey. That camera angle showed us a model of a healthy church - faithful in preaching Christ, a dedication to worship and prayer, who supported missions to the ends of the earth, and that experienced God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.
• And we get now to the end of Acts 14. And the camera lens is wider. We hear of multiple churches. And guess what? They look similar. We see highlights of discipleship which involves evangelism… as well as strengthening and encouraging the believers. And we see that God has a specific plan for leadership in the local church – elders.
Here’s what I’m saying: God’s mechanism for kingdom work through us begins with the local church and ends with the local church and it involves missions, discipleship, and church planting.
Now, I want to be clear – I’m saying that local churches, meaning particular congregations of believers who gather for worship and pray and discipleship, are central to God’s kingdom plans.
I’m not saying that each local church should be totally independent. No, rather, there’s a responsibility and accountability. In fact, next week in Acts 15, we’ll see that very thing – elders and apostles coming together to work through a broader church matter.
Ok, last week we left off with Paul and Barnabas heading to Derbe. They had been in Lystra. Paul had been stoned – left for dead, but God sustained him for His purposes.
In Derbe… guess what they did? Verse 21. No surprise… they preached the Gospel… that salvation is only found in Jesus, God’s son. That was their purpose. And also, no surprise, many believed – verse 21 – they “made many disciples.”
But here’s where the surprise comes – what they did next. They went back to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch Pisidia. In each place, they had had opposition – but they felt compelled to return. Why? Because local churches were forming and they needed to help strengthen and establish them.
If you look on the back of your bulletin, you’ll see a brief outline. 2 main points. First, making and strengthening disciples – encouraging them, teaching them, preparing them… and then second, establishing the local church, which involved appointing elders. These verses then end when they return to their sending church, Antioch in Syria. They celebrated God’s work in all of it.
1. Making and strengthening disciples
So first, making and strengthening disciples. Now when you think of that word “discipleship” today, what comes to mind? Usually we think of Christians growing in the faith – which yes, discipleship does involve that. But step 1 of making disciples in a verse 21 sort of way is calling people to faith in Christ. That’s what Paul and Barnabas were first doing on this missionary journey. Multiple times in the last couple chapters of Acts… “Many… believed” and “a great number believed.” Here it says he “made many disciples.” Down in verses 24 and 25 – on their way back they stopped in Perga and Attila. And they spoke the word. Calling people to faith. They continued to “make disciples.”
Earlier in the service we read what we call “the Great commission.” Matthew 28:18-20. It’s printed there in your bulletin on page 1. These are Jesus words before he ascended to heaven. He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Notice that the Great Commission doesn’t end by just calling people to faith… no, discipleship continues. It says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” That’s what Acts 14:22 is referring to. Paul and Barnabas went back to the fledgling churches and it says, “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.” The word “disciples” there is speaking about the new Christians. They were disciples in the general sense – believers in Christ. Their discipleship journey and your discipleship journey begins when you put your trust and faith in Christ but it doesn’t end there.
When Barnabas and Paul re-visited these cities, they discipled the believers in 3 ways:
• First, they were “strengthening their souls.” …meaning giving them reassurance in Christ; reminding them about the sufficiency of Christ; they probably shared about what was happening in the other new churches – that would be strengthening to their souls. Our hearts need strengthening. Even their very presence would have been a deep blessing.
• Second, they were “encouraging them to continue in the faith.” This discipleship would include a component of teaching. That phrase “in the faith” is a common way that the apostle Paul spoke of being firmly established in what they were taught. So, Paul and Barnabas instructed them more precisely about faith – deepening their knowledge of the faith. Our mind and our hearts need to be growing in our understanding of the Word and how it intersects with the world, so that we can evaluate and discern truth from error, light from darkness.
• And third, they were “saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” In this case, “entering the kingdom of God” is speaking of passing from this life into heaven – that there would be suffering and persecution along the way. Since Paul and Barnabas experienced persecution in each of these cities, these churches would have continued to see persecution. And so they needed hope. Hope beyond this life. Hope in their tribulations. Hope knowing that the persecution and suffering that they were experiencing was part of their journey of faith. Our suffering and tribulations today may look different from what these dear Christians faced in Asia Minor back in the second century, but nonetheless, the same hope is for us. Part of growing in our faith, yes, involves a solid foundation of truth in the Christian faith as we engage the world, but it’s also involves a deep hope in Christ beyond this life.
So… strengthening, encouraging or teaching, and preparing.
To be sure, Verse 22 is not an exhaustive definition of discipleship, but it does demonstrate the breadth of discipleship. Here’s a good quote. It comes from this book called Making Kingdom Disciples. Some guy named Charles Dunahoo wrote it. Just kidding on the some guy part. Charles and Collen are sitting back there. Charles is probably rolling his eyes right now. But anyway, Charles describes making disciples as this: “knowing, understanding, and applying God’s word to all of life. It also involves living lives more obedient to God’s commands. Transforming the way a person thinks and lives is a key in serving and ministering to those who are the image bearers of God both inside and outside the church community. Bringing all thought captive to Christ is also essential.”
Our entire being, our worldview, our thoughts and actions. It all needs to be captive to Christ. Paul and Barnabas knew that discipleship takes time. The Word and prayer are the foundations, but discipleship also involves encouraging and teaching and modelling. Even beyond visiting them again, Paul continued to pray for them… and write letters to them… because he desired to continue to build them up in the faith.
Ok, here’s where I want to transition – this discipleship - this strengthening and encouraging happens in the context of the local church. It’s the local church that commissioned Paul and Barnabas to go forth. And immediately after their words of encouragement and preparation in verse 22, they appointed elders for each church whose job was to continue the work.
The context of this discipleship is the church.
Go back to the Great Commission for a moment. It doesn’t explicitly use the word church. However, it speaks of baptism, baptizing the new disciples. Well, baptism is directly connected to the church. Baptism involves membership into the church. The visible church. Becoming part of the church. That’s why we say that the two New Testament sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are for the church – to be overseen by the church.
This making and strengthening disciples is directly connected to the ministry of the local church. That has some implications but let’s first look at the formal establishment of church congregations.
2. Establishing the local church
We’re at point #2 now - establishing the local church.
Verse 23 says, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
As the community of believers increased in each of these cities, they had a growing need for organization and oversight. Let me say it this way: Just as individual believers were to grow and mature in Christ, so the community of believers, as a group, was to grow and mature in Christ. And one of the formative elements was having elders.
And a couple of important notes here. First, the elders were appointed. That’s the English translation – but the Greek word can mean elected or selected. In this case it appears that Paul and Barnabas appointed the elders, but they could also have been selected by the believers.
And it was a very important occasion…. bathed in prayer and fasting. It’s not something they took lightly. These elders were, obviously, believers in Christ, but they were qualified for the work. Faithful, dedicated, and godly men who were committed to the Lord – sinners, to be sure, but who were specifically identified for the role. When we get to Acts 20, we’ll spend more time on the role of elder, but the main responsibility they had was to be the instruments of oversight, care, and teaching.
The second thing to notice is that the word elder is plural… “elders.” Specifically, “elders for them in every church.” Each church was appointed multiple elders. That’s clear in the text. Sometimes we call this the plurality of elders. It’s important because that’s the example in Scripture. With multiple elders, there’s accountability, there’s wisdom of counsel, there’s the sharing of responsibilities. A church is not ready to become a formal organized church without multiple qualified elders.
As you know, we’re still a church plant. And today was an exciting next step on our path to becoming an self governing church - as we received many of you into membership. We’re also blessed to have several elders – who, as you know, faithfully pray, teach the Word, shepherd, and serve.
Because we’re still a church plant, our elders, including myself, are accountable to the elders of our mother church, Westminster. Well, the churches here in Acts 14 are like church plants of the church that sent Paul and Barnabas out – Antioch in Syria. And just like when these elders and churches were “committed to the Lord” (that’s at the end of verse 23), we’ll have a service where our elders and our church will be committed and commissioned as a self-governing church. Of course, we’ll still be accountable to our denomination in different ways.
To be sure, Paul and Barnabas had special roles as apostles, but what they were putting into place was to be the ongoing ordinary oversight and organization for the church – a plurality of elders.
Do you see? There’s a formal structure. God has ordained this model for his church. It includes elders with accountability, and spiritual oversight. These examples given to us in Acts 14 are confirmed by other New Testament books where the role and qualifications of elders are explained.
To be sure, there are other responsibilities in the church. Deacons for example. Other gifts are also described for the building up of the body.
Someone said to me recently, “of course God has blessed and directed his church with clear guidance. What else would we expect as his bride.” The church is described as the bride of Christ. God cares for, loves, and desires to see his church flourish. It’s his model for the building up of his body here on earth. His model for the local church… as a place for worship, prayer, fellowship, discipleship, and missions.
So Paul and Barnabas strengthened the believers, appointed elders in each city, continued to share Christ, and eventually they returned to Antioch, verse 26, who had, it says “commended them,” who sent them out, who prayed for them, who financially supported them in the work.
Well they arrived back in Antioch, and all the people gathered together. The church gathered together to hear about everything that had happened. They “declared all that God had done.” That’s what it says. It’s his work, not ours, his church, not ours.
• They would have shared about how one of the Greek proconsuls in Cyprus came to faith in Christ.
• How in Antioch Pisidia, the whole town came out to hear the Gospel and many believed.
• How in Iconium both Jews and Gentiles believed.
• How in Lystra, a church was born in a city committed to false Gods and false religion.
• And how believers were strengthened and encouraged and churches were planted.
Friends, this event in Antioch…. It was the first missions conference. Right? What an amazing testimony – to celebrate God’s work and declare his name. The vision that God had given the church in Antioch to send out Paul and Barnabas was fulfilled. More was to come.
To summarize so far. This first missionary journey was to make disciples and establish churches. And God’s avenue on earth for discipleship, for missions, for worship, the sacraments, and the care of God’s people is the local church.
Local congregations with elders are God’s ordained way for his people to be organized, discipled, and cared for.
A few years ago, I was visiting a church family on the missions field in Africa. The trip was to encourage them, to support them pastorally, to pray with them, and to experience their ministry. Pretty soon after I arrived this dear family shared some concerns about the missions work in which they were involved. To them, something didn’t feel right. You see, their missions team leadership was heading down a path that didn’t align with God’s will and purpose for the church. The leaders were Christians, but what they were developing wasn’t aligned with Scripture.
• They were building a community but explicitly said that it wasn’t a church.
• They used spiritual language like “sacred spaces.”
• When the community got together, at times, they would even celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
• They were discipling people but didn’t have elders or accountability.
And actually, what was happening… was they were taking away from the local church – undermining it. In their creativity, these leaders had strayed from God’s ordained will and purpose for the local church.
I’m thankful that this family is switching mission fields to a new team. There they will be support church planting and the training of pastors.
I’m not saying that para-church ministry is all bad. There are many mission organizations who’s purpose is to serve and support the local church or to translate God’s Word. As you know, pastor Chuck teaches the Bible to pastors in southeast Asia. The leaders of his organization are accountable to their denominations. Their work directly supports the ministry of the local church. Other ministries out there partner with churches in the work of evangelism. But when a ministry or mission detracts from or replaces the ministry of the local church, it’s then that organization is out of line with God’s purposes.
I don’t want to end on a downer or critique. So instead, let me encourage you in Christ. Here are the very first words of our denominations book of church order. You’re probably thinking… well, how boring could this be.
Hear now these encouraging words about the king and head of the church:
“Jesus Christ, upon whose shoulders the government rests, whose name is called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace; of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end; who sits upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom to order it and to establish it with judgment and justice from henceforth, even forever (Isaiah 9:6-7); having all power given unto Him in heaven and in earth by the Father, who raised Him from the dead and set Him at His own right hand, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and has put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23); He, being ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things, received gifts for His Church, and gave all offices necessary for the edification of His Church and the perfecting of His saints (Ephesians 4:10-13).
Jesus, the Mediator, the sole Priest, Prophet, King, Saviour, and Head of the Church, contains in Himself, by way of eminency, all the offices in His Church, and has many of their names attributed to Him in the Scriptures. He is Apostle, Teacher, Pastor, Minister, Bishop and the only Lawgiver in Zion.
It belongs to His Majesty from His throne of glory to rule and teach the Church through His Word and Spirit by the ministry of men; thus mediately exercising His own authority and enforcing His own laws, unto the edification and establishment of His Kingdom…”
It goes on for a couple more paragraphs speaking of what God has ordained for his church.
Christ, our savior, is Lord and king of his church. May we submit ourselves to his leadership, his church as ordained by his decrees. May our discipleship come under his church. And may we establish ourselves here at Tucker Pres according to his will for the church. And may there be 20 million more faithful churches to the ends of the earth.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.