June 25th, 2017
Our Unstoppable series began in Acts 13 where the narrative transitioned from Peter and the Church at Jerusalem to Paul and the Church at Antioch. Jerusalem was the focal point for the first 7 chapters of Acts but for some reason the Church at Jerusalem remained a local city wide event. It never fully spread and the command in Acts 1:8 “to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth” stalled. That is until persecution came to the church in Acts 8:1, a persecution so great that the church was scattered and a few chapters later, “So then, those who were scattered…made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus” Acts 11:19.
This is the beginning of the shift from the Church of Jerusalem to the Church of Antioch. The city of Antioch was different as well. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Alexandria and Rome and most believe the population was about 500,000 people. The city is only about 13 miles inland off a river just east of the Mediterranean Sea so there was easy access to travel and when Rome occupied the city in 64 B.C., Antioch became a regional military headquarters and communications hub for the empire. It was a city that was culturally diverse, religiously pluralistic and very multi-ethnic.
The Church of (show compare and contrast) Jerusalem and the Church of Antioch were very different. The Church of Jerusalem consisted primarily of Jews. The Church of Antioch included Gentiles. The Church of Jerusalem represented the established church. The church at Antioch represented the scattered church. The Church of Jerusalem spent most of its time focused on Jerusalem and the Church of Antioch spent most of its time focused on the rest of the world. The Church of Jerusalem represented a church that needed shaken up to get back on mission whereas the Church at Antioch stayed focused on the mission from the very beginning. The Church of Jerusalem was gone about 40 years later and the church of Antioch persevered for generations to come. Antioch was a church planting, missionary sending, diverse, and innovative church that fulfilled the mission of Christ to go to the ends of the earth. If you can’t tell, I like Antioch. Antioch is where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians and Antioch is where two of the most influential leaders of the Christian movement, Paul and Barnabas, were sent on their very first missionary journey. That’s where we find ourselves today.
The church laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and they are off traveling throughout the region from Antioch to Seleucia, Salamis, Paphos, Perga, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and then from Derbe they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch “22strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.”
Two years and 1600 miles later Paul and Barnabas are back in Antioch with friends and family. They bring their clothes to the local laundromat, take a nice hot shower, sleep in their own beds for the first time in a long time, eat a nice meal, get their pictures developed gather the church together and start the Powerpoint presentation. The Bible says it this way, “27They gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”
Today I want to talk to you about the word “relentless”. It’s THE word I would use to describe the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. They were relentless. Webster’s dictionary defines it this way, “showing or promising no abatement of severity, intensity, strength, or pace”. Here’s how vocabulary.com describes relentless. “When you're relentless about something, you mean business. You're not stopping until you get what you want, and you're not taking "no" for an answer. People might try to steer you from your goal, but you have eyes only for the prize and they're just going to have to get out of your way.”
It sounds like my 7 year-old daughter begging for Dairy Queen the other night. She just wouldn’t stop! “Can I, please? Dad? Can you get me a cotton candy blizzard? Please dad? Please?” Relentless. I finally put my foot down. “Lauryn, we are NOT going to get a cotton candy blizzard. End of story”. She started to cry. She came down again. “Dad, why won’t you let me”, she said. “It’s not fair”. I said, “honey, don’t ask me again, I’ve made my decision and you aren’t getting a blizzard”. She said, “you could get one too dad…” See that? Relentless. Parents, have you ever been in that situation where you took a stand on something because of the principle even though you knew it wasn’t that big of a deal? This wasn’t one of those situations so I grabbed my keys and we went. But…relentless! Look at this quote again…
“When you're relentless about something, you mean business. You're not stopping until you get what you want, and you're not taking "no" for an answer. People might try to steer you from your goal, but you have eyes only for the prize and they're just going to have to get out of your way.”
Here are some synonyms for the word. Determined. Dogged. Fierce. Implacable. Single-minded. Uncompromising. Unrelenting. Unyielding. Unstoppable. They don’t stop, they don’t quit, they keep moving. It’s a description of Paul and Barnabas. And so back to the slide show. Let’s take ourselves back and pretend we are sitting in the Church of Antioch listening to Paul and Barnabas share the story of their first missionary journey. I want you to look at this map and I want you to think about the word “relentless” as I share. They started off about two years earlier traveling from the port city of Seleucia to the eastern edge of Cyprus and the city of Salamis where we read…
Salamis: “they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues” Acts 13:5. The island of Cyprus was the early stomping grounds for Barnabas and his relative John Mark who joined them on the journey and as they proclaim God’s word, no opposition is mentioned, no struggles are noted and they seem to enjoy a good start to the journey, traveling across the island and they keep moving forward to...
Paphos: In Paphos things start well but then a sorcerer opposes them as they try to share their faith with the proconsul, spiritual warfare ensues over the soul of the governor of the province, and through a miracle of God we read, “when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” Acts 13:12. It’s the first sign that Paul and Barnabas won’t back down in the face of opposition. Instead they pray harder and they lean into God. They keep moving forward to…
Perga: As they land in Perga, we read, “John left them to return to Jerusalem” Acts 13:13 and based on later writings in Acts, there seems to be internal struggles marking the team perhaps between Paul and John Mark. Spiritual warfare, now internal conflict and yet, they keep moving forward to…
Pisidian Antioch: In Pisidian Antioch great things start happening, “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region” Acts 13:49. However, the Jewish leaders start inciting the God-fearing women of high standing and leading men of the city to turn against them and they are expelled from the region and yet, we read “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Yeah, they might be kicked out but we have a job to do and they keep moving forward to...
Iconium: They come to Iconium and “There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers” Acts 14:1-2. Paul and Barnabas don’t care and they keep moving forward. They now discover that there are plans to stone them to death and so we read, “But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7where they continued to preach the gospel” They are planning to be killed but they keep moving forward to…
Lystra: They then arrive in Lystra and start preaching again, healing people and spreading the gospel but again, “the Jews won the crowd over. Only this time, “They stoned Paul and dragged him outside of the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city” Acts 14:19-20. The persecution is increasing. They have now experienced spiritual warfare, internal division, threats of persecution, physical persecution and now Paul is stoned and dragged outside of the city and what does he do? He got up and went back into the city. Relentless. They keep moving forward to…
Derbe: They now arrive in Derbe and “They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples” Acts 14:21. God gives them a reprieve and what do they do? Let me hear you say it. They keep moving forward.
I have one word to describe this first missionary journey: relentless.
Sorcerers come at them in Paphos, team members leave in Perga, they are kicked out of the city in Pisidian Antioch, threatened with death in Iconium, nearly killed in Lystra and persecuted throughout. They are slandered against, lied about, physically dragged out of cities, emotionally abused, betrayed and through it all, they persevered and would not relent. Where does that come from? Why is it that some people persevere in their faith and keep pressing forward and others give up? What causes one person to go through tragedy or heartache or difficulty or challenge and lose their faith and another person to press forward and even deepen their faith? What was it about the early church movement that we look back 2000 years later and say, “they were unstoppable” or “they were relentless”?
Clarity of the Call
Certainly, they enjoyed the favor of God and the Spirit of God poured out upon them but it was when I turned to the beginning go of the missionary journey in Acts 13 that I think I found my clue.
“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.” “So, after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit…” Acts 13:2-4. There is a calling that is received in this moment to travel 1600 miles for over two years and it will require a lot of sacrifice and hardship and pain but they were called. And I need to think that while Paul was lying there in the street in Lystra, having been stoned nearly to death and dragged outside of the city, that somewhere in that moment he remembered that he was called….and he walked back into the city. He was called. He was sent on his way by the Holy Spirit and because of that he was going to finish the task, he would be obedient.
Eugene Peterson has one of the best definitions of discipleship I think I have ever heard. He calls discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction”. Following Christ begins with a call to “come follow me”. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus he was thrown from his horse, blinded and heard the voice of Jesus speak directly to him. I have to think he regularly went back to his call. And it is the calling of Paul and Peter and James and Barnabas and Luke and others that allow them to persevere and live their lives on mission, relentlessly pushing forward.
We see it again at the end of Acts 20 when Paul writes “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” Acts 20:22-24.
When did God first call you to follow him? When did God call you to marry that person? When did God call you into your current vocation? Do you have a firm understanding of your calling? When you are tempted to disobey, give up, give in, relent, stop? Ask yourself, am I called to this? The book of Acts could have played itself out very differently. Paul and Barnabas could have landed on Crete and really enjoyed themselves until they got to the west side of the island. Then when the sorcerer reared his ugly head and John Mark left them and they got thrown out of Pisidian Antioch they could have said, “you know what, maybe this is just too hard…maybe we are supposed to stop, maybe we aren’t cut out for this”. Let’s go back. But they didn’t. The Holy Spirit called them. Jesus called them. They were to go and make disciples in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even the ends of the earth. They were called…and so are you! So are you! What has God called you to do?
God called me into pastoral ministry. He called me. He impressed my spirit, confirmed it through others, I had people lay hands on me and ordain me and I was called. But you know, a few years ago, I came to the point of seriously considering throwing in the towel. I did. Things got very difficult for me. I felt like I was in a fog. I was depressed. I had anxiety. The enemy was working on me, tempting me. Maybe I should start a business. Maybe I should do something completely different. Maybe I’ll build houses with my dad. I literally fantasized about driving a UPS truck or farming some land or working for the post office. I seriously did. I thought about quitting. I woke up a few Sundays and thought “I wonder what would happen if I just didn’t show up today” and then one Sunday I didn’t show up…and I was preaching. I told my associate I didn’t feel good and they played a DVD sermon we had in case of emergency. But you know what…I couldn’t escape the call that God had on my life. God called me to be a pastor. I remember when the Holy Spirit set me apart and I remember the moment of surrender and during that season others said the same and guess what, I’m going to keep moving forward. Because I am called.
What has God called you to do? The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare and means “calling”. Is it just a job to you or is it a calling? What has God called you to do? What dreams has God put in your heart, moments when you knew he called you to something? God called Paul and Barnabas to that first missionary journey and they were relentless in pursuing that call. What has he called you to do? Some of you need to keep walking in your calling. Go back to that time when God said, “this is what I want you to do” and keep doing it until he calls you to stop and do something else.
Others need to pick up your calling again. God called you to something. You know he did. And for some reason you stopped moving, stopped walking. Maybe you need to pick up that calling one more time. What did God call you to do? I wonder how many callings are given, dreams are given to people and before they are even put into practice they are aborted. I’m convinced that there are people here today that had a vision from God at one time and yet, you secretly ignored it and never followed through. A few years ago, I heard one of the speakers at a national conference talking about some of the awful things going on in the world and the major issues that plague us in society and he made the statement, “Should we lay the blame at the feet of a compassionate God, who has been sending life-enhancing visions to millions of people all over the world to step out in faith and do something incredible? Or should we lay the blame at the feet of a large number of gutless, cowardly people who aborted the misery alleviating visions that God could have blessed wildly had there been the courage to give them birth?” Whoa… whoa…what has God called you to do? Because unstoppable, relentless people and unstoppable, relentless churches got that way because they understood one thing. They were called by God and they would be obedient until he released them from that calling.
What has God called you to do? I’ll just leave it at that...take a moment and consider that question and then have the courage to write it down and bring if forward and walk in obedience.