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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Our Prime Example


"He travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people…" Acts 20:2

In Acts 19 21-22 we were told that, ‘Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. ‘After I have been there,’ he said, ‘I must visit Rome also.’  That was the plan.  Then we had the Ephesus riot, and now Acts 20 starts with ‘when the uproar had ended’ and tells us that Paul left - he ‘said goodbye and set out for Macedonia’.  But Paul only left ‘after encouraging’ the disciples.  It was time for Paul to press on with what he needed to do, but he still had time for the needs of others.


I find this helpful.  When I’m leaving somewhere, my mind tends to be focussed on me. Some of that is the way that I’m wired, I think.  But Paul shows me a better way and I’m thankful for it.  To some, this will come more naturally.  But God’s word gives instruction for those who require it.


Some time ago, my garage door broke - one of the cables snapped.  I looked at it and couldn’t work out what to do.  Then I realised – YouTube!  The internet is full of videos that people have uploaded where we are instructed how to complete a multitude of tasks.  I watched one such video, ordered the required parts, followed the example of the person on screen and – voila – the door was repaired. 


The Bible is a bit like YouTube!  Paul in 2 Timothy 3 16-17 says ‘all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’.


In Acts, we can watch these early Christians, in the mental images that the book creates, and learn.  Sometimes the lesson is one of ‘don’t do this’.  More often, it is one of ‘do do this’.  We can follow the example given and therefore do things better.  Paul wants us to follow his example but only on one condition.    Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 11 1, ‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ’.  So, when Paul thinks about the needs of those that he is leaving and encourages them first, is he following Christ’s example?  He definitely is!


In the final words of Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus is leaving – really leaving.  He is returning to heaven.  Jesus needs to tell his disciples about their new task.  They must now go and preach the good news about Jesus.  They must now ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.  It must have seemed daunting, especially now that Jesus wasn’t going to be around.  But he told them something so encouraging – he was going to be around.  Matthew’s gospel finishes with these final words of Christ – ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’


He was going to be with them in spirit.  In fact, he was going to be with them in the Holy Spirit.  Tim preached on that subject last week.  The Spirit was coming to be that voice on earth that would be active among people – his people – and would always point them to Christ.  Tim chose a reading from John’s gospel where Jesus promised that.  That reading was just one part of a really long speech by Jesus to his friends, which covers several chapters.  What was the reason for that speech?  Jesus was leaving his friends for the cross.


I think sometimes I get easily distracted by what I have got on.  If I have a busy week ahead then I can easily forget to consider what my brother or sister has ahead of them and, as a consequence, I can fail to encourage them.  But look at the better example of Jesus.  To say that Jesus had a lot to bear that week is a massive understatement.  That week he would bear all the sins of all his people.  But his focus was on others.  He knew how the impact of those upcoming events would affect his friends, and so he comforted them. John 14 begins with Jesus’ gentle instruction, ‘Do not let your heart be troubled’. 


Jesus then continued with his explanation of how things were going to pan out.  He encouraged them by putting before their eyes the prospect of heavenly reward through him – the Way.  But what about the here and now?  What about all the trouble in their world at that moment.  Jesus covered that too.  Actually, we would do well to ask that same question for ourselves because Jesus covered that question, not just for his immediate disciples, but for all his people for all time.  Jesus said, ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’  Jesus didn’t promise easy, but he did promise victory for all those who hearts ‘remain in’ him.


That promise was in the final verse of our reading in John 16 last week.  In that verse 33, Jesus gave the reason for everything he had just said.  He said, ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace’.


So, back to Acts 20.  Paul was following the example of Jesus and leaving us an example to follow too.  How will this take shape, though?  What can we do?  How can we encourage others when good words seem so hard to come by?  Well, I’ll give you an example.


I’ve been very encouraged in the past by a fellow believer and what they have said to me.  When I have had particular challenges, which they have been aware of, they have often said this to me before parting – ‘I’m praying for you’.  Not much.  But hear what I heard.  Here was someone who was saying that they were willing to take my name, and my trouble, to the Lord’s ear, which is always attentive to the cry of his righteous people (see Psalm 34 15) and to beg for me, there, in the precious name of Jesus.  It has certainly encouraged me.  Perhaps we can do this? - ‘I’m praying for you’.  A few words – not much.  But, sometimes, not much can mean so much!


So, Paul leaves Ephesus behind but he doesn’t leave this Jesus-principle behind.  In verse 2, he travelled through Macedonia, ‘speaking many words of encouragement to the people’.  Then he arrives in Greece where he stayed for three months.  What did he do?  Well, Luke, the author of Acts doesn’t tell us.  As I’ve mentioned before, this account is not comprehensive.  It’s a bit like Match of the Day, which I watch the football highlights on.  On that programme someone chooses to reduce 90-odd minutes of football down to 5 minutes which hopefully give an overall picture of how the game went.  Acts is like a Mission-of-the-Day highlights programme.  Luke has done the editing.  There are things which he has chosen not to mention, which can give more detail.  At this point, we find some extra detail in Paul’s letters.  From reading those, many believe that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans at this time.  Also, Paul was not just somewhere in Greece for three months but was actually in Corinth.  And it is evident that he went there for a reason, and that reason is found in both the Romans letter and both Corinthian letters.  Paul was coming for the cash!


It is evident that there was serious financial need in the church in Jerusalem and Paul was minded to help them in their time of need.  Paul’s letters tell us about collections which he was arranging, and this is one of the reasons that he was heading for Jerusalem – to deliver this aid.


In 1 Corinthians 16 1-4, Paul instructs the church in Corinth to have a collection every time they meet on a Sunday and to hold that money for when he arrives, and tells them that other churches were doing the same.  He also instructs them to select some representatives – ‘men you approve’ – so that they can travel ‘with your gift’ and he says, ‘they will accompany me’.  I think this idea of these, church-chosen, accompanying Paul is relevant to the next few verses of Acts 20, so hold that thought!


Paul wasn’t alone in wanting to help.  In Romans 15 23-33, Paul tells them ‘I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there’ and then tells the Romans about the money that he had already picked up from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia.  He says, ‘they were pleased to do it’.  And 2 Corinthians 8 1-15 goes further.  Those churches weren’t giving because they were well-off.  They were giving despite the fact that they were not.  Paul was conscious of their own ‘extreme poverty’ and that they were ‘in the midst of a very severe trial’ themselves, and so he hadn’t asked them to contribute.  But ‘they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people’.  And Paul says that ‘they gave… even beyond their ability’.


Just one last thing to draw out from those letters though, because it may be helpful to us.  It appears that Paul wasn’t entirely certain how this gift was going to be received.  Charity is not always straightforward.  Why?  Because it involves humans – and they aren’t straightforward!  Some of us struggle to give when we should give – I know I do.  But others struggle to receive when they should.  In Romans 15 31, Paul expresses his desire for a good reception in Jerusalem and instructs the Roman church to do something.  He says, ‘Pray… that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there’.  What an example to us.  The bible doesn’t instruct us to make a plan and then hope for the best – that’s never God’s way for his people.  So, what should we do if we see a brother or sister in need and want to help but we aren’t sure of how that offer of help will be received?  Pray – that’s always God’s way.


Earlier, I borrowed some language from Psalm 34 15.  There we read, ‘The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry’.  Are you encouraged when the Lord answers prayer?  Then – spoiler alert – I’ll read one verse from the next chapter about what happened next.  Acts 21 17 says, ‘When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly’. As always, God’s ears were attentive.


So, back to those church representatives that would accompany Paul.  It wasn’t just the Corinthian church but others too.  That is what this list of names and places is in verse 4.  They came from Berea and Derbe etc, places that Paul had previously visited and founded churches.  We may think that there isn’t much in a list of names, but we’d be wrong.  In verse 4, there’s a Thessalonian gold nugget.


The two men chosen by the Thessalonians are called Aristarchus and Secundus.  Like so many names from that era, they tell us something about the person’s history.  Aristarchus starts like our word ‘aristocrat’ with good reason.  His name tells us that he came from a noble family – he was highborn.  Secundus came from the other end of society’s creaky ladder.  Secundus sounds like our word ‘second’ with good reason.  Household slaves often lost their name.  They were given a number instead.  The household slave that was most important to the master was often called ‘Primus’.  The second was called ‘Secundus’.  There is no-one the bible called ‘Primus’ but in Romans 16 we have a list of names of believers which includes Tertius (v.22) – number 3 – and Quartus (v.23) – number 4.


So, Aristarchus had a noble background – a free man with status.  Secondus had a background with no status.  But the church at Thessalonica, in choosing these two men as its representatives, show us that they were following the New Testament example that treats someone’s background as being of no relevance to the here and now, in Christ.  Like the new mindset that Paul insists upon in Galatians 3, in Thessalonica there was evidently no longer ‘slave nor free’.  They were ‘all one in Christ Jesus’ – all equally ‘children of God through faith’.


These men, and those others in verse 4 carried what had been given by their local churches.  But Paul had also been given.  What a comfort and support it must have been to now have these travelling companions.  On the Christian journey we need travelling companions!  And someone else re-joins the Paul party in verse 5.  And you may be thinking, ‘well I can’t see anyone’.  Well, I say ‘Luke again’… because it is Luke again.  Luke, the author of this Acts account is now back with Paul for most of the rest of this book.  How do we know?  Because when he isn’t there, he describes the Paul group as ‘they’, but when he is there he uses ‘we’ and ‘us’. 


In Acts 16 40, Paul left Philippi, and left Luke in Philippi.  Now Luke meets him and travels with him in verse 6 – ‘but we sailed from Philippi’.  And this whole group is re-united in Troas, where it is evident that a church has now formed.  But Troas is for next time.


I love the illustrations that the Bible gives.  I do wonder though, whether sometimes as Christians we can be tempted not to watch and learn.  When we read the instructions that the New Testament gives about how we should live the Christian life, we can perhaps look at our own lives and feel critiqued, often unfavourably, and that can be hard.  But should we think differently?


For example, when I don’t know how to perform some task and I watch an internet video to learn, and I watch someone doing it properly, is my first reaction to think, ‘they’re taking the mick!’  Do I think, ‘they know I haven’t been able to work this out and there they are showing me how easy it is – I’m not watching that!?  No, that isn’t my reaction, and I doubt that its yours.  We’ve already admitted that we need to learn - that is why we are looking. We are pleased that someone has taken the time to show us their example.  That is exactly how we need to treat the Bible’s instruction.  God isn’t intent on crushing us.  His design is to help us, and develop us, and improve us.  We may, at times, be rebuked by his word, but his rebukes are loving and gentle.


I love those words of Jesus in Matthew 11 28-30.  Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’  If, by God’s grace, we have believed in Jesus, let’s believe what he says.


I’ve mentioned three slave names today that are found in God’s word.  Actually, they’re more numbers than names.  Numbers two, three and four – Secundus, Tertius and Quartus.  But there is no Primus in the bible – perhaps that by God’s design.  The Bible has room for only one number one.  His name is Jesus.  He was truly noble, but became a slave for others. 


Paul holds Jesus up in his letters as our prime example – our Primus.  When he wrote to the Corinthian church about giving, in 2 Corinthians 8 1-15, he gave them the example of other Christians - the generosity of the Macedonian believers.  Paul called it ‘grace’.  That power by which they lived their Christian lives was due to ‘the grace that God has given’ them, he says.  God had poured out on them, and their lives poured out to him.  Paul said to the Corinthians, ‘I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others’.  It was a great example to use.  But not the greatest example.  That came next.  Paul, continued, ‘for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’.


Our sin had made us oh-so-impoverished before almighty God.  We were desperately in debt.  Christ freely gave his all, for us, to pay what we could not when he died for our sin on the cross.  This good news about Jesus has made us rich indeed. 


Jesus is God’s ‘one’ – his ‘one and only son’ and ‘whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. Whoever – background is irrelevant. He is the Bible’s Primus. He is the number one example for believers in the New Testament letters. He is ‘the pioneer and perfecter of’ our ‘faith’ in Hebrews 12 2. And in Revelation 22 13, Jesus says this, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End’. Is he that to us? Can he be that to such as us? Only by God’s grace. So, let us finish as the whole of God’s word finishes. Let Revelation 22 21 be our prayer, to a God whose ear is always attentive – ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen’.


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