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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Second Chances and Further Opportunity


 


"So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Acts 16:5


God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ, rose from the dead. That is the point at which the Acts account begins. He came to earth to live and die and rise again for us. He carried the full weight of God’s righteous anger against our shortcomings and failure, when he died for sin on the cross. He rose again in victory. Our heavy sin burden could be lifted. All we need to do is to believe that Jesus died for our sin and in God’s account book that sin is gone – the debt is erased by Jesus. This was the message about Jesus that was being preached to people just like us in the book of Acts. Many people, throughout a growing region, had believed. They were now followers of Jesus, called Christians. In Acts 15 we are now nearly twenty years on from the events of the cross. And, here at Riverside, it’s only taken us about eighteen months to get this far! But, in Acts 15 we hit a really big problem.


Certain troublemakers had arrived on the scene. They claimed to be teaching God’s way and they used the name of Jesus in what they said. But they were doing the very opposite of what Jesus did. He came and lifted his people’s burden. These troublemakers were trying to burden people all over again by telling them that simply believing in Jesus wasn’t enough to be truly saved. A great debate has taken place in Jerusalem and the matter had been settled. An awesome example was given to the church on how to come to act whenever there is difference of opinion. ‘After much discussion’, an awesome conclusion was reached – believing in Jesus was enough. Faith alone is the way go - Alleluia!


Acts 15 30-31 has us returning from Jerusalem to the believers at Syrian Antioch with a letter confirming this wonderful, burden-lifting truth. What happens when the church reads it? They ‘were glad for its encouraging message’. It sounds a bit understated to me. Actually, I think our NIV probably is understated at this point. Almost all the other English bible translations use the word ‘rejoiced’. Little wonder. They rejoiced and so should we.


Verse 32 tells us how this written message was confirmed by two men sent from Jerusalem to Antioch called Judas and Silas. What was the effect of what Judas and Silas said? The believers were encouraged and strengthened.


Some claim that we must be careful how we express this faith-in-Jesus- only gospel message. They’ll say that if we don’t concentrate on rules for Christian living, and instead make things sound all easy-peasy-believey then the church will go to pot… literally, go to pot! People will turn up on a Sunday morning still in their pyjamas smoking marijuana, or some such thing! But actually the Christian life is already hard enough, and focussing on Jesus should bring relief and be his people’s delight and source of strength. The more we depend on Jesus, the more we will be strengthened, and truly enabled to live lives worthy of the calling we have received (as Ephesians 4 1). And we should all want that.


After some time these men from Jerusalem go back and there is a lovely phrase (v.33) about their send off. ‘They were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them’. ‘The blessing of peace’ – what is that? I suspect that it is something formal - similar to the way in which we have already seen the church at Antioch behave in sending off Paul and Barnabas on their mission for Jesus at the start of Acts 13, with prayer and placing on of hands. It sounds like there was a desire to formally express recognition of the peace that now existed between these two churches. We aren’t told exactly how this was done but, whatever we think, I’m sure we will agree that peace is a blessing – in life, in church life, we should always be thankful when we have peace and we should always strive to maintain and encourage it. Peace reigned, and the church in Antioch wanted the church in Jerusalem to know how thankful they were that it did. And then we reach this next section titled, ‘Disagreement between Paul and Barnabas’! What is going on?!


Acts 15 has given us a wonderful example of church practice. Those views held on a major point of doctrine were polarised. And yet, through much discussion, and the pouring out of God’s grace and wisdom and patience, on men like Paul and Barnabas, complete unity had been realised. Now this - they end up falling out over who is sitting next to them on the next ferry crossing! God’s word here, once again, highlights to us that the best of men, at their very best, are just men – as human as we are. And, when we follow this event through to its conclusion, and link in other details which the Bible gives us, we find that, once again, where people fail, God does not. He is good and gracious always. Let’s look.


Verse 39 tells us that this was a ‘sharp disagreement’. This seems to convey more than just a difference of opinion. There was emotion involved. It was so ‘sharp’ that P & B go their separate ways. Surely, there was a solution? Actually, that was a solution of sorts. Note, that neither of them stops working for the Lord. Both continue, but pursue separate avenues of service. They both carry on with their original intention to visit believers in places they had brought the message about Jesus ‘and see how they (were) doing’. What an important principle this is. P & B were not just interested in pioneer evangelism. They were also active in their local church life when there (see v.35) and they knew that it was important to check in with those other churches which they had connections with - to encourage and nurture faith in those places too.


The issue that divides P & B is that of John Mark, who is actually a cousin of Barnabas (see Colossians 4 10). He had travelled as an assistant on their first missionary journey but hadn’t lasted long. Once they had crossed the island of Cyprus and sailed to the mainland, Acts 13 13 tells us that ‘John left them to return to Jerusalem’. At the time we were given no details but evidently Paul felt that this showed a lack of commitment to the Lord’s work. He now believes that it wouldn’t be wise to take him again - once bitten, twice shy. There is merit in Paul’s view and he had the interests of the Lord at heart and he was making this decision in faith, I’m sure. But so was Barnabas, and he thought very differently.


Barnabas is great – we have admired him a lot in our Acts series. The church had given him this nickname of ‘Mr Encouragement’ for obvious reasons. He got more out of others and helped them to do more by highlighting the good. In Acts 9 27, when Paul had recently converted to Christ, the church was still afraid of Paul. He had previously hated Jesus and had violently persecuted Christians. Many thought his conversion was just a scam and were afraid to go anywhere near him. But God used the character of Barnabas. He came to the church and said, in effect, ‘if God can give people a second chance, why can’t you?’ And thank God they did.


Then in Acts 11 when this church in Antioch had formed and grown quickly, Barnabas went and found Paul and brought him to Antioch to mentor him. With Barnabas’ encouragement Paul grew in authority very quickly. Soon the pupil became the teacher. Barnabas had behaved in this encouraging way towards Paul and others in the past and the church had benefitted greatly. Why would he stop now? Why wouldn’t he give John Mark another chance? Being given another chance is at the heart of the gospel.


As humans we have failed miserably. Where would we be if God hadn’t given us the opportunity that is found in the cross of Jesus? Lost, for ever lost. But his loving heart wouldn’t allow that and so he sent his Son. Jesus himself spoke about second chances. In Matthew 18 21-22, Peter comes to Jesus, thinking that he is being oh-so-generous. ’How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me… seven times?!’ ‘Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ – just keep on going. And then Jesus told a parable to illustrate the reason. Our forgiving of others has to flow from the forgiveness we have received from God in Jesus. Our willingness to show love is directly linked to our understanding of just how much we owe to God (also see Luke 7 47).


There was evidently sin in this separation of Paul & Barnabas. There always is and usually on both sides. That’s just what we are like. Is my argument that Paul was wrong? No, it’s more that Barnabas was right to give a second chance and I think the Bible confirms this. The Acts account chooses to follow Paul. Barnabas is not mentioned again after this chapter. But the effects of Barnabas continue. When Paul later writes his letter to the church at Colossae he evidently now sees John Mark as reliable and useful and John Mark is with Paul and working alongside him. In Colossians 4 10, he gives the church instructions about Mark and tells them to ‘welcome him’ when he comes. And John Mark is believed to be the Mark who eventually wrote Mark’s gospel for us. But perhaps the most telling thing comes towards the end of Paul’s life when he writes to his younger friend Timothy in 2 Timothy 4. Paul had been put through the wringer in service of Jesus. Many people had deserted him and he begs Timothy to come visit. And he says, ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.’ What a turnaround from Acts 15. How had this development developed? Barnabas. The Lord had blessed his patient endeavours. That young and tender plant that he took time with, and strengthened and nurtured, was now bearing fantastic fruit under God’s grace and blessing. It’s awesome.


And God blesses Paul’s endeavours too. We see this as we continue in Acts. We will fail. We will fail others. God doesn’t fail. Paul says it in his second letter to Timothy. Though nearly ‘everyone had deserted’ him, God hadn’t - ‘The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength’. So, let’s bid a very fond farewell to Barnabas and continue with Paul. He chooses Silas and travels with him, in Acts 15 41, through Syria and Cilicia, and into Acts 16. This is where Paul first meets Timothy. Paul has just lost a Barnabas. God gives him a Timothy instead - a friend for life who Paul will refer to in 1 Timothy 1 2 as ‘my true son in the faith’. Even when we aren’t, how good is our God? It’s awesome.


Verses 4 & 5 tell us that the contents of the Jerusalem letter were being distributed. The truth of the one faith-in-Jesus-only gospel is being confirmed to these infant churches. It was just what they needed – full of nutrients for ongoing Christian living and development. It is a bit like when I use plant food in my vegetable patch. When I put Miracle Grow into my watering can, I can almost see my plants getting bigger second by second. The affect is amazing! They grow swiftly and they grow stronger and healthier and produce fruit that is bigger and better. That is the effect in verse 5, ‘So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers’ – miracle growth in Jesus!


‘But what about verse 3’ you say. That seems so tricky! Verse 3 seems to go against everything Paul believed and against the conclusion reached at Jerusalem in Acts 15. Why would Paul choose to circumcise Timothy?


Well, Timothy was a Jew by birth, through his mother’s side, and had evidently been raised as a Jew my his faithful mother and grandmother (see 2 Timothy 1 5). However, his father was not Jewish and consequently Timothy had not been circumcised as an infant. I suspect that his Father had stood his ground on that issue and just said, ‘No, it ain’t happening!’ Timothy, with his background would have been so useful in bringing the goods news about Jesus the Jewish Messiah to other Jews. They would have accepted him as one of their own and allowed him to speak in their meeting places, in much the same way as this privilege had been offered to P & B before. Except they wouldn’t and couldn’t. Because Timothy had one vital Jewish credential missing, and this would block opportunities to speak about Jesus. So Paul just does what should have been done when Timothy was eight days old. Removal of his foreskin was simply removal of a barrier to gospel effectiveness. It wasn’t removing a barrier to Timothy’s salvation – we know that – it was removing a barrier to mission.


It is like 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul talks about his freedom in Christ from religious rules. But then Paul says, ‘To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews’. Paul is just helping Timothy to become like a proper, fully-fledged from day eight, Jew. Why? For no other reason than, ‘to win the Jews’ for Jesus. As he says in 1 Corinthians 9 23, ‘I do all this for the sake of the gospel’. That alone was his motivation.


Then verses 6-8 have further progress and also further hindrance. Obstacles are in the way of going in a certain direction and more than once Paul and his companions have to turn aside and go in a different direction to what they intended. But these aren’t described as random happenings in Acts. They are depicted as ordered – ordered by God. It wasn’t haphazard – it was heavenly. They try to go West from Galatia into Asia in verse 6, but they were ‘kept’ from doing so, ‘by the Holy Spirit’. How did he do this? Was it some magic barrier that dropped from the sky? No, it was possibly just illness. God simply allowed Paul to get poorly. In Galatians 4 13 he says, ‘it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you’. Paul’s plans were changed because he had to slow down for a while.


Then they try to go North into Bithynia. ‘The Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to’. The method used, we don’t know, and what wisdom there is in that. God moves in a variety of ways to direct the lives of those who serve him. Let us be careful not to limit him to means and method. What is it that belongs to Jesus and that can be used to advance his kingdom? All things. That is what Colossians 1 15-23 tells us. ‘In him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.’


How frustrated would Paul have felt when he couldn’t do what he wanted to do? As frustrated as we are! But the Acts account is a review, a looking back at these events with clear sight and God perspective. Paul couldn’t do what he wanted to do. But he could do what God wanted him to do. And he did. Let this inform our lives as we look back and review past events. Let it inform us today.


We may feel that life is chaotic and random and frustrating and disappointing. It often is. We fail to do what we want to. But let’s endeavour to realise that we can still do what God has planned and prepared. Let’s remember what Colossians 1 tells us about Jesus - ‘the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation’. At creation, out of formless, empty darkness he brought light. From chaos he brought order and peace. He still can. He still does.


Colossians 1 19-22 continues with this about Jesus, ‘God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.’


Our God is a God of second chances. Actually, he’s so much more. How willing is he to forgive? He does so over and over again to those who trust in Jesus.


1 John 1 9 tells us, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’


Even in his most difficult times, Paul could say that ‘The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength’. All who are purchased back by, and to, God by the blood of Jesus, have the same value to him as Paul did - he will continue to stand by us. He never gave up on Paul. He won’t give up on us. Like those churches in Acts 15 and 16, may we be strengthened and encouraged by such precious truth.

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