One of the training courses we’re running next month is called “What is a Presbyterian?” May not SOUND like the most riveting course. But here’s Ben’s description “So you’re going to a Presbyterian church? What are our distinctives in theology, practice and government? And DOES IT MATTER?”
DOES IT MATTER?
Does it MATTER whether we have ELDERS OR NOT? (After all, that’s where we get the name PRESBYTERIAN from). Does it MATTER whether we baptize babies, or not? Does it matter that we hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith? Does it matter that I’m under the authority of the presbytery, rather than to our elders here, or to the congregation, or to a Bishop – like OTHER denominations?
Well, my opinion is that those distinctive things are GOOD. And that we’ve got it closer to the Bible than other denominations.
But they’re distinctives that are NOT THAT IMPORTANT! I’m quite happy for Christians to hold different positions on those things, and we can still work happily together.
But then there are OTHER things which DO matter. Things we SHOULDN’T compromise over. Things we should FIGHT TOOTH AND NAIL to protect. Things worth making TOUGH DECISIONS over.
I’ve been understanding this more as we’ve been teaching Scripture at Mitchell High with THE CATHOLICS, and some people from HILLSONG. In nearly EVERYTHING, it seems like we agree. Theoretically at least. But it seems like in SOME things, the PRIORITIES are back to front. They think SOME things are important that I don’t. And I think some things are important that THEY don’t.
So. What things DO matter?
Probably the major label Presbyterians use to describe themselves is EVANGELICAL.
It’s come to mean quite a lot of things, including a solid commitment to THE BIBLE as the main way God speaks to us today.
But the name itself, EVANGELICAL, comes from the Greek word for GOSPEL – euangelion! The gospel is THE GOOD NEWS. It’s news from GOD HIMSELF that people are sinners who can’t save themselves. They’re headed for destruction. But, that through Jesus, God offers us FORGIVENESS. And ETERNAL LIFE.
Above everything, evangelicals are committed to the GOSPEL. It’s the news we PROCLAIM TO THE WORLD. Because God uses it to CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES.
It’s a message that’s CHANGED OUR LIVES. It’s the most important news that’s ever been given. Nothing matters more. It’s a message that’s worth DYING for. And many evangelicals HAVE. It’s a message worth LIVING for. Giving your whole life to.
Most denominations are happy to SAY they believe the gospel. But, in practice, it seems like they’re quick to move BEYOND IT.
They treat it a bit like an ENTRANCE EXAM. Rather than THE SUBJECT MATERIAL. It’s just something you worry about to GET YOU IN. Then you can move on to OTHER STUFF. The IMPORTANT stiff. Like social welfare, or prophecy, or healing, or ritual, or tradition, or sacrament, or whatever it might be. Other stuff they think the church should be making a big deal about.
But for evangelicals the gospel is EVERYTHING. It’s intimately connected to every part of our life. Whatever the situation, we need to remember that we’re sinful. We mess things up. We need God’s intrusion into our life to forgive us, and to work on us. We need to submit EVERY area of our life to the Lordship of God’s chosen King, who’s conquered , and who demands our allegiance.
Whatever program or activity a church is involved in/ it all must have some connection to the need for people to be hearing that they’re sinners who can be forgiven. Because nothing means MORE than the change that the gospel brings in people’s lives.
The gospel MATTERS. We can’t ignore it. Or replace it. We can’t move BEYOND it. Or OUTGROW it.
It’s God’s number one priority. It’s the Apostle Paul’s number one priority. And it should be ours too. That’s the lesson we’re to learn from this passage. The gospel MATTERS. Turn there with me. Acts 15 and 16.
1. The gospel matters more than disagreements (15:36-41)
We pick up the story at Ch 15 v36. Just before this/ we’ve had Paul and Barnabas working together in Antioch. Have a look at v35. Teaching and preaching the word of God. Telling people THE GOSPEL.
And then we come to v36, where Paul and Barnabas decide to visit all THE OTHER cities where they’ve planted churches. Where they’ve PREACHED THE GOSPEL.
But there’s a problem. When it comes time to start picking their team, the captain and vice captain can’t agree. Barnabas wants Mark. But Paul DOESN’T. He’s concerned about his FORM. Apparently, some time previously Mark had left Paul in the lurch. Run off when the going got tough.
Paul had been counting on him. And Mark had just disappeared.
And Paul doesn’t want to RISK IT happening AGAIN. Whereas Barnabas is prepared to FORGIVE AND FORGET. To RESTORE him to ministry.
To say they can’t agree is an understatement. Look at v39.
Acts 15:39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.
This was SERIOUS. And it’s a tricky one. And I’m not sure who was right. Often in churches there’ll be awkward questions like this. Should someone be allowed back into ministry if they’ve sinned in a particular way, and then repented?
It depends on the person. On the sin. On the role. On the whole situation. Sometimes I think the answer might be yes, and other times NO.
But perhaps that’s not the point of the passage. Luke seems to be telling the story, without really reaching a conclusion about who was right and who was wrong.
Maybe it’s about what they DID agree on, rather than what they didn’t.
Have a look at it. They couldn’t reach an agreement. Neither side would back down. And there wasn’t any real compromise.
But notice what they DIDN’T do. They didn’t stop doing what MATTERED. They both still WENT. Look at the end of v39.
Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
They went in opposite directions, And one took Mark and the other one didn’t. But they were both doing what MATTERED. ing the news about Jesus. They agreed to disagree about MARK. But they agreed about THE GOSPEL. They were evangelicals – committed to the euangelion.
You see, the gospel matters more than disagreements.
I may not agree with every Christian I meet. But if we agree about the GOSPEL – about how someone is SAVED. And about how important that is, then we can AGREE TO DISAGREE about OTHER things.
And so I keep working at teaching Scripture at Mitchell. And we keep doing Christmas carols with the Reforms. And we help to man the stall FUSION organises at the Blacktown Festival along with lots of other churches.
Because the gospel is BIGGER than minor differences. The gospel matters more than disagreements.
2. The gospel matters more than externals (16:1-5)
The second thing we see is that the gospel matters more than externals. The start of Ch 16.
Paul leaves Antioch, and makes his way to Derbe, where he meets Timothy. A Christian, who’s mum’s a Jew, but who’s Dad is a Gentile.
And Paul decides that he’d LOVE to have Timothy travel with them. Doesn’t want MARK, but he DOES want Tim. So look at what he does. There in v3 of Ch 16. He decides to CIRCUMCISE Timothy. I wonder whether Timothy had any say in it!
Now, here’s the thing that seems strange. In Ch 15, we’ve just finished hearing about how Paul ARGUED FOR ALL HE WAS WORTH that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised to be saved. That it was all about FAITH, NOT about external things.
In fact, one of the jobs he’s got for Timothy is to travel with him to all these towns TELLING people the good news that it’s all about FAITH in JESUS. And that they DON’T need to be circumcised. Which must be small consolation to poor old Timothy.
So what’s going on?
The answer’s there if you look a little closer. Have a look at v3.
3 Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him BECAUSE OF THE JEWS WHO LIVED IN THAT AREA, FOR THEY ALL KNEW THAT HIS FATHER WAS A GREEK.
Timothy was ALREADY SAVED. He didn’t need circumcision for THAT. But because the Jews nearby knew who Timothy was. They’d know as soon as he turned up with Paul, that he was a Gentile. And not welcome in their synagogue. And so, Paul wouldn’t have the chance to share with them about Jesus.
Circumcision is the means to PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL, not the means OF SALVATION. Or as John Stott puts it. “What was UNNECESSARY for acceptance with GOD/ was ADVISABLE for acceptance by SOME MEN”.
Paul wants to remove any barriers to his message. Get rid of anything that might cause people to switch off to the gospel. Because the gospel matters more than externals.
And the strategy WORKED. Because as we read down at the end of v5. The churches were strengthened and GREW DAILY in NUMBERS. The gospel was WORKING.
It’s the same idea he wrote about in 1 Cor 9. Listen to what he says. Verse 19
19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to EVERYONE, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.
And then a bit further down. V22
22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. NIV
In other words/ the gospel matters more than externals.
It matters more than what CLOTHES YOU WEAR. It matters more than what sort of music we sing at church. It matters more than whether you meet in a church or a school.
It matters more than what people think of you. It matters more than getting a pay rise. It matters more than a good nights sleep. It matters more than an easy life, or hours of ME-TIME. It matters more than another night of television. It matters more than getting embarrassed, or even more than getting punished, or persecuted.
It even matters more than GETTING CIRCUMCISED. Yes, it’s THAT important!
Does the gospel matter that much TO YOU?
3. The gospel matters to God
*He opens and closes doors of guidance (16:6-10)
And as the story moves on/ we see how much the gospel matters TO GOD.
God’s got people who need to hear the gospel. He’s chosen them since time began. And so, he’s working to get Paul there. As they travel through Asia, v6 tells us THE HOLY SPIRIT keeps them from preaching.
Then in v7, they try to head up to Bithynia, but THE SPIRIT OF JESUS wouldn’t let them.
And, then down in v10, after Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia calling to him, they all decide that GOD has called them to preach the gospel across the sea in Europe.
Each person of the Trinity has his say. And eventually the message gets through.
The gospel matters to GOD. And so he opens and closes doors so that the gospel will make it to the people he’s chosen.
*He opens people’s hearts (16:11-15)
But God doesn’t just open and close DOORS. He opens people’s HEARTS. Paul and his friends hop on a boat at Troas, and make it across the sea to Europe.
Before long they arrive in Philippi. Where they go looking for Jews to tell about Jesus. There’s no synagogue in town, so they find the next best thing. A place of prayer. On the outskirts of town. Down by the river.
One of the ladies they meet is called Lydia. Have a look at v14. She’s also from Asia. An immigrant. But she seems to have done alright for herself. She’s in the rag trade.
But the BEST bit of information we learn about Lydia is what GOD does. “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”
Here was someone God was moving heaven and earth for Paul to get to. And when Paul preached the GOSPEL to her. God opened HER HEART. Opened her eyes so she could understand her need for forgiveness, and to see that Jesus was the one who could BRING it.
And the angels in heaven REJOICED. Along with God himself.
The gospel MATTERS to God, because it’s the way he makes people like Lydia into his friends. And he’s STILL doing it the same way.
*He opens prison doors (16:16-40)
But he’s not just opening people’s hearts. God even opens PRISON DOORS.
Some time later, we read about a slave who’s possessed by an evil Spirit. Have a look at v17. She follows Paul and his mates around yelling out “”These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be SAVED.”
Which you’d have thought would have been GOOD publicity. But she ends up making such a nuisance of herself, just making things harder for Paul, that he turns around, and commands the evil Spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ.
Which it DOES.
Which I’m sure makes the SLAVE a lot happier. But makes her OWNERS FURIOUS. Because they’ve lost a good source of income.
And so Paul and Silas get dragged before the magistrates, whipped, and thrown in jail. Chained in irons.
Which the magistrates thought would have been the END of it. But God’s got OTHER ideas.
Pick it up with me from v25.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such A VIOLENT EARTHQUAKE that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.
God’s good news can’t be contained by walls and doors and locks and chains. He’s going to see that it GETS OUT. It’s not enough that THE PRISONERS are hearing Paul and Silas. Their JAILER needs to hear, too. The ground shakes. The doors fly open. The chains fall off. But rather than the prisoners escaping, they all stay there. Perhaps the singing was THAT GOOD.
The jailer comes looking. He sees the doors open. And he assumes the worst. His prisoners are gone. He draws his sword to kill himself. But then Paul calls out. “Hang on a minute. We’re all still here”.
At which point, he brings them out, and asks (v30)”Sirs, what must I do to be SAVED?” (Just what the slave was WARNING everyone about. And here Paul’s about to TELL him).
And look at what they answer (v31)
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved-you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.
There it is. The gospel that matters SO MUCH/ that God brought Paul and Silas all the way from Antioch. Shut doors, crossed seas. The gospel that matters SO MUCH God shook the ground, and ruined buildings.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus. And you will be saved.” Accept the gift that God’s holding out. A message from GOD HIMSELF, via his servants.
And the jailer knows a good thing when he sees it. He even calls in the rest of his family. And look at how they all respond in v33.
33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God-he and his whole family.
And so, by the end of their visit to Philippi, they’ve planted a church. Have a look at v40.
40 After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with THE BROTHERS and encouraged them. Then they left.
The brothers. The family of people who trust Jesus as their Saviour. The people God cares enough about to send Paul and Silas.
The gospel has done its thing. And there are now a group who are friends with God. Who’s eternity is SURE.
That’s why the gospel MATTERS. Why it matters to PAUL. And why it matters to GOD.
Does the gospel matter to YOU?
Does it WARM YOUR HEART to hear about people coming to know Jesus? Are you just blown-away at the goodness of God. That he draws people to him/ working through situations and people. Opens their eyes, leads them to repentance.
The Gospel matters to God because WE matter to him.
It’s one of the real privileges I’ve got being in the ministry. I get a front-row seat to watch as God works in people’s lives. And changes them.
And YOU can be a part of the show TOO!
Does the gospel matter TO YOU? Are you clear about what things are worth COMPROMISING about. And what things you WON’T compromise on?
And when you’ve worked that out, what does that LOOK LIKE IN YOUR LIFE? Does it shape your decisions?
How you fill your week up
How you use your holidays
How you spend your money
Does it shape your conversations?
Does it shape the way you raise your family? The priorities and agendas you teach them about.
Does it affect your prayer? How much you pray. And what you pray about?
THE MONTH OF TRAINING is a great opportunity to make some of those priorities CONCRETE.
Each of the courses (either directly or indirectly) is about how the gospel can be passed on to people. Either training you to do it. Or building people up so WE ALL can do it better.
Why not make a commitment to come to an event each week.
Because the gospel MATTERS. More than ANYTHING.