Acts of the Apostles for Today
STUDY 9 – Crossing the Frontiers.  Acts 16-20

If you have time read all 5 chapters together to get the full picture!

Story: South America's best-known evangelist, Luis Palau of Argentina, was once engaging with a group of Marxist-Leninists during a mission in Australia some years ago.  800 turned up to hear him in the University of Sydney, as he spoke on what Christ can do for a nation.  'We had a real free-for-all', Luis recollected.  'My speaking prompted a Marxist to point his finger at me and shout gross obscenities.  I tried to debate him, but all he knew were swear words.  I discovered that if you challenge these people ... don't allow yourself to be intimidated by their vulgarity ... and speak boldly ... they will back down'.
But Luis Palau made another interesting observation:
"All too often" he said, "Christians permit their critics to gain the ascendancy simply because they shout a few four-letter words.  If Christians would be more gutsy", pleaded the Argentinian, "then we could put these people to shame and show the world the fallacies of their doctrine and how faith in Christ is the only revolution that works".
What would the apostle Paul and his companions have made of Sydney ... of Chicago ... Buenos Aires ... Nairobi or London?
It's not too hard to make a speculation ... for people haven't changed in their basic needs across the centuries, and evil has always been the same. 
Far from playing it safe, Paul went boldly out on a collision course with the institutions and ideologies of his day, regardless of the mobs and incurring an avalanche of animosity and danger that takes your breath away.
Read about Paul’s own experiences in 2 Cor. 11.24-28
·      How do you reconcile God’s promises to protect his people in adversity with the reality of suffering and persecution of believers?  Have you any personal experiences to share?
After the first missionary journey, recorded by Luke in Acts 13,14 (which we looked at last time) ... which took the apostolic group through Cyprus and into Galatia, the great break-through comes in Acts chapters 16 and 17, with the penetration of the Gospel into Europe.  Let's look at three of the major cities that Paul preached in.
Strategic Philippi (Acts 16)
"Here, in this frontier colony of Rome, unobtrusively and unheralded, there steals in, with the little band of travellers, the power which was to transform the face of Europe and witness the ultimate lowering of the Roman flag." Richard Bewes
Not that Paul and Silas (joined at Lystra by young Timothy) had originally listed Philippi on their itinerary.  They had attempted to travel in other directions, but found themselves strangely diverted (Acts 16.6-8).
It was at Troas that Luke joined the party, and it is possible that the 'Macedonian' in the vision was Luke himself, who now quietly interposes himself into the story for the first time with his modest 'we'. (Acts 16.9,10)
So how were they going to go about it?
The account of the missionaries' diversion from their original plans is important for our thinking.
Many books have been written and conferences held on evangelistic methods ... but at the end of the day, God is the sovereign missionary!
Christians who cling, limpet-like, to one way of doing the Lord's work are in danger of saying by their actions that God is the God of yesterday.
Read Proverbs 19:21
Here was a true strategy of the Holy Spirit that enabled four men to obtain a toe-hold for Christ on a new continent.  Had that not had happened, then the chances are that none of us would be Christians today!
·      Take some time to reflect together on that fact.  How should that prompt us in the sharing of our faith? Cf Psalm 145:4
One theologian describes Philippi as a cock-pit of history;
“It was as 'a typical strong-point of the Roman Empire, lying astride a great trade route'.
There was no synagogue there, only a river-side prayer place — a clear indication that less than ten Hebrew males lived in the predominantly Gentile city.
From this quiet beginning was to grow one of the Churches most loved by Paul ... the church at Philippi.
Questions to consider:
·      How sensitive are e to God’s guidance? Paul has a vision (16:9).  How does God guide you? Share any personal experiences.
·      Timothy was young but widely appreciated (16:2) How appreciative of our young people in church are we? Do we actively allow & encourage them to use their gifts or should we wait until they are ‘mature adults’?
·      Paul and his team go looking for opportunities to share the Gospel (16:13) How keen are we to seek out opportunities to witness for Christ? What are the best places for you to do that?
Cynical Athens (Acts 17)
Moving south, the apostolic party left the nucleus of the new Philippian Church, headed for Thessalonica, Berea, and then Athens. Here was a city living on its great past. The age of Socrates had disappeared long ago, and a mere curiosity had replaced the hungry search for knowledge ... characteristic of Greece five centuries earlier.
To speak in Athens? There was nothing easier!
There were more temples, statues and monuments of religion there than Paul had seen in his life! What did it matter to add one more belief?
This was the difficulty, of course.  There was to be no aggressive opposition in Athens — only an idle, tolerant amusement.
Athens was a place that had seen everything, and catered for virtually any religion you liked.  It was a pick 'n mix culture ... not that dissimilar from our own post-modern culture today, where "you can believe anything you like, as long as it's true for you and doesn't harm me ... then go for it!"
Os Guinness comments on western society today: 'If it is twice as easy to speak into today's situation, it is twice as hard to speak into it intelligibly'.
Christians of the C21st aren't the first to have to grapple with religious pluralism.
Paul could never — ever — have been content to let Christ take his place alongside the other supposed deities that were honoured in Athens. This was only too evident as his speech before the city council boiled up to its conclusion.  Read  Acts 17:30,31
Some people have described Paul's approach to the Athenians a failure. I disagree ...  If a preacher today discovered that several people had joined the Christian Church after hearing him speak — including one of the very city council that had convened the gathering (Acts 17.34), he would hail the event as a resounding success!
Questions to consider:
·      How many different religious viewpoints do you think there are in Ashtead? List them out! Do any of them have any truth?  How can we respond?
·      What kind of ‘God’ do you have? Does he get involved with your life or let you get on with it? What did Paul think?
·      Are Christians in danger of being ‘all talk’ (17:21)? How can we make sure we are people of action, as well as talk? Why do we find talking easier than action?
Wicked Corinth (Acts 18)
John Pollock, in his book on the life of Paul, comments on Corinth. 'If the love of Christ Jesus could take root in Corinth, the most populated, wealthy, commercial-minded and sex-obsessed city of Eastern Europe, it must prove powerful anywhere'.
Corinth was an incredibly tough city, numbering something like a quarter of a million people, and overlooked by the great Temple of Aphrodite, where strident immorality was unashamedly glorified.
The city's name was associated with lust and debauchery. Dramatic presentations of that age habitually portrayed Corinthians as drunks.  But it was here that a church took root, during Paul's two years stay — a triumph indeed!
Maybe that's an encouragement to us, not to despair of the inner cities of our time. The work may be slow, but there are immense testimonies to the redeeming power of Christ within them, for those who take the trouble to find it.
Some years ago, a clergyman and hymn-writer called Chris Idle, moved into such an area within London, to lead the work in one of the churches. 'The first thing we did', he reported, 'was to paint the church's door bright red. We wanted to proclaim to the neighbourhood that the Church was in business!'
The frontiers are certainly formidable ... and cannot be crossed without courage, faith and effort.
Questions to consider:
·      Do you think clever, intelligent people are harder to reach with the Gospel than others?  What are the difficulties? How can they be overcome?
·      Is ‘full-time’ Christian work (18:5) the ideal for everyone? Why do we need full-time ‘tent-makers’?
·      Should Christians ever get discouraged? How can we help each other?
In conclusion ... let's come back to where we started with Luis Palau; the Argentinian evangelist, who spells out the task in this way:
'In the great cities of the world where we are confronted with unreached masses, our task is to find the window by which we can effectively penetrate the heart and mind of urbanised man. For example, if I were to be given fifteen minutes on the BBC television, it is almost certain that I would speak on the subject of the Family. It is the Family which is falling apart today, and it is in the area of marriage and the family that people are really hurting'.
The big question we need to ask ourselves from all this ... and a question I suggest you talk through together in your housegroups this week is this:
·      What is the window into our own neighbourhood ... here in Ashtead? This isn't an academic question ... it's a major challenge for us to discover through agonising prayer and then relentless pursuit for the sake of the Gospel in our own times.
No doubt there were times when Paul was afraid
When he felt that the burden of care for the Churches was almost beyond carrying ... when, if he faced another city, he must surely collapse!
What bore him up and re-invigorated him was the message of the Lord himself one night in the heart of Corinth, 'Sin City' itself:
'"Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man shall attack you to harm you; for I have many people in this city."' (Acts 18.9,10 RSV).
Bob Kiteley

Bob Kiteley, 17/07/2013