29/97 7.9.97 Scripture: Acts 14:1-28
FOR more than thirty years while pastoring two of the most exciting churches in Australia, I was also an itinerant evangelist, preaching in large scale crusades involving many churches in one city, or in long crusades in every church of that denomination. But mostly, throughout the 1980's and early 1990's, for 35 weekends each year, I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning in 400 country towns. There, as an travelling evangelist, I preached the Gospel in churches, school halls, licensed clubs and hotels, open air meetings, pavilions in the Show Grounds, and many other locations. But always catching an aircraft Sunday afternoon to be back in Sydney for Sunday Night Live in Wesley Theatre and on 2GB. I have always considered preaching the Gospel and encouraging small churches a fulfilment of my call to ministry. The travelling evangelist was of great significance in the early church. The gift of evangelism was a gift of God. "It was He who gave `gifts to mankind': He appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers." (Eph. 4:11). The gift of evangelism is simply the ability to tell others that Jesus is God's Son, that He has lived among us, and that He can make life new. Evangelism was the very thing that made the early church grow so rapidly. Paul and Barnabas were two of the first itinerant evangelists and their preaching had great impact, frequently resulting in opposition. The great Roman Road from Ephesus on the West Coast of Turkey stretched inland all the way to the Euphrates River in Syria. It was built by Emperor Augustus in 6BC and named Via Sebaste. Paul and Barnabas followed the South-eastern route to three very different cities, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. The first city, Iconium, was settled by Greeks and spoke Greek. The second, Lystra, was settled by Roman soldiers and their families who ruled over the local people. The locals spoke Iconian which explains the difficulty Paul had in understanding them. They suffered cruel stoning here and only just escaped with their lives. They travelled 60 miles further along the Via Sebaste to Derbe where they were well received. Two young men converted from these towns later became famous in the church: Timothy from Lystra and Gaius from Derbe. Paul and Barnabas, then returned by the same route, encouraging the new converts in each of the towns where they preached. They then sailed back to Antioch where they had started this first great Missionary journey. Their visit to the town of Lystra indicates five facts about the role of the itinerant evangelist.
1. THE POWER OF FAITH
"In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, `Stand up on your feet!' At that, the man jumped up and began to walk." Every itinerant evangelist knows the power of faith. Dr Luke makes sure that we understand that the lame man was in a most serious condition. "A man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked." This was no easy pushover. It was to be a demonstration of the power of faith. "Paul looked directly at him". God set the man free, with new inner power. The basis of that freedom is clear: he sat, listened, believed, and obeyed. Those are the same verbs that operate when faith works powerfully to free you from whatever sin or handicap you have. Are you sitting before Him? Are you listening to the Word of God? Are you believing what is being said? There is power in faith if you obey.
2. THE PRAISE OF MEN
When an evangelist proclaims the power of God and people's lives are changed, he receives the praise of men. When it became obvious that Paul and Barnabas had power and had healed the man, they were greatly praised. "When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, `The gods have come down to us in human form!'" The reason is because of a legend in a work by the Latin poet Ovid, called "The Metamorphosis" which tells of a legend from Lystra. 300 years before, two Greek gods, Zeus, the all-powerful, and Hermes, his chief orator, disguised themselves and visited Lystra. The two gods walked and begged for food, but everywhere they went the doors were slammed in their faces. Until they came to an elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, who invited them into their cottage and gave them food and hospitality. Then they revealed who they really were. Zeus with lightning from his finger, zapped everyone who had rejected him. To the two who had given them hospitality he gave praise and a wish. They wished that neither would be left to mourn the other. Their wish was granted and when they died from their grave there grew a mighty oak tree and a linden tree. A Temple of Zeus was built to remind the people of when the gods visited Lystra. Now again came two strangers. One a great talker. The other a large man with imperious eye. They healed a well-known cripple and the people shouted, "They've come again. Zeus! Hermes!" "Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them." The local priest of the Temple believed this was his great moment. The mistake made long ago in legend would not be made again. When the evangelist proclaims the gospel, people may heap praise, but to believe it is kill the Gospel.
3. THE PRIMACY OF PREACHING
"But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: `Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.'" They were not there for the praise, but to announce the good news! The task of the evangelist is to declare the gospel. Paul said, we have come "telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God". That is repentance. Repentance means "turn round." Many people have worthless things cluttering up their lives. We need turn away from the worthless things, and to the living God. When Paul spoke to the mountain men, who did not know the promise of the Messiah, he spoke to them of things they would accept: God was Creator. Then he declared God had given Jesus to be their Saviour. "We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." That is the primary task, preaching. It is not our only task. We believe in giving soup as well as salvation. We believe in clothing people and helping them in their need. We believe in word and deed, as the apostles did and as the Scriptures proclaim. There may be physical priorities in helping a person who is starving or homeless or disabled. But there is still the primacy of preaching the gospel. "Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them."
4. THE PRICE OF WITNESS
Preaching the gospel can be dangerous. In fact, no evangelist has found that life is smooth and the way easy. Paul and Barnabas had some rough times. This week a dear friend since 1982 visited me. Rev Dr Tokunboh Adeyemo is an African evangelist. He grew up in the Royal household as a Prince of Nigeria. He and his family were devout followers of Islam as were almost all people in Nigeria. It was anticipated that he would become President of his country. In 1966, he listened to a Christian evangelist and over time became committed to Jesus Christ. Fundamentalist Islamic leaders wanted to kill him. He fled for his life. He hid in remote villages until he was smuggled out to study in USA and later to do post-doctoral studies in Aberdeen. Tokunboh heads the Association of Evangelicals of Africa, and oversees the most rapid expansion of Christianity in history. Today most Nigerians are Christian. He risked his life to preach Christ. Evangelists are killed daily: 157,000 died for their faith as martyrs last year, 1995. When Paul preached "some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe." There are occasions when an area has to be left for a time and Paul and Barnabas became aware that the door for the gospel in Lystra was temporarily closed. They wisely packed up and went to Derbe. Wherever the gospel is preached there is resistance. There is a price for witnessing to Jesus.
5. THE PURPOSE OF EVANGELISM
The purpose of evangelism is to make disciples. Jesus declared this in the Great Commission, "Go to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples." Paul and Barnabas wanted to see abiding growth in the church. "They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples." Evangelists do not simply want decisions, but to make disciples. "Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch (where Paul was almost killed), strengthening 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. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust." The itinerant evangelist preaches the gospel, but he is concerned to see the converts grow in faith. The evangelist may travel on but he leaves behind leaders to help the church to grow. I made my commitment to Christ in Wirth's Olympia in Melbourne in September, 1952, when an itinerant American evangelist Dr E. Ray Snodgrass came to town. 10,000 gathered in the Olympia and on that night I was upstairs in the back row. When the invitation came I went forward to give my life to Jesus Christ. Later on, I heard God's call to the ministry and I became a preacher of the gospel. Twenty-two years after that night in Wirth's Olympia, in 1974, I was invited to preach in First Christian Church, Enid Oklahoma, USA. I learned this was the home church of the evangelist sent to Australia and under whom I had made my decision. They gave me a gown to wear when I preached that day, a luscious black gown, and as they robed me, someone said, "This was Dr. Snodgrass's gown." They prayed for me and I went into the pulpit and preached a morning gospel message and invited people to come forward using the same words as he had done so many years earlier. I shall never forget, as I was shaking hands with people after that service, more than a dozen people said to me, "When we saw you standing there preaching the gospel, I closed my eyes and I heard Dr. Snodgrass when he was a young man". I replied, "You did hear Dr Snodgrass, because his mantle was upon me, and I preached the same gospel as he." In every generation of the church, God calls people to the task of preaching the gospel.
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