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“M to the N”

Acts 15:36-16:10
Bob DeGray
February 13, 2005

Key Sentence

To Multiply Ministry, Multiply Ministers.


I. Multiplication through Division (Acts 15:36-41)
II. Multiplication through Apprenticeship (Acts 16:1-5)
III. Multiplication through Expansion of Vision (Acts 16:6-10)


        As an engineering type who loves numbers, I’m fascinated by the possibilities of spiritual multiplication. It’s mathematically fun - and the best way to bring many to Christ. Multiplication is simply more powerful than addition. Let’s say I lead a new person to Christ each day. Not likely, given my track record, but if I did, after six months there would be 180 new believers, and after a year, roughly 360. That’s spiritual addition. But could I make much of impact for Christ? Ten years from now I’d have reached 3600 lives - not much of a drop in the bucket of the world’s population.

        So let’s say that instead of just winning people to Christ, I’m making disciples who become disciple makers. Now my impact is multiplied. If it takes me half a year to win a person, build them up in the faith and equip them to win someone else, then at the end of six months there will only be the two of us, not 180. But if we both do it again in the next six months we double to four, then eight, etc., and by the end of six years we catch up with the first plan, and by the end of ten years there are 105,000 believers, rather than 3600. In 30 years, if the doublings were to continue, the whole world would be reached. That’s spiritual multiplication. Mathematically, this would be called ‘2 to the power N’ where N is the number of doublings. Of course, you can take it to an even greater extreme. If you disciple two people every six months, and then the three of you carry it on, at the end of ten years you’ve reached half the world’s population, and in the eleventh you reach the rest. The mathematical formula for this would be ‘3 to the power N’.

        So there is tremendous power in spiritual multiplication. Though our efforts always fall short, there is no other way to effectively win many to Christ. It should come as no surprise that this is the model Christ used: he invested himself in twelve men and told them to reach the world. It is also the model God used through Paul. This morning we’re going to look at some principles of spiritual multiplication in Acts 15:36 to 16:10. As Paul begins his second missionary journey, the focus is not on huge numbers of converts, but on adding people to the ministry team, so spiritual multiplication can take place. You can summarize this by saying ‘to multiply ministry, multiply ministers.’ That’s what Paul’s doing, and what we’re called to do: multiplying ministry by multiplying ministers - discipled servants of Jesus.

I. Multiplication through Division (Acts 15:36-41)

        We’ll see how this truth plays out in Acts 15 with the truth of multiplication through division. Acts 15:36-41 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." 37Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

        This rather sad episode reminds us that God uses even conflict to multiply ministers. Paul and Barnabas have been great ministry partners. The son of encouragement, Barnabas was the first in Jerusalem to believe Paul’s conversion, to bring him into contact with the apostles, to recognize his gifts. When the church in Antioch began to flourish, Barnabas brought Paul on as a teacher. And it was Paul and Barnabas who were set apart by the Holy Spirit for the first missionary journey.

        Now Paul senses God calling them back to visit those brothers and see how they’re doing. But at that point these long-time friends have a sharp disagreement over John Mark, the young man from Jerusalem who had accompanied Paul and Barnabas as their helper on that first missionary journey. After they had visited Cyprus, Luke tells us that “John left them to return to Jerusalem.” John deserted the mission; we don’t know why. We also don’t know what happened in the following years, but now John Mark has returned to Antioch, and he has given evidence, to Barnabas at least, that he is ready to take up the task of missions again. Paul isn’t sure this is wise: John deserted the first time; he could do it again.

        So Paul and Barnabas argue, and they decide to go their separate ways. Barnabas takes John Mark and goes back to Cyprus, while Paul takes Silas and goes to Phrygia and Galatia. We don’t know whether they stormed off in anger or agreed on the course of action, but in later letters Paul will speak well of both Mark and Barnabas. Furthermore, this division did advance the Gospel: there were now two missionary teams at work rather than just one. Nonetheless, the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas was almost certainly not the way God desired this to happen. It’s speculation, but it may be that without the disagreement, God intended Paul and Barnabas to go off with John Mark and Silas, and to divide by mutual agreement into two ministry teams at some point in this second journey. The way the division happened was not of God, but the fact of the division, the outcome was.

        The simple truth is, to multiply you have to divide. This is true whenever a single cell, like this sea urchin, begins to develop, and it is true of ministries and of churches. Churches a bit smaller than ours are frequently characterized as single cell churches. Everyone knows everyone and the church does great in intimacy and support of one another, but people coming in are sometimes viewed as a threat to that intimacy and safety. But like any living thing, a church is intended to grow and mature, and in order to do that it needs to develop multiple cells, as we’ve tried to do through the women’s ministry and the men’s ministry and small groups, and even through the choir or the Awana ministry; all add cells to the structure.

        These multiplications through division allow the church to serve more people and to reach out with the good news to more people. The milestones in our ministry plan, moving to two services and preparing to daughter a church, are divisions intended to allow further growth, and thus multiplication of ministry and Gospel impact. This is what God was doing in separating Paul and Barnabas - multiplying ministry by dividing the original ministry team.

II. Multiplication through Apprenticeship (Acts 16:1-5)

        So Paul goes off with Silas, one of the two leaders from Jerusalem who had come to Antioch with the council’s decision. But even with Silas to help, Paul didn’t just do evangelism or church planting on this second missionary journey. He also multiplied ministry by the apprenticing new leaders. Listen to Acts 16:1-5 He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3Paul 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. 4As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

        Lystra and Derbe were the last Galatian towns to have been visited on the first missionary journey. So now, as Paul approaches from the east, they are the first to be revisited. In Lystra Paul found a disciple named Timothy who had a good reputation among the believers. Paul saw that Timothy was a potential leader into whom he could pour himself and multiply ministry. So he took Timothy on as an apprentice.

        Timothy’s mother Eunice was Jewish and a believer. In 2nd Timothy we learn that she and his grandmother Lois had already grounded Timothy the Scriptures. 2 Tim. 3:14_17, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God_breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” So Paul wisely selects as an apprentice someone who already grounded in Scripture.

        But there’s a problem: Timothy’s father wasn’t Jewish. Therefore Timothy had never been circumcised. Now you would think this wouldn’t be a problem for Paul - he’d just written scathingly to the Galatians denouncing those who said Gentile converts had to be circumcised. Furthermore Paul was bringing the decision from the council that circumcision was not necessary. So it’s remarkable that before he brought Timothy on as a ministry apprentice he had him circumcised. The text tells us it was “out of consideration for the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” Is Paul being inconsistent? Giving in to pressure? I don’t think so.

        Listen to his later words “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. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To 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.” Paul was not willing to add anything to the Gospel that would make it a works system rather than a grace system. But apart from that, out of his burning desire to share that message with others he was willing to do whatever it took to reduce barriers that would keep people from being able to hear that message.

        That’s what he was doing with Timothy. You remember that Paul’s custom in every city or town he visited was to start by sharing the Gospel in the local synagogue. But he couldn’t easily do that first step with an un-circumcised Gentile on his team. So Timothy was circumcised - not to show that circumcision was necessary, but to show loving deference to those who needed to hear the Gospel of grace. This was not a concession to the circumcision party, but a concession to unbelieving Jews for whom lack of circumcision would be a major roadblock to hearing the Good News.

        We should have the same approach to contemporary culture. We all know that ‘tolerance’ is politically correct, and part of the tolerance that even many so-called Christians expect from us is to accept the idea that all religions are equally valid. Jesus wasn’t tolerant in this way. He said “No one comes to the father except through me.” So we can’t be tolerant that way. But we can and should be truly tolerant by showing respect for those of different beliefs, and sharing the gospel graciously and winsomely with them, as we see Paul doing in Acts, or as modeled in our own generation by people like Ravi Zacharias. We can be gracious toward people’s ideas and care for people without giving up the truth of the Gospel. In fact love compels us to tell people ‘your own sin is the problem’ - it separates you from God and earns you death. Love shares the truth that no works, no deeds or duties you do will earn God’s forgiveness or eternal life. As we said last week, it’s a grace system. God graciously sent his Son to die for our sins. So it is Christ alone who saves us, and no works we do can add to that salvation. Instead we receive it by faith, by making a choice to trust his work and not ours. That’s the way to be saved, and we need to be as flexible and as committed as Paul to sharing it: we need to be more tolerant than the world is, except where that would compromise the Gospel.

        So Paul circumcises Timothy and brings him onto the ministry team. And they begin to do ministry together, with Timothy as an apprentice and Paul as the mentor. They travel from town to town, delivering the decisions reached by the apostles and elders, and strengthening the churches. Paul brings Timothy alongside and shows him how he does evangelism, and discipleship, and the strengthening of believers.

        In my mind the application of this section is clear: we need to look for apprentices in ministry. For example, Rick Thompson, in his teaching last week, emphasized the role of small groups. But within that emphasis he mentioned apprenticeship - that we should “Apprentice each role with a view to multiplying the group.” Each leader in the group brings a helper along side to learn the skills needed to reproduce the group. The same concept can be extended throughout the church: those doing a ministry should be consciously looking for an apprentice, one you can eventually send out to a similar ministry, or who can take your role so you can move on. I believe this approach is crucial as we move to two services and plan for a daughter church. Developing apprenticeships is going to be in our ministry plan next year.

III. Multiplication through Expansion of Vision (Acts 16:6-10)

        So we’ve seen two keys to multiplication: first, that we have to be willing to divide in order to multiply, and second that we need to multiply leaders by apprenticeship in order to multiply ministries. The final observation about multiplication in this section is that in order for multiplication to be meaningful we have to keep expanding our vision. Acts 16, verses 6 to 10: Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

        Paul, Silas and Timothy moved on to the region of Phrygia in Galatia, probably spending time in Iconium and Pisidian Antioch where Paul had founded churches on the first missionary journey. Now in addition to Galatia and Phrygia, which overlapped, there were three other provinces in what is now Turkey: Asia, Mysia and Bithynia. These provinces, with cities like Collosae and, Ephesus, were attractive to Paul, who always had a heart for reaching places that had not yet heard the Gospel. So he and his companions set off south-west into Asia, but in some undefined way they were prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word. They turned north and tried to enter Bithynia, the province on the southern shore of the Black Sea. But again, in some way Luke doesn’t explain, the Spirit of Jesus would not allow it. We can only speculate that it may have been through giving the missionaries a strong, united inward impression, or through some outward circumstance like illness, Jewish opposition or a legal ban. Or he may have given them direct revelation.

        So, with the southwest and north roads obstructed, the only direction left was north_west. They went through Mysia, to the coast, and arrived in the Aegean port of Troas. They had come all the way from the south_east to the north_west extremities of Asia Minor, by a strangely circuitous route. They must have been wondering what God's plan and purpose were, for so far their guidance had been almost entirely negative.

        But then Paul had a dream or vision in which he saw a man of Macedonia standing and begging him,'Come over to Macedonia (across the Aegean Sea) and help us'. While the man in the dream may have been simply a nameless figure seen on Macedonian soil, it is also possible, as William Ramsay argued that the Macedonian was Luke, whom Paul had probably just met in Troas. We know Luke was there, because in the next verse he begins the first of the 'we_sections' by which he deliberately draws attention to his own presence. Apparently Paul wasn’t content with one or two apprentices - he added Luke to the ministry team as well.

        When Paul told his friends of his vision, they concluded that God had called them to preach the gospel to the Macedonians. A. T. Pierson in his commentary on Acts draws attention to what he calls 'the double guidance' of the Holy Spirit 'on the one hand prohibition and restraint, on the other permission and constraint.' They are forbidden in one direction, invited in another; one way the Spirit says "go not"; the other he calls "come".' Pierson gives other examples from the history of missions: Stanley Livingstone tried to go to China, but God sent him to Africa instead. William Carey planned to go to Polynesia, but God guided him to India. Adoniram Judson went to India first, but was driven on to China.

        Stott reviews God’s work in these verses and says “From this we may learn that usually God's guidance is not negative only but also positive (some doors close, others open); not circumstantial only, but also rational (thinking about our situation); not personal only, but also corporate (thinking it through with others). Indeed the verb symbibazo in verse 10, translated 'concluding' or 'convinced' means literally to 'put together', to infer something from a variety of data. That’s exactly what we need to do as individuals and as a church when we pursue God’s milestones for us.

        So Paul, Silas and Timothy are moving from what we call Asia to what we call Europe. Of course they didn’t know they were entering a new continent - the boundaries weren’t defined at that time. But they knew this was an active expansion of ministry. Multiplying ministry requires not only division of labor and equipping of new leaders, but also a vision for new ministry fields. This delicate interaction between the Spirit and the plans of these men could not have happened if they were not actively looking for the next place to bring the Gospel message. There is a very strong sense in which you have to have movement before God will give direction, just as an aircraft has to be moving through the air before it’s rudder and ailerons can give it the direction the pilot desires. It’s the same way in our individual lives or in the church: you can face any direction you want, have any goal you want, but if you’re not moving, you’re not doing God’s will. God himself cannot redirect a church that has no motion. Paul and his companions reached Europe because they were moving; this way, and then God redirected them; and then this way, and God redirected them, and finally they reached the place he planned for them to be.

        The application is obvious. We as individuals and as a church need to keep expanding our vision for ministry, moving our ministry in some direction. It’s not out of the question that God will refine or even re-direct us down the road. But if we don’t move at all - whether it’s to two services, or planting a daughter church, or founding a special needs ministry, or apprenticing and coaching leaders - if we don’t move we won’t get anywhere. The same is true for you in your own personal response to God: A characteristics of life is motion - anything living that doesn’t move and grow, at least internally, is dead. The milestones that we’re looking at down the road are not there to constrain what God does but to give God the opportunity, through our being in motion, to multiply our ministry.

        So what have we said? ‘To multiply ministry, multiply ministers’ We do that by dividing and doubling ministry opportunities, whether in small groups, Awana, Children’s church or on the larger scale of going to two services or planting a daughter church. But as we do so we need to be focused on multiplying leaders - we need to have in place a conscious program of apprenticeship, just as the Apostle Paul did when he brought Timothy and Luke onto the team. And finally, we need to have a vision for multiplied ministry. We will not reach the world without stretching our boundaries, stretching our comfort zones and taking next steps. I believe God is sending us, just as he has sent every true church through the centuries, a Macedonian call, to reach out to those places where people are crying consciously or unconsciously, ‘come over here and help us.’ To answer that call we have to multiply ministry and to do that we have to multiply leaders - and he may be calling you, Timothy, or you, Luke, to that role.