Reading: Acts 15:36-16
Paul’s second missionary journey was a much bigger event than his first. The travelogue of it starts when Paul and Barnabas start planning it in Acts 15:36, and it continues through chapter 18, and following there are some longer accounts of what happened during the trip. We have no plans of going through the entire travelogue. I am guessing none of us has the knowledge of first century Asia and Europe to make reading the text nearly as helpful as looking at a map that clearly shows the route taken — I know that I get more out of looking at a map than reading a list of place-names.
A look at the map tells us several things: First: Unlike the first trip, Paul leaves Jerusalem, hits Damascus and Antioch, and then goes directly to his hometown, which is a place that he missed on his first journey. The second thing that we see is that this is a much bigger trip than the first one taking Paul all the way to Europe, as he goes through modern-day Greece. Another thing that we should see, looking at the map, is city and province names that match Paul’s epistles such as Philippians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians. — this trip is something that we could either rush over with a brief introduction, or we could give each stop its own day and stay in Acts for the rest of the year. I’m going to follow the choice our Sunday School material did, and go with the quick introduction, skipping most of the travelogue.
I’m going to start off with a quick overview of the first missionary journey. The first missionary journey followed a revelation to the Church of Antioch that the gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews. A committee appointed Paul and Barnabas to travel to modern-day Turkey and to the island of Cyprus. Paul and Barnabas took a young man, John Mark to accompany them on their journey, but he abandoned the mission right after leaving Cyprus and landing in Asia Minor. Paul and Barnabas continued on their missionary journey until they were mistaken for gods, and then stoned as soon as the crowds were convinced that they were not gods.
After Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, there was a bit of a controversy about what to do with the Gentile Christians. The church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch were not united in what was necessary to join the church, so they had a multi-church business meeting where they discussed what needed to be done with the Gentile Christians. The result of this meeting was an affirmation of Gentile Christianity, allowing for a great expansion of Christianity.
Here is where today’s reading starts; in the words immediately after the epistle telling about the decision, Paul and Barnabas start talking about making a second trip to visit to visit the places where they went in their first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas get in an argument because Barnabas wants to take John Mark, and Paul does not. The result of the argument is that Barnabas travels with Mark and Paul travels with Silas.
Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, where the first missionary journey began, and if you recall his hometown. Unfortunately, Acts does not tell me anything about the journey of Barnabas and Mark. I can’t tell you what happened after Barnabas left, beyond tradition has mentioned Barnabas visiting Rome and Alexandria, suggesting that he might have journeyed as far as Paul did, and it also says that he was martyred in Cyprus, which makes sense if he settled there.
Paul took Silas, who carried the letter from Jerusalem to Antioch, and they ministered first in Syria and Paul’s home province of Cilicia. When they went to Lystra in the province of Galatia they picked up Timothy, and they ministered `from town to town.’ and eventually Paul had a vision calling him to go all the way to Macedonia, which is part of what we now call Greece, and he even made it to Athens. Paul’s second missionary journey brought Christianity to Europe.
This trip covered over 2500 miles, one way, and it is believed to have taken seven years. While Paul is traveling, he writes a number of epistles, including I Thessalonians, he corresponded with the church in Corinth, he wrote Galatians, and he wrote an epistle to the Romans, telling them that he hoped to make it all the way to Rome. In the first journey, Paul and Barnabas went to places relatively close to their own homes — this second journey would be quite the expedition even with modern technology, in the second journey Paul felt called west, and he went much further than I would have imagined possible — and he felt called to go even further west.
This story of Paul Silas and Timothy going halfway to the end of the Earth, along with Barnabas and Mark’s departure for their own untold adventure is epic. The part of Acts that follows Acts 15 is something that we can reference when we study the Epistles so we can get a bit of the narrative related to the epistle. What we are studying now is the context of Paul’s letters.
Instead of trying to expand the travelogue until it is a book, where every stop forms its own chapter, I think I’ll step back and reflect on the lessons that I learn from the story that has unfolded from the beginning of Acts to this point. I will start by observing that we are now in the part of Acts where the church is obeying the great commission, and bringing the gospel to the ends of the Earth. Let us consider what it for this obedience to happen.
After Pentecost, the disciples were perfectly content to stay in Jerusalem, and it took persecution for them to leave, fortunately, because of persecution they took the gospel to places such as Antioch and Damascus, and other places with a significant Jewish population. It took almost two decades before there was a deliberate, planned missionary journey — and that planned missionary journey was followed by extreme controversy. The church in Jerusalem and the Church in Antioch had a significantly different vision.
The difference in mission led to a joint business meeting between the Jerusalem and Antioch churches. A decision was made that made it clear that there was a place for Gentile Christianity, and by extension a special mission to the Gentile. What Acts does not tell us about is something that we see in Paul’s letters — a business meeting is not the end of the argument. Most of Paul’s letters mention the people who travel to Christian communities and try to tell them that they need to be circumcised and stop eating pork even though there was an agreement that none of this was necessary. The only way I can describe this is that there was a church split between those who accepted the results of the business meeting and those who did not.
When Jesus told His disciples to go to the ends of the Earth making disciples, it didn’t come easy. It took persecution to get out of Jerusalem. It took God miraculously showing himself both to church leaders, and an outsider who would devote his life to the mission, it took heated arguments, hurt feelings and even a church split.
It seems like everything that drove the church to take its mission more seriously was something that one would think of as a major threat or a bad sign. The thing I take away from this is that God was working with the church, even when they felt like they would be destroyed from the outside. God was working with the church, even when they were too consumed with prejudice to even think about obeying Christ’s commands to bring the gospel to the world. God worked with the church when they fought to the point of breaking relationships and church unity. To quote Paul, Christ is faithful to the church, even when the people of the church are faithless.
Another thing that I take away from this is that Christ kept meeting the church where it was at. When the church was founded, it took them almost two decades before they were ready to accept that Jesus really meant the ends of the Earth. Acts show us a series of crisis points where the church accepted a wider mission than they had before, and they expanded their vision. There was a push to go forward, but nobody was called to Athens in the first few years after the Pentecost. This is a lesson that is hard for me; you see I’m impatient. I want everybody to be ready for heaven now, live a life defined by love, and eager to preach the gospel throughout the world and accept those who profess Christianity as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now, I know I am one of the people from the ends of the Earth. The bulk of my ancestry were the barbarians who lived on the edges of the Roman empire; many of them lived in places outside the control of the Empire. I have friends who come from even more distant places than my ancestors did. I am perfectly aware that the Gospel has been heard even in the ends of the Earth. My ancestors lived on the edges, and even outside the Roman world — my wife’s ancestors lived in a place the Romans didn’t know existed; we’re doing pretty good at that one now.
We are not much better, however, at living out Christ commandment to love one another than Peter and Paul were. We are not much better at being gracious, or forgiving than leaders in the early church. The good news is that God does not ask us to be perfect before we can serve God. God meets us where we are at, and leads us into obedience as we grow in Christ. I see Good News in how Paul was both faithful, and yet at times ungracious. They were not yet perfect, even as we are not yet perfect — but God kept leading them forward, showing them a more complete vision. It is good news that God keeps working with us and challenging us to grow as well.