My manuscript from this past Sunday is below. I preached from Acts 14 and also talked a lot about our recent trip to Japan. You can download the audio here.
It’s truly amazing to see how the Lord works. Many years ago, Ryan Davis volunteered to research a partnership for our first ever mission trip. After a lot of digging, he suggested Brazil. We took our first trip there in 2010. By the start of 2016, we should have two full-time missionaries serving in Rio de Janeiro.
Last Thursday I got off a plane after spending seven days in Tokyo. Drew and Meg Glosson are raising support to serve there full-time. Jeremy and Leanna Grove are planning to join them, as well. This was my fourth trip there. I love the place. I’m so excited we get to be a part of what God will do there. I couldn’t be more enthused about the church planters we’ll partner with.
My mind races back to sitting before a very hyperactive Dan Glosson in Lakota downtown back in 2009. He talked my ears off about Japan and the great need for the gospel there. Now we’re a part of it. Isn’t the Lord amazing?
This morning, we’ll continue on in our series through the book of Acts. We’ll look more at Paul’s first missionary journey. As I do, though, I want to share with you some about our journey to Japan. There are encouragements for us in this passage - as we seek to share Jesus there. And as we seek to do the same thing here. Let’s pray.
Paul and Barnabas on Mission
Here’s what we see happen in these brief paragraphs. The disciples are driven out of Antioch Pisidia and head into nearby Iconium. They keep with their main strategy of starting at the synagogue. They preach the gospel there, and God works. Many Jews and Gentiles come to faith in Christ.
But the Jews who reject Jesus don’t like it. They stir up trouble among the Gentiles. As so often happens, “religious” people throw up road blocks in the way of the “irreligious.” Or at least before those who don’t worship the true God. But the actions of the Jews here show they’re not worshipping the Lord above either. They’re no closer to Him than the Gentiles.
Now this doesn’t stop Paul and Barnabas. In fact, they dig their heels in deeper. And God shows up. He does miracles that confirm the gospel. More and more people get saved. And controversy erupts all around them. Some folks side with the apostles. Others go with the Jews.
At some point a group of Jews and Gentiles teams up, it says “with their rulers,” and tries to kill them. They show up with stones. Paul and Barnabas then skip town. Here we see that it’s ok at times to flee. We don’t want to fear death, but if we can live to preach another day, why not? And that’s what they do. They find a new place to preach until persecution erupts again.
To this point, they’d been ministering in influential cities along Roman highways. Here they head out into the country, moving east to the villages of “Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia.” All of chapter 14 takes place in what was called Asia Minor, in what is modern-day Turkey.
Apparently there is no synagogue in Lystra, because the men don’t start there. They instead proclaim Jesus in a public place. A crippled man - one who’s never walked before - hears Paul preach. He’s receptive. The apostle heals him. The man gets up and walks. And the crowd goes wild. In fact, they try to worship Paul and Barnabas.
They think they’re the Greek gods Zeus - the top dog - and Hermes - his messenger. There’s a temple to Zeus in that town, and the priest comes to offer sacrifices to them. Apparently a legend circulated that Zeus and Hermes had visited that region in the form of men before. They came to the hills nearby, looking for hospitality. And they got shut out. By everybody but one elderly couple. That couple ended up with a golden temple for a home. Everyone else’s homes got destroyed.
The crowd and the priest are no doubt trying to worship God’s messengers out of fear. But Paul and Barnabas freak out a bit themselves when that happens. They tear their garments - an expression of deep sorrow. They command them to stop. Paul preaches a mini-sermon. He tells the people to flee idolatry - to worship the true God who made everything.
This God who has been gracious to them - whether they’ve noticed it or not. Here we see the biblical doctrine that’s been called “common grace.” It’s God’s grace that goes to all people at all times and in all places. Paul says this of the Lord in verse 17:
Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.
Rain that waters the ground. The produce brought to the table. The laughs with family around those meals. All of that comes from the Lord - even to unbelievers and rebels. As Jesus puts it in Matthew 5:45, “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Common grace.
This mini-sermon has common themes to what we’ll see later on in Acts 17. We see how flexible Paul is here. How adaptable good missionaries have to be. He doesn’t go back to the Old Testament as he does with Jews. Here with Gentiles, he starts out with something more foundational. There is one true God who demands our worship.
Paul can also preach in the country - as he does here in Lystra - or in the city - as he does in Iconium. Effective servants have to know their audience and adapt their message well. They don’t cut anything out. They don’t compromise one bit. They just know where they are and who they’re talking to.
That’s Acts 14:1-18. As I’ve read this passage over and over, I’ve seen some truths about the gospel and what it does. I’ve also seen some truths about those who share the gospel, and what they can expect. A word for sinners. And a word for servants. God gives freedom for both. The Lord offers freedom for sinners and freedom for servants. Let’s look at that now. And as we do, I want to give you a window into our trip to Japan.
Freedom For Sinners
In the land of the Rising Sun, the disabled have long been hidden in the shadows. It’s a shame-based culture. It’s one that values conformity. A New York Times article talks about a man who was hidden from the public in his room and only went out once a year. Another tells how disabled Japanese are assigned to special schools as children and later placed in rehabilitation centers to work for peanuts per month. Things are getting better in Japan, but people with disabilities largely live without hope.
Hopeless describes the situation for this man here in Lystra in Acts 14. And we learn that there is freedom for sinners in the body. Verse 9 says he has been “crippled from birth” and has “never walked.” Paul here heals the man.
The guy gets up and dances around. And people are blown away. There is hope. Hope for freedom for the body. For sinners who trust in Jesus.
We’ve been saying throughout Acts that we need to pray for healing. We need to believe God can do miracles, like this man here who the passage says has “faith to be made well.” But the reality is that most of this lies in the future. When Jesus returns. In a new heavens and new earth. Then freedom will come. And that gives us hope now. If we’re stricken with excruciating back pain. If we’re tired all the time and don’t know why. Freedom will one day come.
But that’s not the only kind of freedom we see here for sinners who believe. We also see freedom for sinners in the soul. This year I had the opportunity to see a Japanese believer named Takumi again. The church planter we’re working with is a man named Yoshi. Yoshi met Takumi at a festival and began sharing meals with him. Takumi once stayed in his room and played games all day. Now he’s found freedom. His sister, Mami, saw the change in his life. She, too, was what the Japanese call hikikomori - an entire group of people who isolate themselves from the world. Now they live in community. They’ve found freedom in Jesus. Hope.
A hope that’s not that common in Japan. One thing I love about the country is the public transportation - the trains. The Japanese do things so perfectly, so efficiently, that rarely are they delayed. If they are, there’s generally the same reason. Someone has thrown himself on the tracks. The nation’s consistently had the highest suicide rate in the world. If you realize you can’t measure up, you can’t do things perfectly. If you think you’re going to bring shame to your family. You end it all. There’s little hope.
Paul and Barnabas preach freedom for overwhelmed, weary hearts here in Iconium and Lystra in Acts 14. Verse 1 says a “great number of both Jews and Greeks [believe].” They embrace what verse 3 calls “the word of His grace.” The second half the passage, though, tells us what the real problem is. Paul and Barnabas again heal the man, and the people bow down to them. They try to offer sacrifices to them. Hear how Paul responds in verse 15:
Acts 14:15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them…”
We visited the main temple in Tokyo again this year. There thousands of people visit a day. They pay money to offer prayers to the gods to guarantee them good fortune. They practice Shintoism, along with some Buddhism, where they worship their ancestors. The eldest son visits his parents’ graves, performing worship, maintaining the favor of the gods. And in exchange for the inheritance. But parents are not all they worship.
I traveled to Japan with Drew Glosson and four other pastors. On one train ride, we were discussing the end times. What did we believe about the 1000 year reign of Christ at the end? The millennium. Drew spoke up quickly and said, “I’m a pantheist.” He botched the punch line for a joke maybe you’ve heard before. When it comes to the end times, I’m not premillennial or postmillennial or amillennial. I’m pan-millennial. Everything is going to pan out in the end.” Drew, however, screwed up and said “pantheist.” What’s a pantheist? Someone who worships nature. Maybe we shouldn’t send that boy to Japan! That’s what the Japanese already worship! And Paul says, “Turn from idols! Don’t worship the creation, and certainly not humans like us! Worship the Lord who made it all!”
Idol worship, though, isn’t just something that happens in Japan. We turn from the Creator to created things. We worship things like money and sex. We pursue them with our souls. And Tim Keller has pointed out that ancient cultures just had gods that represented those desires. The Greeks had Aphrodite to represent love and sex.
Hermes, who’s referred to here, was among many things, the god of trade. We may not have the statues, but we worship sex and trade. And we do it ultimately because of what they bring us - approval, comfort, power, and control. But all of those things leave us empty. But Jesus promises freedom for the soul.
Freedom for the body, the soul, and the whole person. Listen to me carefully here. We too quickly want to separate the body and soul. We get mixed up and think eternity will look like our souls flying around bodiless. But in the new world, we’ll be whole persons - as we are now - body and soul. We’ll just be redeemed. Redeemed from our fallen condition.
And that fall affects all of us now. Sin has impacted not just our hearts, but all His creation. Our bodies. Are we depressed because of sin in our hearts or because of our chemicals in our brains? Yes. Does Bruce Jenner want to be a woman because he’s a messed-up idolater in his heart or because something’s not quite right with his body? Likely both.
The fact that our bodies are fallen and make us want to overeat or fly off the handle doesn’t excuse us from sin in our hearts. We all carry those struggles. But the gospel promises freedom from it all. Now in part. One day in full. Jesus gives freedom for the body, for the soul, for the whole person. For the Japanese. For Americans like us. But that’s not all we see here in this passage.
Freedom For Servants
We also see freedom for servants here. Check out this piece of artwork on the screen. This attempts to put an image to some of the worst persecution the Christian world has ever seen. It happened right around 400 years ago in Japan. Christians were systematically rooted out, tortured, and killed in the 15 and 1600s. This painting shows the 26 Christians in Nagasaki who were mutilated, paraded through the streets, and then crucified in public view.
Thousands of others, even small children, were beheaded or burned when they wouldn’t deny trust in Jesus. Christianity was systematically stamped out, and it has never recovered.
But just before that dark period, Christians and the clergy had favored status. They won the approval of a key warlord. The church then took off. But it didn’t last long. A shogun named Ieyasu tried to unite Japan and expel all foreigners. Both extremes have been seen in the history of Japan. Slaughter and favor.
Here in Acts 14, it’s striking to see the extremes the servants of Jesus experience. We first see freedom for servants who face criticism. Look at the first few verses again. Paul and Barnabas are preaching. People are believing. And verse 3 says, “But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” This doesn’t stop them from preaching, though. People are uniting around the gospel. But others are uniting - even across Jewish and Gentile lines - to try to kill them.
But that doesn’t stop them. They’re free men. The criticism doesn’t control them. The Lord does. They care what He thinks. They keep going. But they get chased out of town. And next week, we’ll see those same Jewish leaders follow them to this one. Notice the difference, though, in Lystra. Read verses 11-13, after Paul heals the man:
Acts 14:11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds.
Quite the change of circumstances, huh? Now they’re being celebrated. For most of us, that’s poison in our veins. The ring of power sucks us in and about kills us.
But they’re not controlled by that celebration. They’re concerned about God’s glory. So they don’t welcome it. They freak out about it. They do the opposite of what we saw Herod do previously in Acts. He soaked it up and got taken out. We second here see freedom for servants who experience celebration.
One minute they’re hated. Another they’re worshipped. And hear me: this is the future for all true servants of Jesus. Not just pastors. All those who live on mission. Both of these things. And we should expect this. If everybody likes us, we’re obviously not saying hard things. We’re pandering to the crowd. We’re not calling sin what it is. We’re looking too much like what everybody already knows. If everyone hates us, we’re not holding out a message of grace. We’re not sharing the gospel of Jesus. We’re being mean. And we also know, if we are sharing Him, lives will be changed and they’ll be brought into our family.
Friends, we shouldn’t just expect it. We should want it. If people at times love us and hate us, it means we’re being effective. It means we’re looking like the early church. It means we’re wisely reaching out to our culture. We’re not affirming everything about it. But we’re welcoming her to be changed by Jesus. We’re showing truth and love. And we confound people. And win people as we share.
I’ve said this often, but I want us to be more passionate about evangelism than most conservative Christians and more passionate about social justice than most liberal Christians. We want to make both sides uncomfortable. We’ll make people mad when we say that Bruce Jenner is going against nature and is hurting himself. We must say those things - through tears of compassion. But sometimes we’ll please people as we feed the hungry. As we take in orphans. Fueled by that same compassion. Abuse and honor. But often we don’t just feel these extremes. We experience something somewhere in the middle.
Yoshi is the pastor we’re partnering with in Tokyo. What he’s likely to experience - along with the other Christians in his church - is not hatred or honor. It’s something in between. More likely, indifference. A shrug. A smile and a nod. There’s always been a resistance to outsiders. Racism there is huge. Yet now there is an openness to the world, as their economy is global. But Japanese do all they can not to offend, too. Drew and Meg and little Takumi will no doubt experience all of that. But God will sustain them. He’ll use them. There is freedom for servants in times of criticism, in celebration, and the times in between.
Here’s why we need to be freed. Criticism angers us. We don’t think we’re getting our due. Celebration stokes that desire for honor. The indifference frustrates us because we want to be relevant, important. What’s fueling all of those things? Idolatry. We’re concerned about us. Jesus frees us to be concerned about what God thinks. About His reputation. We’re free from our fixation on “vain things,” as verse 15 puts it. We long to serve the glory of the “living God.”
This is a reminder, of course, to never worship Christians or Christian leaders and never long for that yourself. My little girl asked me yesterday if I ever wished I was famous. I said yes, but only in my sin. Really, I don’t. I want Jesus to be famous. We have to watch out for this desire in ourselves. But watch out also for putting all your hope in church leaders. They’ll undoubtedly let you down. We’ve got to put an end to this celebrity pastor stuff. Paul would have flipped out over it. We should have learned this last year, as Mark Driscoll got forced out. And Rob Bell joined forces with Oprah.
But here’s a key thing I want you to leave with: why put up with the ups and downs of ministry? Getting hated and hyped up and ignored? Frankly, I often want to quit. What keeps me going? The hope that God will work. The fact that I’ve seen Him do it. Look at this picture from a tower in Tokyo. 36 million people. Only .2% Christians. Often called the “missionary’s graveyard.” Japan.
Why would Karis want to get involved in this country? Where fruit has seldom been harvested? Why would Drew and Meg and Jeremy and Leanna want to go? Why would they sign up for that? Out of the hope that the Lord will work. That He’ll do what we see in Act 14:1 - where “a great number” come to know Jesus. That He’ll do “signs and wonders” as verse 3 describes. That His “word of grace” will sweep through that country and grant great freedom. That Jesus might turn that nation upside-down. And people won’t have to throw themselves in front of trains anymore. They won’t have to pay money for wishes at the temple anymore. They won’t have to buy lifelike sex dolls in Akihabara anymore. They’ll know Jesus and have hope.
And in case, you don’t realize it, the Japanese need this hope. I was broadcasting from the app Periscope from the temple last week, and Drew made some comments on the camera. One thing he said was, “These people need Jesus.” Someone typed in the chat on Periscope, “They need Jesus?” Yes, they do. And Jesus deserves their worship. They need Him. Their lives show it. Just as ours do. We’re no better than they are. We all need the same thing, the same One.
I read this article the other day on the new “For the Church” website by a guy named Ben Reed. He recounts a phone conversation he had with a pastor who said, matter-of-fact-ly, “Our church will never grow.” He thought God couldn’t handle his town, and certainly not Tokyo. Reed writes:
Basically I was being told, “Evangelism won’t work for us. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is for everyone else. Because of where we live, we’re off the hook. Jesus couldn’t have meant us when he commanded us them to make disciples of all nations. No way. No how.”
If you get to the point where you feel like the Gospel isn’t
addiction-breaking enough (Tweet that)
to shape your community and grow your congregation, get out of the ministry.
Do something else. Anything else. The Gospel is too important to waste, too powerful to keep confined to a small box. Pastors, your community needs you. It needs you to believe that there’s hope in the Gospel. There’s healing to be found in surrender. That marriages can be reconciled. That change is possible. The Gospel is not small.
Brothers and sisters, the gospel is not small! We believe the church can recover and even flourish in Japan! The Spirit can break through hard hearts. He can heal our worn out bodies. He can change us and those around us - all of us. Jesus truly changes sinners. He promises freedom. Freedom from idolatry - from running to things that won’t satisfy. Here and across the ocean.
He can also keep us faithful through the ups and downs of serving Jesus. Criticisms. Celebrations. Everything in between. He can change us and those around us - all of us again. He can sustain His servants even in Japan. And here in CoMo. He gives freedom. Freedom from idolatry - from taking ourselves too seriously. The Lord offers freedom for sinners and freedom for servants.
I want to close with five encouragements for you this morning:
Revel in this freedom we’ve found.
Marvel at this news we get to share.
Brace yourself for what you’ll face.
Dream about where He’ll lead.
Pray about how you can help.
Did you know “gospel music” is huge in Japan? It is, largely thanks to Sister Act. But they don’t know what gospel means. They lack its freedom and hope. Just like here at home. Let’s pray that changes - here and there - for God’s glory