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The Spreading Flame - Series 4: Episode 4

Establishing and strengthening churches

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 14:21-28

From Derbe, Paul and Barnabas revisited the churches they had planted in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch in Pisidia. They went in person, taught the disciples, gave prophetic insight and established leadership teams. They returned to their sending church - Antioch in Syria - and reported back and rested.

From Derbe, Paul and Barnabas revisited the churches they had planted in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch in Pisidia. They went in person, taught the disciples, gave prophetic insight and established leadership teams. They returned to their sending church - Antioch in Syria - and reported back and rested.


Welcome back as we continue through Series 4. We are following Paul and Barnabas on their amazing first missionary journey and we are now coming to a new phase in this journey.

Background and Introduction

They have been travelling from city to city and we have seen incredible adventures in cities like Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. We are in chapter 14, towards the end of the chapter. They travelled far and wide on their journey and now they are going to retrace their steps and go back to all the places where they have been and planted churches. Series 4 is about the Church developing in an area called Asia Minor, which we know as Turkey. The Apostles, Paul and Barnabas, were sent out from the church in Antioch in Syria and we have followed their amazing adventures. Luke is telling us the story as the Church’s influence is expanding and the reason it is expanding at this point is the incredible energy and gift of the Apostles themselves, as they personally take enormous risks, travel significant distances, preach in difficult circumstances, perform miracles and enable small church communities to be established.

Re-visiting the Churches

At the end of our last passage, Luke says that from the city of Lystra, Paul and Barnabas went to another city called Derbe. We don’t hear very much about what happens in that city but we will find it mentioned as we start our short passage today. Acts 14:21 - 25.

21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 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. 23 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. 24 After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, 25 and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.

Acts 14:21-25, NIV

This passage begins with just one sentence to describe the planting of a church. The city of Derbe is not described. We don’t exactly know what happened, we just hear that Luke compresses the story into one sentence and it says they won a large number of disciples’. There is so much happening in the book of Acts that Luke hasn’t got space to write the whole story. He is always compressing the narrative, he is focusing on the things that he wants to highlight. So, that is an amazing series of miracles in the city that we don’t know anything about. We know another church was planted. By the time they have made this tour - these cities are 40 or 50 km apart - once they have reached this point, a whole series of cities now have small Christian communities that have been established in the last few weeks or months. At this particular point, they had a choice. If they went east, they had a relatively short journey to get back to their starting point, Antioch in Syria. But they had to go west and south, back through all the cities they had been through. They didn’t take the easy option to say, “We’ve planted those churches, we’ll go home now”. They took the difficult option which is to say, “We’re going to go back to every place we’ve been”.

Church Planting Strategy

They retraced their steps to every city. That wasn’t an accident; it was strategic. This tells us something about church planting that will be applicable in many cultures in the world today. Once you have established something, you need to consolidate and strengthen it, or it is at risk of failing, closing or collapsing. Having reached this city of Derbe and had been successful there, they return and go to every single place. There is a community that has been established but it is such a new community, it is fragile. These believers have only been believers for a short period of time. They have had hardly any teaching. We are interested, in this episode, to see what steps Paul and Barnabas take to consolidate the church. What do you need to do to make a church steady and strong? We need to bear in mind that these would be largely groups of people meeting in households. They didn’t have any church buildings. They may have had very little access to public buildings. They would have been refused access to the Jewish synagogues because of the controversy that Paul had had with the Jewish community. They were largely meeting in homes, or perhaps in outdoor meetings in public places when the weather was suitable. These are very newly formed, fairly informal groups of believers who have had a striking encounter with Jesus Christ, through the ministry of Paul and Barnabas but otherwise have no foundations - no knowledge, no support network, no contact with any other Christians, and a very low level of literacy. Most of them, apart from the Jewish members, had no knowledge of the Old Testament, so they were starting from a very small foundation of resources. What did Paul and Barnabas do to consolidate? Four things are in this passage.

Personal Contact

Number one, the first consolidation step is to make personal contact by visiting. Paul always wanted to revisit the places where he had been before. When he couldn’t visit, he had two other strategies of things that he did. He made personal contact, in later stages, by sending a representative and sometimes when he was in prison, he would send a representative. When he was in prison in Rome, he sent Timothy to Ephesus, he sent Titus to Crete because he couldn’t go. Personal contact was really important - either Paul himself, with his team, or some of his colleagues. If he felt that he needed to have other personal contact, his third strategy was to write a letter. This is interesting. New believers and emerging church communities need personal contact with gifted leaders to help them get established. They need to be connected. Paul knew that and so, he took time and on this occasion had the opportunity to go in person. No one was stopping him - he wasn’t in prison and he wasn’t too far away, he was nearby. It was only a day or two’s journey to get from one of these places to another and he could move relatively freely. Paul’s first step was to make personal contact. As we are nurturing new believers and new church communities, personal contact cannot be replaced by anything else. It strengthens faith.


The second step Paul took was teaching. They were strengthening and encouraging the disciples, telling them to remain true to the faith. With new believers, the other great need is teaching and encouragement. Many things discourage, many things stand in the way of newfound faith. There are many temptations, many risks, many pressures from family and society. So, Paul and Barnabas strengthened them with teaching, telling them, no doubt, that if you are saved then it is not a temporary reality, God won’t withdraw his blessing from you. The Holy Spirit has come to live within you. No doubt they said, “Whatever circumstances you go through, God is faithful”. They taught them about faith for God’s provision, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these material things will be added unto you”. They taught them many discipleship realities.

They also taught them, no doubt, to keep evangelising other people. The best way for the church to grow is for those who become believers to quickly give themselves to the task of evangelism. That is a key principle and that is something that Paul was very committed to. In fact, his strategy, generally speaking, was to go to cities and urban areas in the expectation that in the years to come, after he had been there, the Gospel would go into the surrounding community. That is exactly what we see happen in some places, notably Ephesus, which we see a little bit later on in the book of Acts. He would plant churches in urban communities and then they would be spreading out to the surrounding area. That was his vision. That’s why he is almost always in a major city. It would be these new believers who needed to start telling their friends, and the people who live in the countryside nearby, and then new church communities could come from them. Step number one, personal visit, personal connection. 

Step number two, intensive basic teaching. Today, we have access to resources for basic teaching for new believers online, in apps, in all sorts of different places, in books and in pamphlets and there are all sorts of different plans available. This is tremendously important. But Paul and Barnabas did it in person. They came and laid the foundations of a full understanding of the Christian faith. They would have told them about the Old Testament and how important that is. They would have encouraged them to get the translation of the Old Testament that was available to them in the Greek language, and say, “Somebody who can read well, why don’t you get a copy and read it to the group?” They would have suggested some passages to read. The New Testament books hadn’t been written by then. We need to imagine this incredible exercise of building up the church.

Prophetic Perspective

The third thing they did was provide a prophetic perspective on discipleship. They made this interesting statement,

“We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”

That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? What on earth did they mean by that? They basically pointed out that, when you become a Christian, there will be difficulties that will come your way fairly quickly. It might be persecution and opposition; it might be the fact you have to reorganise your life; there might be tensions in your family; there might be issues because you start giving money to the work of the Kingdom. Pressures will come; they might be spiritual pressures from dark, evil forces trying to stop you moving forward. What they were teaching here was, if hardships happen, don’t worry, you are entering the Kingdom of God. They would have told them that the Kingdom of God is going to be fulfilled when Jesus comes back. Look to that point, keep that in mind while you are struggling with issues now. That is the background to that statement. They would have explained that the Kingdom starts in them like a seed planted in the ground and it’s going to keep growing, and one day the Kingdom will come to fulfilment but only when Christ comes. Until then, it is going to be a challenging road. Here is the third thing they brought; a prophetic perspective on discipleship. They did not say, “If you become a Christian. everything is going to be easy; you’re going to be prosperous and successful and God’s going to rescue you from all your problems.” That is what some people say today. I challenge those people to look at the Scriptures. What did the Apostles say? The Apostles said that God is with you with power, he is going to do amazing things. Salvation is real and permanent but this life is complex and there are challenges. We have to persevere and the end result will be tremendous vindication and deliverance on the day that Christ comes. These are the foundations that disciples need.


The fourth step of consolidation is appointing leaders. Every community needs a leader. There is no point saying, “Paul is our leader here in the church in Lystra or Iconium.” He is not going to be there for long. He is the founder, along with Barnabas, but he is not the day-to-day leader, and those two things are fundamentally different. The evangelist who brought you to Christ is not necessarily the leader of your church. Paul and Barnabas spent enough time in each of these small communities. We don’t know how long they spent but it must have been a reasonable time, in order to be able to discern and evaluate which people, responsible men in the community, that they could appoint to a role which is described here as ‘elders’ in the church. What do we mean by church elders? There are three words in the New Testament to describe the leaders of the local church community. One is the word ‘elder’, which basically means community leader. Another is the word ‘shepherd’, which means pastor - someone who is caring for the church members, and the third one is ‘overseer’ which basically means ‘guardian and protector’. ;There’s something about pastoral care, about protection and about leading the community forward, as a kind of father figure in that community. Those were the words that Paul used. One of them is used here - the word elder, which means community leader and this is drawn from the Jewish background. These three words, incidentally, are used in Acts 20 as Paul is having a meeting with a group of elders from the church in Ephesus and they are described by those three terms in the same passage. That gives us an insight into what role Paul had in mind. There will be more about this topic in Series 6, when we come and look at the church in Ephesus. However, these leaders were responsible men in the community.

Notice that in each city they appointed a team. We now have a very interesting idea, in terms of New Testament church leadership, that in a local church there is a team of leaders. Many churches in our world today are led by a single person but the New Testament pattern would be a team of pastors, a team of elders, a team of overseers and every team, of course, has a leader within that team. They are sharing that general responsibility of guardianship, teaching, caring and community leadership amongst the team. We get glimpses of this in the book of Acts. We have already noticed that the Jerusalem church had elders, who are separate from the Apostles. We will find out that the church in Ephesus had a group of elders. In the book of Acts, we see elders mentioned on a number of occasions but this is a particularly interesting example because these people would have had personal maturity but they would not have had the time to have developed a huge amount of knowledge of the Christian faith. They were being given the responsibility to care for the community. The qualifications for those people are described by Paul elsewhere in the New Testament, for example, in 1 Timothy 3 and in Titus 1, where he instructs his colleagues what to look for in people when you’re appointing them as elders. Most of the qualifications are to do with character and lifestyle, and function in community and in family. Obviously they would then have had a discussion with the church members about the proposals and it would have been an agreement between the Apostles and the members. The Greek language that describes this process can be interpreted in a number of ways that suggest the involvement of the church community in the process. Also, interestingly, they prayed and even fasted - going without food to devote time to prayer.

This was an incredibly significant process to make sure these communities held together when Paul and Barnabas had gone, and no one had any idea when and if they would ever return to the city. These people really mattered and so they gave great attention to the appointment of elders, and they prayed for them, together with fasting. If we look at Paul’s teachings elsewhere, we’ll notice that he describes two types of leaders in the local church. One are elders, overseers or shepherds, the senior leaders but also he describes deacons, for example, in Philippians 1: 1,

1 To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers;(or elders) and deacons.

Philippians 1:1 NIV

There were other leaders in churches who had responsibility for particular areas of its ministry that are not mentioned here but would have developed within those churches, as they did in other churches that Paul founded. The elders do not do all the work, they don’t have all the spiritual gifts; they don’t run all the ministries of the church, but they are the guardians. They keep it together and they trust God to create a strong and vibrant community. That was the role that Paul was calling these men into. These were very significant meetings with these young believers. It would have had a huge impact on the church. They would have felt the love of Paul and Barnabas and they would have felt the security that their church was being cared for by responsible men in the community.

Return to Antioch

And so, we continue with our passage, Acts 14: 26 - 28,

26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

Acts 14:26-28 NIV

This whole process started in Antioch in chapter 13. In the first few verses of chapter 13, the leaders of that church, the prophets and teachers, gathered to pray and the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me, Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them.” Here, in chapter 14, we have the end of the story. We don’t know how much time has passed, many months have passed while they had been away, going to places that they had never visited before and they come back now with tremendously good news for the church in Antioch. If you imagine yourself as a member of the church in Antioch: you have been praying week after week for Paul and Barnabas and you hardly hear anything about what they are doing. They have disappeared into another country. They are going from city to city and now they have come back and they tell you, “We have, through the grace of God, established churches in about six cities, in new provinces. We’ve created a whole new area of Christian ministry and outreach.” How wonderful that would have been if you were a member of the church in Antioch, to know that your prayers have been answered, and also that Paul and Barnabas had arrived back safely. There was no guarantee of that. It was a dangerous mission.


What can we learn from this passage? There are many things that probably come to your mind but a few things that I would like to highlight by way of reflection are: first of all, it is interesting to notice here a cycle, a period of intense activity and then rest. They stayed a long time in Antioch. They rested, they built up their strength, they were encouraged. The pressure was off for a bit. That is interesting. In terms of Christian mission. You have to build in times where you are trying to achieve certain targets and times where you are consolidating and resting. The same applies to us as individuals. We can’t be on maximum energy and output, giving at all times. There have to be times of being built up. Paul and Barnabas knew that.

The second reflection I have is about the significance of effective local church leadership. Churches are being planted all over the world, and maybe in your country this is going on very quickly at the moment. Many of them are being planted just on the basis of households, households in villages and towns. If that is happening, then we need to give attention to leadership within those new church communities. We need to be as concerned about that as Paul and Barnabas were here to make sure they consolidated those communities.

I want to conclude by thinking about the church in Antioch in Syria - the sending church, the resource church, the large church, the giving church, the one that shares their most gifted leaders. These churches really matter. In God’s economy, in all the nations of the world today, there will be churches which are resource churches, which have more resources than they need for their own well-being. They can be incredibly strategic in the advance of the Kingdom, as they identify mission fields, and put human resources, prayer and finance towards developing the Kingdom. Maybe you are in one of those resource churches. I want you to see the connection between your type of church and the Antioch church that sent Paul and Barnabas.

My final reflection is concerning prayer and fasting. Fasting is a very important biblical practice that Jesus mandated and made part of the discipleship culture in Matthew 6, in the Sermon on the Mount. From my point of view, I consider fasting a central part of the Christian life - a regular practice. It is noticeable here that this success story has two mentions of fasting and prayer. One at the beginning, when in Antioch in Acts 13: 1 - 2, they were considering what God wanted them to do and they prayed and fasted, and then they sent Paul and Barnabas off. Paul and Barnabas also had some fasting in the local church communities as they appointed elders. Fasting, alongside prayer, is crucial to hearing God’s will and releasing his breakthrough into our lives. The fasting recorded in this passage, and in Acts 13, was significant in bringing about the incredible result that is described in this chapter, which is as follows: Paul and Barnabas have been to about six or more major cities in what we would call Southern Turkey or Asia Minor and, without any other input from anybody else and without any visible support when they were there, they have established churches in all of those communities from nothing - from absolutely nothing. God has done a great miracle in this first missionary journey. This is a template and an example of a process that will be repeated throughout the book of Acts, and which is still relevant to the Church today where, in our world, many churches need to be planted in many countries. In order to have the vision, and the energy to do that, we need the book of Acts which tells us how the Apostles did it. This will motivate and encourage us on that amazing journey.

Thanks for listening. Join us shortly, for the final episode in this series, where something dramatic happens which looks like it’s going to be a major setback but then turns out to be overcome by great wisdom from church leaders. But let’s save that for next time. Hope to see you then.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What are the advantages of working in teams?
  • Discipleship
    1. How important is fasting with prayer for you today?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What strategies did Paul use to establish new churches?
    2. Antioch became a resource church. Do you have that type of church? How can they help smaller churches?
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