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Lesson 23: Getting Involved in Ministry (Acts 9:19-31)

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The United States Navy has over 700 ships that comprise what is called the “Mothball Navy.” These vessels, anchored in various harbors around the country, receive regular maintenance to prevent rust. But they’re just sitting there, doing nothing, even though they require a lot of money and effort to maintain them.

Ask any pastor and he will tell you that one of the frustrations of the ministry is that there are so many mothballed Christians in the church. They sit harbored there, week in and week out. They require maintenance, especially when they have a problem or need. But they’re not doing anything to serve the Lord. Pastors call this the 80-20 rule, that 20 percent of the Christians do 80 percent of the work. But this should not be. If Christ has saved you from your sins, then out of love you should be zealous to serve Him. As Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). If we are growing to be like Jesus, our focus in life should be to serve Him.

Immediately after describing the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul), Luke goes on to tell of his initial efforts in serving the Lord. Luke wants us to see that Saul’s conversion was genuine. The persecutor very quickly becomes the persecuted because of his bold proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God and the Christ. But Saul was not a special case.

God wants all whom He has saved to serve Him in whatever situations He puts them.

If God has saved you, He wants you to be involved in ministry in some capacity. It may be, if you are a mother with young children, that at this phase in life, your primary ministry is to rear those children to know and love the Savior. I am not suggesting that you should neglect your family responsibilities to work in the church. At the other extreme, some are so cloistered in their families that they teach their children by example to be selfish and to disregard the need for serving Christ. Surely, this is also wrong. What I am advocating is a ministry mindset, where a person is so thankful to the Lord Jesus for saving him, that he can no longer live for himself, but rather for Him who died and rose again on his behalf (2 Cor. 5:15). This kind of person is always looking for how God wants to use him in whatever situation the Lord has put him. The apostle Paul’s early experiences in ministry picture this kind of life. There are five lessons for us:

1. New believers should immediately begin bearing witness about Jesus Christ.

Paul did not sit around very long after he got saved before he started to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus (9:19-20). He could have thought, “Well, I’m kind of new at this. I had better wait until I get it all together before I open my mouth.” He could have thought, “I’m going to look like a fool. After all, I came here to arrest followers of Christ. People will think that I’m unstable if I let them know that I now follow Him.” Or, he could have thought, “Damascus isn’t my home. I’m just visiting here temporarily. I’ll wait until I get back home to begin my ministry.” But he didn’t make up excuses. He just started proclaiming, “Jesus is the Son of God.” “Jesus is the Christ” (9:20, 22).

Saul didn’t have it all together at first. This is implied by the statement, “But Saul kept increasing in strength” (9:22). The local rabbi might have nailed him the first time he spoke out for Jesus. But that didn’t stop him from trying again and again. The more he bore witness of Christ, the stronger he became.

You learn by doing, not just by head knowledge. Of course you need a certain amount of head knowledge before you speak out for the Lord. But there is no better way to learn than to get involved and get nailed! The first time someone hits you with a question that you don’t know how to answer, you’ll be motivated to get into God’s Word and find the answer. D. L. Moody said, “If you don’t go to work for the Lord because you’re afraid of making mistakes, you will probably make the greatest mistake of your life—that of doing nothing.”

You may wonder, “What would I say?” The answer is, “Speak about Jesus Christ.” Show people from the Bible who Jesus is and what He did by dying on the cross.

Saul began proclaiming, “Jesus is the Son of God.” This is the only time that this title appears in Acts (but see 13:33). For the Jews, it was a clear reference to Jesus’ deity. John 5:18 states that they were trying to kill Jesus because He “was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” Near the end of His ministry, Jesus baited the Pharisees with the question of how the Messiah could be both David’s son and David’s Lord, implying both His own Sonship and deity (Luke 20:41-44). Jesus stated the uniqueness of His relationship with the Father when He said, “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Luke 10:22). At Jesus’ trial, the high priest asked, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus replied, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62). People need to know that Jesus is uniquely God’s Son, one with the Father (John 10:30). He cannot save sinners if He is only a great man.

Saul also confounded the Jews by proving that this Jesus is the Christ (9:22). When he went back to Jerusalem, Saul took up with the Hellenistic Jews where Stephen had left off. Scripture was the basis for his arguments. F. F. Bruce says that the word “proving” means literally “putting together,” and adds, “here it implies that the prophetic Scriptures were put alongside their fulfilment, in order to prove that Jesus was the Messiah of whom they spoke” (The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], pp. 203-204, footnote 42). In this regard, Saul had a great advantage over many new believers in our culture, in that he knew the Old Testament Scriptures very well even before he was saved. But that should motivate all of us to devour God’s Word, so that we can make a defense from Scripture for the hope that is within us, that Jesus is God’s Anointed One, sent to this earth as the Savior of all who will trust in Him.

I would encourage every believer, both recent and not so recent, to get the Evangelism Explosion training that we offer. It will help you to be bold in witness for Christ. Every Christian should be equipped to tell others about the Savior.

2. New believers should take time to deepen their roots with the Lord.

I am drawing this point not directly from our text, but by piecing together another Scripture that is essential for understanding the history of Saul right after his conversion. In Galatians 1:15-18, Paul says that after his conversion, he did not immediately consult with anyone, nor did he go up to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles. Rather, he went away to Arabia, and then returned once more to Damascus. Then three years later he went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Peter, staying with him for 15 days. He also met James, the half-brother of Jesus. Since the Hebrews considered any part of a year as a year, the “three years” could have been as short as 14 months total. But Paul’s sojourn in Arabia must have taken place between Acts 9:22 and 23. Arabia refers to the area to the east and/or south of Damascus. Some think that he spent time in the Sinai desert, where Moses received the law.

What did Saul do there? We can surmise that he spent time poring over the Scriptures that he knew so well from his upbringing, but this time examining them from the fresh light of his conversion experience with the risen and exalted Jesus Christ. Just as the risen Jesus had taken the men on the Emmaus Road through Moses and all the prophets, explaining to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27), so the Lord now did with Saul. This is the implication of his testimony in Galatians 1, that he did not receive his message from any man, but from the Lord Himself. Surely the Lord revealed Himself to Saul through the Scriptures, giving him insight into things that he formerly thought that he knew, but did not really know at all.

Also, note that although Saul’s experience on the Damascus Road was very personal and emotionally traumatic, his faith had a strong doctrinal flavor to it. Many of his epistles—Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians—begin with a theological foundation before they move into the practical sections. He did not write these things for seminary students to debate, but for everyday Christians, to help them live for Christ in their daily experience. Go through his Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy & Titus) and note the emphasis on sound doctrine. We see this doctrinal emphasis in our text, in that he was able to confound and argue from Scripture with these knowledgeable Jews.

I emphasize this because in our day, doctrine and theology tend to be despised among those claiming to be evangelical Christians. But this is not a biblical emphasis and it will yield tragic results if we do not stem the tide. Sound biblical doctrine is the only solid foundation for healthy Christian experience. Yes, there is always the danger that knowledge will puff up a person with pride (1 Cor. 8:1). But the antidote is not to be theologically ignorant! My heroes in the faith have always been men like Paul who combine solid doctrine with a fervent heart love for Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to deepen your knowledge of Scripture by reading and studying it until you know it well. Supplement this by reading men like John Calvin, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter (and other Puritans), Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, J. C. Ryle, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Their sermons are widely available and are devotionally rich. In our day, James Boice, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and John Piper all combine solid theology with a fervent devotion for Jesus Christ.

While Saul probably spent much of his time in Arabia studying God’s Word, it is likely that he did not just hide out in seclusion somewhere. Apparently he had been bold enough as a witness in Arabia to incur the displeasure of the king, Aretas. So when Saul returned to Damascus, the ethnarch under Aretas teamed up with the Jews in trying to seize Saul (2 Cor. 11:30-33). He had to escape for his life over the wall of the city in a basket at night. That leads to the next point:

3. New believers should be prepared to face opposition and rejection.

Often new believers naively think that since God loves them, He will protect them from all trials and hardship. But even a casual reading of the Bible shows that this is simply not so.

A. Be prepared to face opposition and rejection from without.

The Jews were dumbfounded at first when Saul began proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God (9:21). They wondered if it was a case of mistaken identity! But when it continued after he returned from Arabia, their patience grew thin and they sought to kill him. In Jerusalem, he met the same hostility from the Hellenistic Jews who had killed Stephen.

Some argue that Saul was insensitive or inept in his early effort at evangelism, but I disagree with that assessment. He had a group of disciples who had responded favorably to his message (9:25). Besides, the criteria for measuring success in evangelism is never how many respond, but rather, did we give the gospel clearly and without compromise? The Lord Himself appeared to Saul after he returned to Jerusalem and told him that the Jews would not accept his testimony, and that he should quickly get out of town (Acts 22:18). There is nothing wrong or unspiritual with a believer seeking to preserve his own life by fleeing from hostile enemies, as Saul did both from Damascus and Jerusalem.

But the point is, be prepared that not all will welcome your message about Christ, even though it means everything to you. The gospel is an offense because it confronts sinners with their sin, and it robs them of any glory in their own salvation. Our job is to be faithful in presenting the message, and leave the results to God. But don’t be surprised by open hostility.

B. Be prepared to face opposition and rejection from within.

When Saul went to Jerusalem, all the disciples, including the apostles, were afraid of him and would not welcome him into their circles. This is certainly understandable, in light of his previous track record! They probably thought that he was trying to infiltrate their ranks, so that he could arrest even more of them. But even so, their rejection must have hurt. For a few days, Saul must have felt pretty lonely, cut off both from his former Jewish colleagues and also from those who loved the same Lord that he now loved.

New believers are often naïve about other Christians. They think, “Isn’t it great to be in the family of God, where we all love one another!” But then they encounter jealousy or strife over minor issues. They see gossip and rivalry. If they are not prepared for it, they can become disillusioned with the church and drop out in bitterness. Outside of the flock, they are easy prey for the devil.

At some point (and we don’t know how the connection was made), Barnabas, the son of encouragement, came alongside Saul, listened to his testimony, and was convinced that he was really a disciple of Christ. This leads to the fourth lesson:

4. Mature believers should be quick to come alongside younger believers, to encourage and accept their efforts in ministry.

Good old Barnabas! Here, he takes Saul to the apostles (only Peter and James, according to Gal. 1:18-19), and convinces them that Saul’s testimony was genuine. A few years later, Barnabas left the thriving work in Antioch to look for Saul and bring him there to help. From there, the two of them were sent out on the first missionary journey.

All too often, older Christians are quick to criticize younger believers, treating them as if they should act like mature believers. Rather than welcoming them onto the team, they are quick to point out how immature and inexperienced they are. Sometimes the older saints are threatened by the zeal of the younger saints. But we ought to learn from Barnabas to err on the side of acceptance and encouragement. If the younger believer needs to have some rough edges smoothed out, the Lord will take care of that over time.

I don’t have any statistics on how many younger believers get discouraged and drop out of the church because no one comes alongside to encourage them. But I have read that out of any given seminary graduating class, 20 percent will quit the ministry within five years of entering it. And the number one reason they leave is not low pay or moral problems. The number one reason they leave the ministry is the pressure of criticism (Ron Lee Davis, Mentoring [Thomas Nelson], p. 157). Those of us who have been around the church for a while should be quick to come alongside younger believers, to encourage and accept their efforts in ministry, even if they are still a bit unpolished.

Saul’s early efforts at serving the Lord teach us that God wants all whom He has saved to serve Him in whatever situations He puts them. This means starting to serve as soon as you’re saved. It requires taking the time to sink down some roots. It means being prepared for opposition, both from within and from without. And, it means that mature believers should come alongside younger believers, to encourage them in their efforts.

5. All believers should use times of peace to build up one another in the Lord and to continue reaching out with the gospel.

Verse 31 is the third of seven progress reports in Acts (2:47; 6:7; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30-31). It shows the church, not just in Jerusalem, but now scattered throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, enjoying a period of rest from persecution. Although a few manuscripts read “churches,” the best reading is “church,” singular, showing the unity of the different churches scattered throughout Palestine. The word “so” does not imply, “Good riddance! With Saul gone, the church finally enjoyed some rest!” Rather, it is a commonly used phrase that simply indicates a transition or the resumption of a previous narrative (see 8:4, 25). Luke is probably going back to the dispersion and persecution that began after Stephen’s death, and saying, “After all of this, the Lord granted a period of peace.”

While I would not go as far as Donald Grey Barnhouse, who calls verse 31 “a sad note,” because of the tendency of the church to grow stagnant at such times (Acts [Zondervan], p. 86), I would acknowledge the danger. When the pressure is on, either through persecution or trials, we are more likely to walk closely with the Lord. We are very much aware at such times of our great need for Him, and so we rely on Him in prayer. We are reminded of the shortness of life, and so we make every opportunity count for eternity. But when the pressure is off, the danger is that we will kick back and coast, rather than to be disciplined to seek the Lord.

But we should use such rest periods for spiritual growth, both personally and corporately. Luke summarizes the growth of the early church by saying that it was being built up, and that it went on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Our goal in our relationships with one another as believers should be to build up one another in Christ (Rom. 14:19). The fear of the Lord is not at odds with His love and grace. Paul instructs us to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). The word “comfort” refers to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in coming alongside to help us. Whether in a time of peace or persecution, we must rely daily on the Holy Spirit as we seek to grow in Christ.

Luke also notes that the church continued to increase. We should use peaceful times to continue reaching out to the lost with the gospel. We dare not get comfortable, and forget about the condition of souls without Christ. Someone has said that secret discipleship is a contradiction in terms. Either the secrecy kills the discipleship, or the discipleship kills the secrecy. If we are followers of the one who came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), we must commit ourselves to the same goal.

Conclusion

If you are wondering, “What can I do to serve the Lord?” I encourage you to go to Farese.com. It is the web page of John Farese. He is 44 years old and one of the oldest persons to reach that age after being diagnosed from birth with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He is bedridden and uses speech recognition software to operate his computer system, which enables him to do everything from reading the Bible to creating Web pages for his customers on the Internet.

John writes, “He has turned for me my mourning into laughter, and my desolation into joy; he has led my captivity captive, and made my heart rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. He drew me when I struggled to escape from his grace; and when at last I came all trembling like a condemned culprit to his mercy seat he said, ‘Thy sins which are many are all forgiven thee: be of good cheer.’” John is a charter member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Boca Raton, Florida.

If a man with severe health limitations like John Farese can find a way to serve the Lord who saved him, so can you. Go and do likewise!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a new believer discover where God wants him to serve?
  2. How does a believer find the right balance between private time with the Lord and ministry time?
  3. How can we keep from growing bitter when we feel rejected by fellow Christians?
  4. Should every Christian be involved in evangelism, or only those with the gift of evangelism?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Discipleship, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Gifts