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A Spirit of Submission & Cooperation

May 21, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 11:27– 12:5

Last week we emphasized in Acts 11:19-26 that God is in the business of planting and growing faithful churches to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and advance his kingdom. In describing the Christ-centered church at Antioch, we saw that God establishes and builds up faithful churches through Christ-centered proclamation, by using Christ-centered people, and through Christ-centered partnerships.

Today we look further into the way that Christ-centered individuals and churches cooperate and submit to the Lord Jesus Christ. Even though correction was needed, and training was required, and none of this was without difficulty, the early church was marked by a spirit of submission to Christ and of cooperation with his people.

Christ-centered lives are marked by a spirit of submission to Jesus as Lord and of cooperation with God’s work through Christ’s people.

We will know our lives are Christ-centered when we are marked by a spirit of submission to Christ and of cooperation with God’s work through Christ’s people.

As we turn to Acts chapter 11 and verse 27, I want us to look at the details of this text in the broader context. As we do, it becomes increasingly clear that in the early church there is a spirit of submission to Jesus as Lord, which gives individuals and groups a proper perspective of their role. And that same spirit works itself out in cooperation with God’s people, a cooperation which is made possible when we are mutually submissive to the Lord Jesus.

Acts 11:27–12:5 ESV

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. 1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

How did the early church handle rapid expansion, how did they handle this unique period of transition, and how did they handle frequent and difficult trial? What I aim to show this morning from our text is that in each area they cooperated with one another in submission to the Lord (in expansion, transition, and trial).

(See first that…)

A spirit of submission to the Lordship of Jesus and of cooperation with his people helped the early church to be unified even in rapid expansion.

Submission & Cooperation in  Expansion 

From the earliest days after Pentecost, the number of disciples submitting to Jesus was increasing rapidly. For some time it was mostly Jews coming to saving faith, but then bc of persecution, the gospel advanced among the Gentiles bc the believers witnessed to more and more people as they were dispersed out from Jerusalem. Nowhere was this effective progress more evident than at Antioch. - vv. 19-26

In this expansion of the Christian community, we observe submission to Jesus as Lord and cooperation with his people in two particular relationship dynamics.

The Jerusalem Church’s Relationship to the Antioch Church

In submission to the Lordship of Jesus (He is Lord of all, Ac 10:36), the Jerusalem church didn’t selfishly cling to keeping Jesus all to themselves. Wrong attitudes were already being corrected (Ac 11:1-3, 18).

Instead, they cooperated with what God was doing, and cooperated with the fledgling church in Antioch. They made sure the Antioch church was submitting to Jesus in sending Barnabas as their envoy, their ambassador.

Barnabas’s Relationship to Saul

Again, in a spirit of submission to Jesus and cooperation with God’s people, Barnabas brought Saul in as his partner in Antioch. - The reason for cooperation instead of competition is that these individuals and churches have become Christ-centered.

Cooperation doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for correction. (consider Paul addressing the favoritism among Jewish believers)

And cooperation doesn’t mean there will never be division. (The church will at times have to separate from those preaching false gospels, and the church will separate out those who are living in unrepentant sin through the process of church discipline [with the goal of repentance and restoration to true fellowship with God and the church], and there will even be division at times over agreeing to disagree (in ways that impact day to day practice of ministry—Paul and Barnabas over John Mark).

But those are the exceptions, not the rule. We often let ambition create division (clinging to something for ourselves).

After some time of the two teaching side by side, we hear of prophets coming to Antioch from Jerusalem.

[Let’s go back to the Jerusalem Church’s relationship to the Antioch Church.]

Prophets came ‘down’ (in elevation) from Jerusalem to Antioch. The role of prophets in the NT, and especially in this time period, needs some explanation.

The job of a prophet, in any age, is to declare what God has said. The NT prophets are closely tied to the ministry of the Apostles, which means that their primary task was to teach, to reinforce through teaching and explanation, what the Apostles were declaring about Christ and on behalf of Christ. 

It seems that on rare occasion, and with some prophets particularly gifted, like Agabus, they were sometimes given information from the Spirit to predict specific things for the church. In this case it is the coming famine (which the author Luke notes did take place under the rule of the emperor Claudius). Next time, in Acts 21:10-12, Agabus will predict the impending arrest and imprisonment awaiting Paul when he travels to Jerusalem.

If the gift of prophecy persists in our day, it would be in the sense of teaching God’s truth. But if that’s the case, how is that different from evangelists and pastor-teachers? Accordingly, many of us would argue that Apostles and prophets (in this earliest sense) are no longer operative offices today. Are we Christ’s sent ones (his apostles)? Are we the proclaimers of his truth (prophets in that sense)? Sure. But are we those who built the foundational truth for the church upon the foundation of Christ? No.

If you would like to discuss this with me further, I’d be happy to look with you at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and trace Paul’s explanation of this dynamic in  Eph 2:19-21 & Eph 3:5, 4:11-16. If you want to look at it some on your own, in the notes/transcript for this message, I will include a link to biblehub.com where I recommend a brief but helpful and clear explanation of Ephesians 2:20 from the Pulpit Commentary.

https://biblehub.com/ephesians/2-20.htm - Scroll down to “Pulpit Commentary.”

This discussion lead well into our next point for this morning, that…

A spirit of submission to the Lordship of Jesus and of cooperation with his people helps the church thrive even in transition.

Submission & Cooperation in  Transition 

Submission to the Lordship of Jesus means submission to the leadership structures of his design. (They are under-shepherds of the Great Shepherd.)

During this transitional period, we see submission and cooperation playing out especially in these two key relationships:

The Antioch Church’s Relationship to the Jerusalem Church (via Barnabas)

The Antioch church didn’t try to escape apostolic authority or shun the mature leadership of Barnabas. Instead, they would follow the pattern of God’s instruction for churches.

I’m convinced that Barnabas’s spirit was a great help to this effort. - Servant leaders in our homes, in the workplace, in the church, and in any role where we have authority over others.... It is not our place to make others our servants. Rather, our role is to model the self-sacrifice of Jesus and to make our aim the highest good of others to the glory of God.

The Apostles’ Relationship to Local Churches

The Apostles didn’t try to cling to power in the Jerusalem church. They understood that they could not be around forever. Their task was to establish a foundation upon which the church could continue in maturity and promoting Christ on into the future.

There is a transition in progress, where continually over time there is a shift from apostolic leadership to elder-led local church leadership. We see this begin to play out now in the Jerusalem church. (Ch. 12 explains further partly how this transition came about: the Apostles became targets who couldn’t safely remain in a given community, and many would soon be martyred, as happens with the Apostle James.) - So too the text will later mention another James (Elder James - who is the half-brother of Jesus and who evidently became lead elder in Jerusalem).

This also begins to reflect the transition of church leadership from Apostles and prophets to evangelists and pastor-teachers. (Again, see Eph 2:19-21 & Eph 3:5, 4:11-16)

[transition]

A spirit of submission to the Lordship of Jesus and of cooperation with his people kept the church focused and moving forward even in frequent & severe trial.

Submission & Cooperation in  Trial 

There are two major trials in our text. The first is a coming famine, and the second is the persecution that has ratcheted up to new levels, where even the Apostles are beginning to face martyrdom.

But even in these severe trials, we observe Christian submission to the Lord Jesus playing out in cooperation with Christ’s people. We see this in two responses to trial:

The Antioch Church’s Response to Famine

The famine Agabus foresaw was going to be intense and its effects widespread. (We understand from the current global economy that famines and wars impact more than just the immediate vicinity, but have repercussions on all who might be trade partners. So it would have been in Rome at the time as well.)  That famine was expected to be especially difficult for the less affluent church communities in the region of Judea, so the more affluent church community in Antioch sent aid. 

Probably what we recognize as the most unique part about this gift is that they send aid before the famine ever strikes.

Barnabas and Paul represent the Antioch church with this assistance for the churches in Judea.

Consider the ways in which generous and consistent giving can and does impact gospel advance in the community and in missions to the ends of the earth.  - Your finances ***

And finances aren’t the only way. We can be generous with our attention and thoughtfulness, generous with our energy and time and abilities to serve, and so on.

What makes us generous with all that we have? All that we have belongs to Christ. Whatever way our very selves and all our stuff is used ought to be aimed at submission to Christ. Is that how you make decisions about how to steward/manage your treasure, and time, and talent? (your money, your time, and your abilities) - ‘Will this investment help me to be a more submissive and cooperative servant and member of Christ’s church?’

The Jerusalem Church’s Response to Persecution

When confronted by opposition, the church had courage. But Jesus’ disciples also didn’t seek confrontation. When possible, they avoided it. (We’ll see soon that when Peter is freed, he leaves the region.) But persecution is genuinely not always avoidable.

So during this period in Jerusalem they were facing persecution and even martyrdom (of prominent leaders, no less!) - The Apostle James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. A grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa was raised in Rome, so when some of his childhood buddies became emperors (such as Gaius Caligula), he was granted to be the first Jewish “king” since the time of his grandfather.

As evidence of how much authority he had, even as a Roman puppet, Agrippa had power to put James to death by the sword, probably under false accusation of leading people to worship false gods. This was the Apostle James, the brother of John and one of the two sons of Zebedee, whom Jesus had dubbed the sons of thunder.

Agrippa knew that keeping his favor with Rome would mean keeping his favor with the Jews (Rome frequently removed leaders who proved that they only instigated the people they were over). So when killing the Apostle James pleased the Jews, he became even more emboldened and proceeded to arrest Peter also. - The presumption here really is that Peter’s trial would end the same way, in death.

The church responded with the best thing they could do. They prayed. (v. 5b) This is proof of their submission to and dependence on Christ, and of their trust in the power and will of God. And they did it together.

We are unified when we cooperate in prayer, and we submit to God in prayer, and we even grow in maturity when we pray together. 

And through prayer we are identifying the real threat. The real threat is unbelief, rejection of Jesus as Lord. The greatest threat is not that someone’s body will suffer loss, but that said body will give out without the soul submitting to Jesus as Lord. 

So the church submitting to Christ prays with one another and for one another, for God’s will to be done in our protection and in our proclamation.

CONCLUSION:

I want to conclude today by making sure that we are on board, both individually and corporately, with these attitudes and behaviors of the true Christian spirit.

Am I marked by a spirit of submission to Christ and cooperation with His people?

Or do we tend to be independent and head-strong (self-willed and obstinate)?

The very positive element of political freedom in Western Culture has led to the confusion, with its consequences, of thinking that individuality (the individual’s independence) is the highest aim. The reason I bring this up isn’t to clamor about our culture, but to warn us that this same spirit has crept into the so-called church and creeps into our own lives. No only is it illogical to forget that political freedom is based on mutual cooperation, and that countries become independent in order to formulate their own collective government, but a spirit of independence is unbiblical and therefore unhealthy.

You are not independent. You belong to Christ and you belong to his Church. His design for us is collective, not independent.

And being self-willed and obstinate, being headstrong is, in a word, sin. We excuse ourselves in all sorts of ways by blaming our demeanor or personality or upbringing or whatever. Did Jesus say, “Well, you were born in sin so it’s ok. I’ll just leave you there.” No, he died for our sin and rose again so that we would be forgiven and restored to God and walk in newness of life.

Christians are marked by a humble spirit of submission and cooperation. Jesus is our Lord, and we work together in our submission to him and in our purpose to make him known.

Lastly…

Church, we make it our aim to call others to submit to Jesus as Lord and to cooperate with his work in the world.

Romans 10:9 ESV

9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Ephesians 2:8–10 ESV

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

And these good works are something that is not merely individual, but the work is done collectively, in cooperation with the body of Christ.

I was thinking this week about how some of us in our own church family have family members (biological or otherwise) who say they are Christians but who are not participating in the life of a local church. The way it struck me this time was not only that for their own sakes their assurance of being in Christ is confirmed by cooperation, and their obedience to Christ is manifest—you cannot be the church without the church. But then too I was simply struck with the realization that, having become so intimately connected with God’s work through his body of believers, I literally cannot imagine my own life without the church.

You know that realization you have when you’ve developed a relationship of some kind, whether it was marriage or having children or some special friendship, and you just can’t imagine life without that connection.

When we have come to develop a genuine relationship with Christ, we just can’t imagine life without submitting to Jesus as Lord. He is Lord of all. And when we develop cooperative relationships with teammates in the local church, we just can’t fathom living the Christian life without one another.

This is by God’s own design for us, that…

Christ-centered lives are marked by a spirit of submission to Jesus as Lord and of cooperation with God’s work through Christ’s people.

 

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