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The ruins of ancient religious temples, whether in the Peruvian highlands or the Cambodian jungle, are mute testimony to the assertion "A religious faith is always one generation from extinction." What can guard Christianity from extinction? Paul's example, at the end of the first missionary journey, of strengthening the just-planted churches through confirmation, consolidation and communication shows us the way.
In the eastern provincial border town of Derbe (Lycaonian for "juniper tree"), sixty miles east of Lystra, Paul and Barnabas preached the good news. They make many disciples and evidently face no opposition (compare 2 Tim 3:11).
Afterward, instead of moving straight east to Tarsus, a straight shot of 150 miles, Paul and Barnabas decide to retrace their steps. As will become Paul's practice (see comment at Acts 15:36), the apostle will maintain contact with the churches he has planted, providing ongoing counsel and encouragement. Though Paul focused on church planting (1 Cor 3:6), the goal of his labors was to "present everyone perfect in Christ" to the Lord at his coming (Col 1:28; Rom 15:16; 1 Thess 2:17-20). So today, an evangelist or church planter who does not make provision for discipleship is like a farmer who harvests well only to see the crop spoil because it is not properly stored.
Paul's purpose is "to strengthen the souls of the disciples." He wants the new Christians to become "more firm and unchanging in attitude or belief" (Louw and Nida 1988:1:678). They have known persecution and will know the pressure of Judaizers' attempts to turn them from the "faith way" (Gal 1:6-7; 3:1-3; 6:12-13). Paul commands them to remain true to the faith (literally, "remain in"; compare Acts 11:23; 13:43). As it was Christ's divinely appointed destiny (dei) "to suffer these things and then enter his glory" (Lk 24:26), so his followers must [dei] go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22; compare Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10-11; Col 1:24). Many hardships are to be expected as a normal, indeed necessary, part of the Christian life. For Luke, they mainly come in the form of persecution (Acts 5:41; 11:19; 20:23). We must endure through them if we would hope to enter the kingdom of God, experience the full enjoyment of salvation blessings either at death (2 Tim 4:18) or at Christ's return. And today, if authentic Christianity is to be propagated and survive, it will be because we have said no to any "gospel" that promises glory without the suffering, and yes to the way of the cross, which leads to a crown.
Paul and Barnabas combine encouragement with provision of a leadership structure. They appoint elders for each church.
We need to be careful not to use this passage alone to build a whole theology of leadership selection, complete with policies and procedures. When Luke is more expansive on these matters, he shows the congregation as having a role in leadership selection, as the postapostolic church did (Didache 15:1; compare Ignatius Letter to Polycarp 7.2). Acts 14:23 does teach us that there may be circumstances, especially in the life of a newly planted church under threat of persecution and false teaching, where missionary appointment of leaders is the wisest course.
The swiftness of these appointments has bothered some church-planting strategists (compare 1 Tim 5:22). But if the core of the membership came from the synagogue, they had sufficient biblical and theological background to permit rapid spiritual maturation. Further, "perhaps Paul and Barnabas were more conscious of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the believing communities" than we are today (Bruce 1988:280).
Paul and Barnabas, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord. This shows us that eldership was a spiritual ministry of the most vital kind (compare Acts 13:1-3; 20:28; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:17). Their teaching, spiritual governance and exercise of discipline could be undertaken only with the same total dependence on the Lord that characterized their abiding belief in him for salvation (compare Acts 20:28-32). Indeed, Paul and Barnabas place these elders "on deposit with the Lord" (paratithemi; 20:32; compare 2 Tim 1:12, 14). Such leadership will take the church into the next spiritual generation.
Paul and Barnabas make their way southward through wild, mountainous Pisidia to the fruitful alluvial plain of Pamphylia to preach at Perga, a major Greek city near the coast (compare 13:13). Departing from the port city Attalia, eight miles southwest, they sailed for Syrian Antioch and their sending church.
As will become his custom (18:22), Paul reports fully to the church at his home base, Antioch. As Luke makes clear, God is truly the hero of the first missionary journey. Only because the Antioch church had . . . committed Paul and Barnabas to the grace of God (compare 13:3) have they been able to complete the journey. As Everett F. Harrison observes, the missionaries have carried out their task to the "full limits of possibility" (1986:238; compare Rom 15:19; Col 4:17). What they report to the gathered church is all that God had done through them--better, "for them" (see comment at Acts 15:4). The phrasing emphasizes their awareness of God's presence and his saving work throughout the mission (11:21; 15:4; compare 1 Cor 3:9). Finally, it was God who opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. This image captures what the first missionary journey was all about (Acts 9:15-16; 13:1-3). God did swing wide open to the Gentiles the door of faith, giving access to salvation by faith (Lk 13:24-25; Acts 13:38-39; 13:12, 43, 46-48; 14:1, 23). The church will survive to the next generation when it maintains this kind of fruitful communication between the just-planted church and the sending church.