Paul's Ministry in Acts 13-20

Acts 13‑20  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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The Apostle Paul, in some sense, may be said to end his ministry in Acts 20. He ceased then, formally, to be the servant, being soon to become the prisoner, of Jesus Christ. It was a transitional moment. His ministry had now continued since the time of the opening of chap. 13.
If we look back at him, in these chapters, and review his labors- as a husbandman in the field of the gospel, we shall find him using at times the plow, at times the seed, and at times the plow and the seed together-and all this, in the skill of one who understood the character of his work, and the different husbandry, which different soil demanded. And it is happy to be able to mark such skill as this-the skill that distinguishes and understands the work that is to be done, as well as the diligence that does it.
We find this same skill, in a divine and perfect form, in the Lord Himself. The Lord is seen at times taking the nicest and most distinguishing knowledge of the work that lay before Him. In the parable of the sower, he lets us learn how He had surveyed the field in which He was working; how He knew that in one place it was but as highway ground, where Satan prevailed; in another, stony ground, where poor impotent nature, unequal to render anything to God, was disappointing His service; in another, thorny ground, where the world was hindering the ripening of that good seed which He was sowing; in another, good ground, where toil was rewarded.
Thus did the Divine Husbandman Himself take knowledge of the scene of His labors in its large and various characteristics. But His gracious, delicate, and yet keener sense acquaints itself likewise with fainter and more minute differences. He speaks of one " not far from the kingdom of God." He loves the rich young man who came. to Him under some struggle between heart and conscience. He calls aside the misled multitude to teach them in gentleness and patience, while He exposes and rebukes their misleading teachers to their face. He separates between Nicodemus and the people of Jerusalem, though he and they together were moved by the same influence, the miracles which He was working. He will sit down in the midst of the twelve that accompany Him, and separate ingredients found among them at times. He will distinguish between Mary and Martha, when put to do such unpleasant work, though He will leave them both still, as with an equal love!
And how perfect all this was, in the way of a Husbandman in God's field, who will be skilful as well as diligent! And in his ministry through these chapters, I mean in the samples of his sermons, which are here recorded for us, we may trace this skill of his divine Master, (and surely, by the Spirit of his Master) in the Apostle Paul.
At the opening of chap. 13, the church are met together at Antioch, and there and then, Saul and Barnabas are called out for work in distant fields. Saul, soon after this, became Paul, the more confined Jewish name taking its Gentile, larger form (I believe, under divine suggestion), because the scene of service was now enlarging itself, and Paul was predestined of God to fill it more specially than any other, and to become the characteristic minister of this full and abundant form of grace.
In the synagogue' of another Antioch, an Antioch more completely beyond the Jewish boundary, our apostle begins his series of preachings. He is invited by the rulers to give the congregation a word of exhortation. Of course he is ready to speak to them, for he was sent forth by God with " words " for sinners all the world over. But it is " fallow ground" he finds here; a people who give no evidence that they were seeking the Lord with interested consciences-for it is such seeking that is the witness that the fallow has been already broken. " Break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord." (Hos. 10:1212Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you. (Hosea 10:12).) But where such seeking is not, the plow must be used, the ministry that convicts the conscience and lays the sentence of death in the creature. Accordingly, Paul uses the plow here. He warns the people of Israel here in the synagogue at Antioch, lest that word of their own prophet should be made good against them, "Behold ye despisers, and wonder, and perish." But since they had invited him to give them a word of exhortation, and had now quietly waited and listened, he casts in the seed as well as uses the plow, telling the synagogue of a risen Jesus, and of forgiveness and justification through faith in Him. (Chapter 13:38-41.)
This, surely I may say, was skilful husbandry-husbandry such as the nature of the soil demanded.
Soon afterward, however, we find him doing somewhat different work at Lystra, in Lycaonia. He has no invitation here, no assembled, attentive audience, but a blinded, idolatrous people, who needed to be thoroughly awakened. Under the instructed eye of the apostle, the ground here was merely one of "thorns;" and the word to guide him was at the door" break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns." (Jer. 4.3.) We find, therefore, only the plow in the hand of this skilful husbandman. He runs into the midst of the people at Lystra, and challenges their consciences to take knowledge of their condition before God. He would fain drive the conviction deep into the ground of their heart. There was nothing but this for it. The field demanded this husbandry. A besotted multitude, who would fain worship men of like passions with themselves, have to be arrested, if haply some light from God may awaken the conscience. (Chapter 14:15-17.)
Again I say, how perfect is this in its season! Some may object, Paul does not preach the gospel here. It is so; but this was his wisdom in the Spirit. He does not cast in the seed, but breaks up, if he may, the thorny fallow ground. As his Master at the well of Sychar before him would reach the conscience of a poor sinner; and thus, when the conscience was awakened, He had seed of the most precious quality for the soil, saying to her, " I that speak unto thee am he." Paul had the same seed at hand for these blinded sinners at Lystra, if, like her, they were convicted; but his earlier business, like that of his divine Master before him, is with the plow.
We next find him as a preacher or witness of the gospel at Philippi. Here he lights upon two distinct pieces of ground, each of which had been broken up already, and his hand is called to till them. Lydia was a seeker of the Lord, a Gentile, who had been already brought to worship the God of Israel. The Apostle meets her at the river side, where she and other women used to pray together. The soil-of her heart is thus ready rather for the seed, than for the plow; and, accordingly, the Apostle " sat down and spake to" her and her companions. It was the happy, noiseless work of the sower. Gently did the seed fall into the ground, which the Lord of the harvest as gently opened to receive it. (16:10-15.)
So, the gaoler. The Lord breaks up his fallow. Rough and hard work it may have been; but it was the hand of God that did it, and did it all alone, are the Apostle is called to enter on his work. For, amazed at what had happened, when the prison doors had been forced open by the earthquake, and yet the prisoners had not fled, though he discovered that his life was safe, and that he need not kill himself, yet (as one standing on the brink of hell, his soul, not his life, became now his anxiety) he cries out to Paul and Silas, " Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And the Apostle's only business is to tell him of Jesus. (16:25-34.)
This was easy work and happy work; the work of a sower in prepared ground, ground that made a sure promise of bringing forth herbs meet for him by whom it was about to be dressed.
We have, however, still to follow him: and we find him a preacher again, at Athens. (17:18-31.)
It is not the rough ground of Lystra that he lights on here-but it is equally a field of thorns, which needs just the same husbandry. Blinded, vain idolaters the men of Athens are, as were the people of Lystra. Refined and tutored, it is true-schoolmen of various wisdom after the manner of men; but refined or rude, Athenians or Lycaonians, the fields of these blinded idolators are all " fallow" under the eye of God, and Paul has only the plow in hand here. After exposing their folly, not so much in their acknowledged, as in their real, palpable, ignorant worship, he speaks to them of the resurrection of Jesus, in its connection with judgment; telling them that "God had appointed a day in which He would judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He hath ordained, whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead." This was using the plow. The Apostle seeks to convict the conscience. He treats this select, well-tutored assemblage, at Athens, as "fallow ground," a field of "thorns," the only thing to do with which was to break it up. It was only plow-husbandry that suited it.
This closes his preachings in this great season of his ministry. But we may surely admire the various, perfect character of it-the skill, as well as the diligence of this servant of the Lord of the vineyard.
These same chapters would have allowed. us to look at Paul, as the husbandman at other work, visiting the fields which he had thus plowed and sown, either, as it were, to water or to weed them. For he goes. among the churches, to give them exhortation, or to confirm them. But I do not look at these and other matters, found in these chapters; but when we reach the opening of chap. 20, we find the Apostle in the midst of the church again, as we saw him at the opening of chap. 13-with this difference, however, that he was there, at the beginning, at Antioch, called out from the church to go forth to labor; here, at Troas, at the end, he is in the midst of the church during church-service, celebrating, in the breaking of bread, the proper standing of the elect of God, and worshipping in the sense of the salvation of God. And, surely, there is beauty in this variety. The Spirit calls forth, from God's assembly, an energy that will go out with plow and seed, and waterpot, to do good work in distant fields, still untilled; or, He will awaken that assembly itself, to do its own proper service within its own borders-for we are either to go abroad, and there publish God's salvation, or to come home, and there celebrate it.
Then, at the very close, at Mileta, we see our Apostle, who had, at the beginning, been sent forth to his ministry, and had then pursued it skillfully and diligently, and then celebrated the fruit of it, now taking leave of it.
This was a transitional moment, as I have already called it. He is leaving his ministry, and entering on the last rough stage in his way to heaven. He is careful about others, but all at ease about himself, and in readiness for his departure. He thus appears before us in this scene, which closes our meditation.