All Things to All Men
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 16:1–16:5, 1 Corinthians 9:19–9:23
The Lord Jesus Building His Kingdom
Since very young, I’ve been fascinated with construction sites. Powerful machinery preparing the earth. Towering cranes lifting large beams into place. The various skillsets finishing out the project—carpenters, welders, plumbers, electricians, painters, decorators, and so on. What did I eventually want to be? The man behind it all. The man designing and directing. I wanted to build.
The book of Acts details a different sort of construction project. Indeed, it’s a kingdom that aims to cover the earth and will last forever. The risen Christ is the man with the plan. Even more, he’s Lord of all. He designed and he now directs with absolute authority. He will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Nothing will stand in his way. No resources will run dry. He will build and build and build until the church stands in glory with God.
Throughout Acts, the risen Christ builds and builds and builds his church. The church in Jerusalem was growing. The church in Judea and Samaria was growing. Now we’re watching the church extend its reach to the ends of the earth. Jesus appointed Paul to plant new churches throughout Syria and Cilicia. Time has passed. Some issues surfaced related to Gentiles keeping the Law. Jesus’ apostles worked out the solution. Now, it’s only right that Paul return to strengthen these churches with the apostles’ instructions. We pick up the story here in chapter 16.
In doing so, we see the Lord Jesus building up his churches further. He builds them up with qualified men[i] who become servants to all and who impart the apostles’ instructions. Let’s read verses 1-5, and then tease this out a bit more.
1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
“The churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.” If you look back at 2:47, you’ll find this: “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The Lord added. Any statement in Acts about the church growing, increasing, being strengthened—we should understand it as the Lord’s work. The risen Lord Jesus is building his church, strengthening his people. The church grows because Jesus is sovereign over the hearts of men.
But Acts is also very clear that the Lord uses means to build his church. What means do we find here? I’ve summarized it like this: he uses qualified men who become servants to all and who impart the apostles’ instructions. I wouldn’t say everything is normative in Acts; some is only descriptive. But certain patterns play out in the rest of the New Testament. When that happens we’re likely observing something more normative. It sets the stage for how Christ continues to build his church today. How does the pattern here affect our mission as a church in Fort Worth? Let’s find out…
1. Qualified Men Who Put Christ’s Interests above Their Own
First, Jesus builds his church with qualified men who put Christ’s interests above their own. Paul returns to the churches he planted. They were in Derbe and Lystra, verse 1 tells us. And “a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek.”
Timothy was born into a multiethnic family. Timothy was half Jew, half Greek, what some would call biracial. Culturally speaking, mixed marriages were generally frowned upon within Judaism.[ii] That was especially true when such marriages withheld the children from cherished Jewish customs. In this case, Timothy’s Greek father never had him circumcised—we’ll get to that in a minute.
But Timothy’s birth into a multiethnic family actually fits perfectly into the gospel storyline. The gospel is for all peoples. The kingdom of God isn’t limited to those of Jewish descent, but for people of all ethnicities who place their faith in Jesus Christ.
Religiously speaking, Timothy’s dad was a pagan. Notice the contrast in verse 1: “the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek.” Only Timothy’s mother is a believer. In terms of discipleship, Timothy was fatherless. But in his kindness, the Lord did give Timothy a mother who loved the Lord. Her name was Eunice. 2 Timothy 1:5 describes her as a woman of “sincere faith.” 2 Timothy 3:15 implies that she taught Timothy the Scriptures throughout his childhood.
Timothy is now a disciple of Jesus. His devotion to Christ was even recognized among the churches, verse 2 will tell us. But before I get there, let me just insert a parenthesis here. Some of you were born into family situations that pose their unique difficulties. A parent, maybe even both weren’t believers. Perhaps the culture around you frowned on your family situation. That doesn’t mean you are without hope or without a place in God’s kingdom. The kingdom isn’t a matter of the “stock” you came from, but the Savior who makes you his own.
Also, some of you are in marriage situations right now, where your spouse either isn’t pursuing the Lord, or isn’t a believer at all. Take note of how the Lord used the faithfulness of Timothy’s mother, despite Timothy’s dad. The Lord used her instruction throughout his childhood to save him and mature him into Christ. Don’t lose heart sisters. The Lord knows your faithfulness. He can use your faithfulness to raise up another Timothy or another Phoebe.
Timothy’s maturity in Christ was noticeable. Verse 2 says, “[Timothy] was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium.” The same language appeared in Acts 6:3 of the seven men chosen to serve the widows. They were “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Timothy has a good reputation with the churches. They’ve noticed his faithfulness and bear witness to it.
In that sense, the Lord’s grace has qualified Timothy to join Paul on his missionary journeys. Paul recognizes the same maturity in Timothy throughout his letters. Listen to a few of these. 1 Corinthians 4:17, “This is why I’m sending you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child, to remind you of my ways in Christ.” 1 Corinthians 16:10-11, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease…for he is doing the work of the Lord as I am.”
Philippians 2:19-22, “I have no one like [Timothy; that is, who was there with Paul at the time], who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.” A man evidences his worth by whether he lives for his own interests or those of Christ.
Timothy’s not perfect (1 Tim 4:15), but he’s exemplary. He’s a man of proven worth. So Paul wants him. Paul wants to station Timothy in churches and say, “Imitate this man’s faith. Imitate this man’s devotion. Learn my ways in Christ by following this man. Look at his suffering for the gospel; listen to his teaching; pursue the same purity; love the church like he loves them.” God uses qualified men to display that Christ is worthy of all our devotion.
That’s why it’s so crucial to appoint qualified men to lead the church and to plant new churches. We don’t want churches imitating leaders who don’t put Christ’s interests above their own. If you appoint those kind of leaders, the church will cease to be the church and will fall into all kinds of idolatry and false teaching. Not only that, their reputation will bring reproach on the gospel.
That’s why Paul outlines character qualifications for elders and deacons. That’s why James warns that not many of you should become teachers. That’s why the church prays throughout Acts over who they should send or not. That’s why Paul warns that we shouldn’t be hasty in the laying on of hands.
Passion isn’t enough. Popularity isn’t enough. Relevancy isn’t enough. Vision isn’t enough. Knowledge isn’t enough. The question is this: will the man’s life show that Christ is worthy of all our devotion? Redeemer, hold us accountable to this. We want to live this while we have breath. And when our days are up, appoint other men who are qualified, who exemplify that Christ is truly worthy. Then imitate their faith.
2. Who Become Servants to All
These men will also become servants to all—we head there next. Christ builds his church with qualified men who become servants to all. When you put Christ’s interests above your own, you become a servant to all. Verse 3, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”
Whoa! How far you willing to go, brothers, to spread the gospel? Paul and I might have some words. You’ve got to feel for Timothy! Circumcision?! That’s a whole different ball game when you’re an adult. Just think of the men of Shechem in Genesis 34, still laying around sore after three days. Oof! But what’s going on, here?
It’s actually a very strategic move by Paul. But one might be a little confused in light of Acts 15. Remember? Acts 15 said Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised. Circumcision no longer marked the covenant people, but faith in Christ, the presence of his Spirit. What’s with this, Paul? One could also bring up Galatians.
In Galatians, you’ve got the “circumcision party” (Gal 2:12). They’re saying circumcision is necessary to gain a right standing with God. Circumcision is their boast, their badge of acceptance (Gal 6:13). Paul gets fuming mad, because justification doesn’t come by works like circumcision but by faith in Christ (Gal 2:16). He’s so committed to that true gospel, that not for one moment does he yield to the circumcision party with Titus (Gal 2:3-5). Titus was a Greek; they wanted him circumcised. Paul doesn’t yield whatsoever. He doesn’t have Titus circumcised, it says, “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”[iii]
Yes, yes, God instituted circumcision in Genesis 17—Paul recognizes that (Rom 4). But God did that after the promise to Abraham. Circumcision was a temporary marker until the true circumcision came in Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ. Christ fulfills what circumcision pointed to. I read Colossians 2:11 in my quiet time this week: “In him…you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, but putting off the body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” All that matters now is whether you’re found in Christ, whether God circumcised your heart in Christ. Galatians 6:15, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”[iv]
If that’s Paul’s theology, why circumcise Timothy?[v] What makes his situation different than Titus’s? Well, Titus was fully Greek; and Paul opposes any imposition of circumcision on Gentiles. But Timothy is half Jewish. Opposing circumcision for Gentiles is not the same as opposing circumcision altogether. Like Titus, Timothy doesn’t have to be circumcised—remember, it’s a matter of indifference. But Timothy chooses circumcision as a way to identify with his Jewish heritage.
The point is this: as Paul ministers to the Jews, he doesn’t want Timothy’s uncircumcision to become an unnecessary barrier to Christ. He doesn’t want Timothy’s uncircumcision to be the offense, but Christ’s cross to be the offense. That’s what Luke is highlighting in verse 3: “because of the Jews who were in those places.” Paul and Timothy make this move to help spread the gospel without subverting the gospel.
Or, let’s use Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians 9:19. “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them.” That’s what we’re seeing in Paul and Timothy in Acts 16:3. They’re making themselves servants to all that they might win them to Christ. How? How do they become servants to all?
Verse 20, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law…[verse 22] I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” How do Paul and Timothy become servants to all? They choose the path that will best spread the gospel without subverting the gospel.
And listen, that doesn’t mean life got easier for them. Life got harder for them. It got harder because the way they chose to live put the offense of Christ’s cross front and center. It was easy for them to remove all unnecessary barriers if that meant Christ would become center. The pattern of life we see in Paul and Timothy is the pattern we must imitate as well. Not too much further in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Paul says imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We too must become servants to all that we might win more.
Beloved, we must be willing to make adjustments to our lifestyles and our preferences in order to win more people to Christ. We too must become all things to all men that by all means we might save some. The Lord builds his church through leaders who become servants to all and members who follow them doing likewise.
What are some examples of this? Well, you might have the right under the new covenant to eat pork. Jesus declared all foods clean. You like bacon on your hamburgers and on your salad and on everything else. But let’s say you meet a man from Egypt who’s a Muslim—that’s what my UBER driver was the other day. And let’s say you invite him to dinner. Don’t serve pork and then get all bent out of shape when he doesn’t eat. Give up the pork. Or, say you meet an unbeliever who’s a vegetarian. Don’t serve meat at all. Don’t make food or drink a stumbling block to the gospel. Give it up to get others the gospel. The only offense to insist on is Christ and him crucified, not food.
Or, let’s say you’re ministering to a young believer saved out of alcoholism. He used to get slammed every night at the local pub. Now he’s following Christ, and he wants to meet you for lunch. He wants to ask some questions about the faith. So you agree, and you happen to really love the hamburgers at this one pub around the corner. But he says, “No, I’d prefer not to eat there. With all the associations of my past, it’s just too hard to go in there.” Don’t insist, “Oh come on, it’ll be fine. The food’s great!” No! Become his servant: “Great, let’s just hit the Subway on the other side.”
Or, some of you aspire to pastor a church one day. Let’s just pretend there’s a church. Most of the members are older. Some of them wear suits on Sunday morning; and they’d at least like the preacher to wear a tie. Maybe they even prefer the KJV. They ask you to come preach for them one Sunday morning. Don’t show up wearing jeans, sandals, and your ESV in hand, with some attitude like, “God doesn’t judge me by what I wear!” No, you’re right. He won’t judge you by what you wear. But he will judge you for your unwillingness to serve them.
Or take another context like South Las Vegas Trail. Before heading down South LVT like we’ve got it all together, some “Hood IQ” would do us some good. We’d want to learn various ways that our upbringing would create unnecessary offense. Then we’d want to do what we can to build bridges more freely to Christ.
You get the point? Timothy was free. Circumcision was now a matter of indifference. But with Paul, he chooses circumcision for the sake of the Jews in that area. Being half Jewish himself, he doesn’t even want it to come up as a potential distraction to the substance of the gospel. Moreover, this move shows that Paul’s gospel wasn’t anti-Jewish. It was actually the culmination of what it meant to be Jewish. To be a true Jew was to be one inwardly, one circumcised in Christ.
Let’s build up the churches in this area by imitating these men in becoming servants to all. You know why? Because Christ became servant to all in redeeming us. The Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. We were rebels. The wrath of God stood against us. If left to ourselves, we were going to perish. But God the Father sent his only Son to ransom us. Christ served us when he had every right to leave us. He paid our punishment to deliver us from the wrath to come. You must believe this good news if you want to be ransomed. And because of this good news, because of Christ’s initiative to save us, let’s walk accordingly as we seek to save others.
3. Qualified Men Who Impart the Apostles’ Instructions
One more thing to point out here: the Lord builds his church through men who impart the apostles’ instructions. Verse 4, “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.”
Since the beginning of Acts, Jesus makes the apostles’ witness and instructions the foundation of the church. Why would it be otherwise? Acts 1:2-3 shows Jesus commanding the apostles through the Holy Spirit. He also appeared to them for forty days speaking about the kingdom of God. Jesus taught the apostles and then authorized the apostles to build his church with their witness and their instructions.
The Holy Spirit comes in Acts 2, and that’s exactly what we find them doing. Then we get these little notes about the church. Acts 2:42, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” Acts 4:33, “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” Acts 5:42, “Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”
Now here: “they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles.” The apostles’ instructions form the foundation of the church and remains the material by which the church is built up. Ephesians 2:20, “[We’re the household of God] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
What were the instructions of the apostles here? Specifically, it refers to the letter they sent back in chapter 15. The gist was this: Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to be saved. The Law of Moses doesn’t regulate their covenant relationship with God. Yet they must still renounce their old pagan ways. The new covenant in Christ still forbids any association with idolatry and sexual immorality.
They delivered these instructions—I want you to notice in verse 4—for observance. Far too often the church receives the apostles’ instructions without really observing them. We hear them preached from Sunday to Sunday. We talk about them in care group. We might even listen to them during the week through a podcast. We sit through a Bible Study or D-Group or BSF, studying to know the apostles’ instructions with clarity. The question is whether we’re observing them, keeping them, doing them.
James says, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” If we only listen to the apostles’ instructions, if all that’s happening from week to week is information transfer without any delight in them and without any movement of the will to act upon them, we are self-deceived.
We’re like a man driving his friends around a mountainside at 70 miles an hour; and the sign up ahead says, “Caution: Sharp Turn!” And the man says to everyone else in the car, “Hey, that sign says, ‘Caution: Sharp Turn!’” And they all go, “Great! Now we know what the sign says!” Then nobody does anything about the throttle until they’ve wrecked their lives. At times, I think a number of us receive the apostles’ instructions that way. We worked through idolatry and sexual immorality in some very specific ways a few Sundays back. What changed for you?
A few of you aren’t in a good place at all when it comes to your attitude about Scripture. I sometimes hear Christians say things like, “Yeah, I don’t read the word much. Yeah, I just struggle to find time for it really.” I just want to ask, “How do you even live?!” “Give me life according to your word!” the Psalm says.
One of the first signs of the new birth, Peter says, is longing for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation. If that longing isn’t there, friend, what master has your heart? The church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching. Is this you? Spurgeon once said of John Bunyan, “Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline; the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”
What’s your soul full of? The latest Facebook controversy? ESPN’s top ten? What’s going on with President Trump? Bitterness? The next YouTube recording gone viral? The trouble isn’t that we’re not devoted people; we’re just devoted so often to the wrong things. The church is strengthened only when the church feeds on God’s word.
God entrusted his words to the apostles to give to us. Look to their instructions daily, because in them you will find Christ. That’s who they teach. They teach Christ in all his preexistent glory; Christ in the Old Testament promises; Christ in his humble incarnation; Christ in his perfect life of obedience; Christ in his substitutionary death for sinners; Christ in his resurrection from the dead; Christ in his present reign in glory; Christ in his return to judge; Christ enjoyed by his people in glory forever.
They take you to Christ, and then show you what impact he has on your life, what he means for your identity, what he means for your values, what he means for your sins, what he means for your relationships, what he means for your suffering, what he means for your pursuit of holiness, what he means for your hope. Feast on the apostles’ instructions, and let them thrill you with Christ, and move you to follow Christ. It’s through them that we see our Savior revealed. It’s through them that we learn our Father’s care and know his ways.
“So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.” Beloved, do you long for a healthy, growing church? Appoint qualified men who pursue Christ’s interests above their own; and then imitate their faith. Become servants to all in order to win more to Christ. Observe the apostles’ teaching that’s set before you weekly. Then pray the Lord continues to strengthen and build his church.
[i]By stating that the Lord uses “men” to build his kingdom, by no means did I intend to minimize the great ways the Lord also uses women to build his kingdom. However, due to the way I framed the main points of the sermon, the message certainly could have led the hearer to think otherwise. If I had to preach this sermon over again, I would have stated the main points differently to better reflect the role women have in the Lord building his church. For the sake of clarity, the following main points focus primarily on those who lead/plant, and in that way were not referring to men over women but anyone (whether male or female) not in a leadership position. Then I was trying to broaden the application to the whole church (men and women alike), especially in point two below, by saying that we all must imitate these leaders in becoming servants to all. That was my initial approach. But the sermon points could have reflected a more holistic picture, such as how the Lord builds his kingdom also using godly women who speak the word into the lives of their children, family, etc., and exemplifying “sincere faith” as we witness in Timothy’s mother Eunice (2 Tim 1:5; 3:15). I am grateful for a sister in our congregation who so kindly brought this to my attention and, I pray, rescued me from such a lack of clarity in the future.
[ii]E.g., see Jubilees 20:4; 22:20; 30:7, 10;
[iii]Even stronger language appears later: “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you…You’re severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace…I wish those who unsettle you would just emasculate themselves” (Gal 5:2-4, 12).
[iv]Cf. also 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6.
[v]After I preached this sermon, a brother asked a similar question stemming from his meditation on 1 Corinthians 7:18-20. If Paul commanded those in Corinth, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, to “remain as they are,” then why did Paul seemingly not practice what he preached and circumcise Timothy anyway? This is a great question! I would answer as follows. I understand 1 Corinthians 7:19 to be saying essentially the same thing as Galatians 5:6 and Galatians 6:15. “Keeping the commandments of God,” “faith working through love,” and the “new creation” are all speaking to the new realities of life in Christ by the Spirit under the new covenant. Thus, circumcision is a matter of indifference within the church. So the general principle “…in all the churches” (1 Cor 7:18) is that folks “remain as they are.” Gentiles shouldn’t get circumcised; Jews shouldn’t get uncircumcised. With Timothy, however, two factors seem to create an exception for missionary purposes. (1) Timothy is half Jewish. I don’t think Paul would have circumcised Timothy if he was fully Greek like Titus. (2) I think Paul circumcises Timothy not for the Jews “in all the churches,” the focus of 1 Corinthians 7:18, but because of the unbelieving Jews in that area who knew Timothy was not circumcised. Thus, it was a missionary decision (“because of the Jews in that area”) versus a gospel and fellowship decision (as with Titus in Galatia). I’d say that the general modus operandi for Paul is that people “remain as they are.” But then you have the rare exceptions that might better serve a missionary context like the ones Paul and Timothy will soon encounter in the synagogues.