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Stepping from success to significance

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 11.19-30

Nearly six million people voted for president in the state of Florida, and the margin between the candidates stood at 930 votes before the recounting by hand, and 537 after. That is a margin smaller than the number of people in this sanctuary, by far, to determine the occupant of the most powerful office in the world. Sometimes people count.

But not often enough.

How many people know your name, out of a Dallas population of 1,075,894? If you died today, you would be just one of 140,000 who will die this day—how many people would notice? Americans earned $7,789,600,000,000 last year—how much money did you make? 400,000 babies will be born—how significant in the larger world is your child or mine?

Conflict rages in the Middle East, political turmoil in Peru and so many other countries, and of course, the political future of America is very uncertain. But what can you and I do about any of this? How much difference does your life make?

Today we continue our focus on global missions, ministry, and evangelism. But why? Isn’t this all really about making more money for missions programs? Or is there more to it?

Would you like to spend the years left to you doing something that matters? Something that touches all of humanity and leaves the world a better place? Something that gives your life deep satisfaction and your soul a sense of real significance?

Who wouldn’t? God says that you can. His word tells us how to step from success to significance. Let’s take the first step today.

What they did …

Let me take you to Antioch, one of the most immoral cities in the ancient world, and surprisingly, home to the greatest missionary church in the New Testament.

Antioch of Syria was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, with a population of half a million people. It was located 300 miles to the north of Jerusalem, where the city of Antakya stands in modern-day Turkey.

Antioch was a great commercial center, as trade from the world over flowed through its banks and markets. This was a city of cosmopolitan culture, much like San Francisco or New York City today.

But Antioch was best known for its moral corruption and decadence. The cult of Artemis, located five miles to the south, practiced temple prostitution and all kinds of sexual immorality. Every kind of illegal activity was found here. If you crossed Las Vegas with Sodom and Gomorrah, you’d have Antioch of Syria.

It is amazing that this city would be home to the most missionary church in early Christianity. We can never give up on any city, Dallas included.

Here’s how that church happened.

Verse 19 tells us that the persecution which began with Stephen’s martyrdom scattered Christians out from Jerusalem as far as Phoenicia along the western coast of Syria, the Mediterranean island of Cyrus, and Antioch to the north. However, these first missionaries preached only to fellow Jews.

But then some courageous Christians from Cyprus and the north African town of Cyrene came to Antioch to evangelize the Gentiles as well. Most Jewish Christians simply did not believe that Gentiles could become Christians. But this unnamed group of missionaries believed we could. And we will forever—literally—be grateful.

And God gave them immediate success, in four ways.

First, against all odds, “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (v. 21). Among them was Luke, the physician and author of Luke and Acts. When you follow Jesus in missions and evangelism, you never know the ultimate result. Tony McGrady and Julian Unger had no idea when they knocked on my apartment door and invited me to church in 1973 that I would one day be your pastor and tell you their names. We cannot know the eternal significance of immediate obedience to Jesus.

Second, the mother church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to investigate this phenomenon; he “saw the evidence of the grace of God” (v. 23) and encouraged the people, and again “a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (v. 24). When God is honored, his church must expand. Our church must expand. We cannot help it. All healthy things grow.

Third, Barnabas went to Tarsus, 100 miles to the north, to recruit Saul for this ministry. Saul (Paul to us) had not been mentioned by the Book of Acts for nine years; but somehow Barnabas knows that God wants Saul for this ministry. And so Paul the Apostle reenters the stage of global missions. God’s plan for Antioch was far larger than Antioch. His plan for Dallas is far larger than Dallas.

Fourth, as a direct result of the teaching Barnabas and Saul provided for these new Gentile believers, “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (v. 26). “Christian” literally means “little Christ.” These Gentile converts so took on the character, the priorities, the morals, the personality of Jesus that even the skeptical pagans around them saw Jesus in them. How we want this to be true for us!

Now watch their Antiochian success become global significance.

Some prophets from Jerusalem warned this vibrant, exploding church that bad times are ahead: “a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world” (v. 28). This happened during the reign of Claudius, around A.D. 45.

These Gentile believers in Antioch have enormous resources, given the economic prosperity of their city. This famine will likely not affect them greatly. They don’t need to care. I knew a man who lost $57 million dollars in the oil collapse of the early 1980’s, and was still one of the three wealthiest men in his city. The Antioch Christians had enough resources not to worry too much about the coming hard times.

But the Jerusalem Christians are in for disaster. Jews in their culture have ostracized them for their faith; they have lost their jobs, many have lost their homes. A famine will mean starvation for them.

So the Gentile believers in Antioch, previously ignored by the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, immediately decide to help. They take an offering and send it to the Jerusalem church by Barnabas and Saul. They become compassionate about needs beyond themselves. They gain a passion for a larger world.

And this larger world would beckon them again and again.

One day as they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, “The Holy Spirit, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'” (Acts 13:2). These are their founding pastors, two of their five ministerial leaders. They could have refused. They could have kept their leaders and spiritual mentors for themselves.

But again they saw a larger world: “after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (v. 3). And they would continue this sacrificial support. Each of Paul’s three missionary journeys began with Antioch. Continually he received financial, material, and spiritual sustenance and support from this, his home church.

And God made a group of Gentile believers in the most immoral city in their part of the world to be a church of global significance. Their ministry touched the ancient world as they prayed, gave, and went for Jesus. Their ministry has affected the world for twenty centuries since. You and I are Gentile Christians today, here this morning, in large part because of the Antioch believers. They stepped from temporal success to global and eternal significance.

So can we.

… we can do.

By the end of the Korean War, a young man named Yonggi Cho was dying of tuberculosis. A friend of his family visited him repeatedly, prayed with him, and gave him the Scriptures. Others helped him come to Christ; later he was healed of his disease.

In 1956 he entered Seoul’s two-year Full Gospel Bible Institute. He began a church in a tent on May 15, 1958; only five people heard his first sermon. His pulpit was a stack of wooden apple crates covered by a thin cloth. One of the five in the congregation, an elderly woman, went to sleep and started snoring. Yonggi almost quit.

He and his friends began to pray, every morning at 4:30. The rest of the day they visited in the homes of their poor community, ministering and praying with anyone who would allow them to. People began coming to their tent to pray as well. Ministry teams began to grow. God began to heal the sick and to convert the lost. By 1967, nine years after they began in a tent, their church had a congregation of 7,750.

Their secret was simple: they prayed for God to reach their nation and their world. And they still do. Every staff member begins the workday with an hour of prayer in his or her office. They sponsor all-night prayer meetings every day except Sunday, and have as many as 25,000 at some of them. When their church started, perhaps 4% of South Korea was born-again; now the number exceeds 30%. And their church membership is nearly one million. God has given this one church global significance.

You may know the story of Bob Buford.

As an extremely successful cable television executive in Tyler, he experienced “success panic” at the age of 44. Through a series of circumstances he came to determine that business success was not enough for his soul, for his life to be significant.

In time he founded Leadership Network, a service which links ministry leaders and needs in church and community. Leadership Network has become the leader in the world in such a strategy. And Buford’s book, Half Time: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance has helped transform the lives of thousands of men and women, as they have moved from economic success to spiritual significance.

What are the steps?

Believe that your life must change the world. Get a passion for the world. Believe Jesus when he said you are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). Believe him when he said that you would “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and be his witness “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

You have not obeyed these commands unless and until your life has changed the world. Believe that you can, and you must.

Next, define the needs which surround you. Just as God used the prophet Agabus to tell the Antiochian Christians about the needs of their world, so he will show us the needs he intends us to meet.

Ask him to make you sensitive to the people around you and their problems. Like the Antioch Christians, he has given you the resources you need to meet them. Decide that you will do all you can do to help. You can give food, time, energy, and abilities to help hurting people in your community and around the world.

And last, support those who will do what you cannot. God did not call everyone from Antioch to go to the larger world, but he called some. The others prayed for them, gave money to help them, held the ropes as they went out. We give money to support missionaries who go where we cannot. And through them, we touch the world.

Conclusion

You have experienced success. Is your life significant? It must be—you must touch the world spiritually, or you have not used your life as God intends. Your life can have global significance. The choice is yours.

In Cespedes, our Cuba ministry team met with Carlos, the pastor of a church whose building is about the size of a Sunday school department. His office is the size of one of our closets. But on the wall of his office is a map of the world. He believes that God has called him and his church to touch that world. And on that map is a sticker which marks Dallas, Texas. I am grateful.

When we got back from Cuba, I put a globe in my study where I could see it. Like Carlos, I want our church to touch the world. So does Jesus.

Do you?