The Expository Files


What Paul and Barnabas Did on Their Return Trip

Acts 14:21-23

We usually think of the apostle Paul's work during his three preaching trips as being primarily involved in spreading the message of salvation to the lost, and he certainly did a lot of that. However, he did not devote his time and effort exclusively to that. After establishing churches in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, but before returning home, he and Barnabas went back to some of the congregations that had already been started. "And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.' So when they appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom the had believed" (Acts 14:21-23).

Some have wrongfully concluded that the work of "evangelism" means only preaching the gospel to the lost and is done by "evangelists" while the work of "edification" concerns building up those who have already been saved and is done only by the elders. However, the Bible makes no such clear-cut distinction. Both evangelism and edification are accomplished by Bible teaching, and sometimes the same instruction that saves the lost can also edify the saved. There is no doubt that Paul and Barnabas were doing the work of evangelism, but in addition to their seeking and saving the lost, this text shows that they also took time to help and encourage those who were saved. So today, gospel preachers should surely do what they can to spread the message of salvation to sinners, but their work according to the scriptures also demands that they provide teaching and instruction to the church and help build up the saints. Let us look at what Paul and Barnabas did on their return trip.

Strengthened disciples

To begin, they strengthened the souls of the disciples. God wants His people to "be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man" (Eph. 3.16). Would you rather have strong health or weak health? Would you prefer live in a strong nation or a weak nation? Most of us, if we can, would choose the strong health and the strong nation. In like manner, God would prefer to have His people strong rather than weak. So, how can we be strengthened? One thing we need for strong physical health is good physical nutrition, and for strong spiritual health, God has provided all we need for good spiritual nutrition in His word.

Yet, there is also a need for us to help strengthen one another. Jesus told Peter, in predicting his denial, that "when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (Lk. 22.32). While all of us can certainly help to strengthen ourselves spiritually by reading, studying, learning, and applying God's word, we must also work to strengthen one another. The church at Sardis was commanded to "strengthen the things which remain" (Rev. 3.2). How can we do this? One way is to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). As fellow Christians, we should do everything within our power to try and strengthen one another

Exhorted to continue in the faith

Next, they exhorted them to continue in the faith. The word "exhort" is defined as meaning "to urge by earnest appeal or argument; advise or recommend strongly." It comes from a Latin word that means to urge completely and generally carries with it the idea of encouraging. "Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God, but exhort one another daily, while it is called 'Today,' lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3.12-13). One of the reasons why God ordained that Christians band together in local congregations rather than trying to make it through life all on their own is so that they can exhort one another.

What did Paul and Barnabas exhort the brethren to do? Luke says that it was, "To continue." In any human endeavor, especially when the going gets a little tough, there is always the temptation to throw in the towel and just quit. That is why Paul urges us, "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart" (Gal. 6.9). God does not want us to become weary and lose heart. In living the life of the Christian and serving God, we need to work at developing the patience, endurance, perseverance that will help us not to grow weary but to continue. "For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise" (Heb. 10:36).

Specifically, Paul and Barnabas exhorted the brethren to continue in the faith. Patient continuance is usually a good thing (Rom. 2.7). However, sometimes people choose to continue in sin or wrongdoing, and that is a bad thing. God wants us to continue in the faith, referring to the revelation of His will, "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints," for which He says that we must earnestly contend (Jude v. 3). Just as Paul and Barnabas exhorted these brethren to continue in the faith, we should regularly exhort one another to continue in the faith.

Appointed elders

Then they appointed elders in every church. This is not the first time that the inspired writer of Acts has mentioned elders in the church (Acts 11.27-30). Who were these elders? The word "elder" literally means an older man, but in the New Testament, the word is used of certain older men in local congregations who are chosen for a specific function. What do they do? In Acts 20.17-28 the elders of the congregation in Ephesus were told that they had been made overseer or bishops to shepherd or pastor the local church. Thus, New Testament passages referring to elders, bishops, and pastors are all talking about the same group of men in each congregation who oversee and shepherd the flock.

In every situation where human beings have to work together, there is always a need for someone to be in a position of authority. In civil government we have leaders. On the job there is the boss. In the home God ordained that the husband is head. In the local church, God has ordained that elders be appointed (Tit. 1.5ff). The work of these elders is to rule in the sense of managing, directing, and guiding the affairs of the congregation in harmony with God's will (1 Tim. 5.17). This does not make them dictators or tyrants to be "lords over those entrusted to" them (1 Pet. 5.1-4). Far too many congregations today have been in existence without elders for a long time. I have talked with preachers around my age who have never worked under elders. I have talked with young people who have never been in a congregation with elders. Sometimes the reasons for this beyond our control, and sometimes the reasons are result of our own failings, but in either event every congregation needs to be working to have elders, or if it has them, to maintain them because this passage indicates that it's God's plan to have elders in every church.


Prayer is generally an important part of the life of the Christian. "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6). "And since He bids me seek His face, Believe His word, and trust His grace, I'll cast on Him my every care, And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer." However, not only is it important for Christians to pray regularly as individuals, but also it is important for Christians to pray together. The church in Jerusalem was characterized by the statement, "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers."

It is interesting that the very first thing that the church did when Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin council and told their company what had happened to them was to pray (Acts 4.23-31). Then, when the church began to experience further problems of persecution, the brethren recognized the need for praying together (Acts 12.1-5, 12). It is just as true for entire congregations as it is for each one of us, that "O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer." So, Paul and Barnabas prayed with the brethren in these churches where they visited on their return trip.


So, what does God want gospel preachers to do? Even though Paul was an apostle and there are some things which he could do but we cannot today, the example of his work in preaching and teaching is certainly valid for all times (Phil. 3:17). Besides preaching the word to save the lost, gospel preachers need join with other members of the Lord's body to strengthen and exhort the brethren, encourage the appointment of elders, and pray with their fellow believers. Therefore, as Christians, we should all work together for the edification and upbuilding of the kingdom of God.

By  Wayne S. Walker
From Expository Files 16.10; October 2009