Paul and Barnabas were not simply nomadic preachers; they were actually builders (1Co 3:10). They travelled not just to win converts and move on, but to see the kingdom of heaven firmly established on the earth. Hence, having reached Derbe on their eventful tour of Turkey (as we call it today), the missionaries now backtrack through their previous locations in order to strengthen the groups of Christian believers the Spirit has called through their preaching. Their task is vital.
God’s Son, Jesus, came to build God’s kingdom upon the earth (Lk 4:43). The seed of that eternal kingdom was ancient Israel: Jesus began as the king of the Jews (Lk 23:3). However, his task was to see Israel reborn as a nation of citizens transformed by the Holy Spirit, and only Jews who caught his vision and put their faith in him would find a place in the renewed kingdom (Jo 3:1-16). Those who rejected him were doomed only to see the collapse of old Israel (Lk 21:20-24). But that did not mean a reduction in the number of God’s people. Rather, since citizenship of the renewed kingdom was by faith in the Lord, both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) could now enter it (Ac 10:34,35). And that could be wherever they lived since Jesus isn’t limited by the borders of old Israel since he, from a heavenly Jerusalem, reigns everywhere (Mt 28:18; He 12:22-24).
However, though God’s kingdom has come, it presently occupies the earth with many others and that can bring trouble. In our part of Acts, a number of Jews have attacked Christians because they resent the undermining of their beloved, ancient nation (Ac 13:45). Some Gentiles have also been concerned enough to join with them (Ac 13:50). So despite the personal risk, Paul returns to these troubled locations to strengthen the believers (v21,22). The Christians may have thought that taking Christ as king meant freedom from difficulties. But the reality is that until Jesus returns, the kingdom grows in the midst of a world which dislikes God and dismisses his rule: so trials are to be expected. Paul encourages his friends to know that and persevere through the pain.
They need, however, something else to help them too. God’s kingdom is truly a community, not simply a loose collection of individuals. Paul, therefore, gives them a structure. In ancient Israel, unity was formed by blood ties, a legal covenant and a common culture, and expressed when the nation assembled together (eg 1Ki 8:14). What about with Christians? Well, we have a common faith in the Lord (Ep 4:4-6), are together in a new covenant with God, signed in Jesus’ blood (1Co 11:25), and share the culture of Jesus’ teaching (Jn 14:15). But if our Jerusalem is in heaven, where do we assemble? Answer: anywhere. The Holy Spirit lives in us (1Co 3:16) and joins us to heaven, therefore Christ is always present where we are (Jo 14:16-18). So when Christians in a place united together in the first century, they could call themselves an ‘assembly’ of reborn Israel. The Greek word they used for this was ‘ekklesia’, which is typically translated by us as ‘church’.
Well, as Paul and Barnabas backtrack through Turkey, they look to see if such communities of believers have been formed in the cities and happily discover churches in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. But structure is needed for them to thrive, so the missionary duo appoint leaders (v23), from each congregation. These men, who will undertake the spiritual directing and teaching of the church (1Ti 5:17), are known as ‘elders’. Old Israel also had elders within the nation, and they were the older men (eg Nu 11:16). However, in Jesus’ kingdom maturity links to the knowledge of the Lord (1Co 3:1,2) and, therefore, younger Christians may be appointed as leaders (1Ti 4:12). The elders are all male, as Paul confirms later (1Ti 2:12); just as Jesus’ 12 disciples were all men.
Churches today need elders. Ideally, there should be more than one in each church. They are not to be appointed on the basis of popularity or status, but due to appropriate Christian maturity. This means they should know the Lord and live out his ways faithfully, so as to bring Him honour and do the church good (v23; 1Ti 3:1-7). Hence, each church must take its elders seriously and support them well, especially with prayer. They are Jesus’ gifts to his church (Ep 4:11,12).