After the people tried to kill Paul, it was a good time to leave Lystra. The missionaries went on to Derbe. Luke does not tell us much about the ministry there, saying only in verse 21: “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples.” If in the earlier story the emphasis was upon division and the resulting persecution, here it is on the results.
There is no church in Derbe today. This city, like many ancient cities, is a ruin. The tide of history has swept over it, and the church that was there is gone. But this was a great church for a very long time. We are going to find out more about it later on in Acts, because, when we read in chapter 20 about the delegation that went with Paul with the offering from the Gentile churches to Jerusalem, we find that the church at Derbe sent a representative along. His name was Gaius (v. 4). At this point the church was strong enough to have taken a sizable collection for this fund, and it had resulted from the very short ministry that Paul had with them.
Yet the work was not quite over. Because in the very last section of the chapter we find Paul and Barnabas retracing their steps, going back through the cities where they had been persecuted and from which they had been ejected to strengthen those left behind. They did a number of things.
1. They gave encouragement. It was a hostile, pagan community in which the people of these cities were called to live for Jesus Christ, and they didn’t even know much about Him. So, the apostles went back to encourage them.
2. They taught the believers. Paul taught that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 22), and other things.
3. They organized the church. Here, for the first time in the Book of Acts, we find the appointing of elders, which we learn later was to become Paul’s natural pattern of ministry. I do not know how “elderly” these elders were, but I know they had not been Christians very long since the Gospel itself had not been known to them very long. Was that any way to establish a church? Most Presbyterians wouldn’t do it that way. We want to be slow, careful, dull, and (maybe) ineffective. But Paul had faith in what God was doing, and if there were to be churches in these cities, they obviously needed sound organization. So Paul appointed elders, more than one, and the churches thrived.
4. They prayed. The last thing Paul did (and possibly the first thing too) is that he prayed for them. We should be praying too, praying for those to whom we witness and for the church.
When we get to the very end of this chapter, we find something marvelous. Verse 26 says, “From Attalia, they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.” That is significant. They had completed the work. True, this was only one stage in Paul’s lifelong ministry. It was the end of the first missionary journey. There were going to be two more. But this was the first stage. It had been clearly defined, they were commissioned to do it, and they completed it. So they went home, reporting, “The task is done.”
That is a great thing to be able to say. How many Christians have started out in some work but have not finished it! Many have been given a task to do, but because of the hardships, divisions, persecutions, and such things they have said, “I think I had better quit.” The victory is not to those who start. It is to those who finish. That is what Jesus said. “You must finish. You must persevere to the end” (see Matt. 10:22). Paul did it, and not only here but throughout his entire life. So, when he came to the end, he was able to write to Timothy, saying of himself, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Paul raced the whole way to the finish line, and when he reached the finish line he passed over into glory. That should be the case with each of us, too.