Faith to Persevere - Acts 14:8-11, 19-23
Our text continues the story of Paul’s first missionary journey of about AD 47-49. After traveling across the island of Cyprus, Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark sailed northward to Asia Minor (modern Turkey). From its south coast they traveled inland first to Perga, where John Mark called is quits. It was then on to Antioch of Pisidia, a straight-line distance of about 75 miles; walking distance was much farther due to terrain. There Paul preached in the synagogue; his message led many to faith but provoked bitter opposition from others. This pattern was to repeat itself throughout Paul’s missionary travels. Wherever the gospel went in Acts, it met with opposition as well as faith.
Miracle and Misidentification -
Miracle and Misidentification -
In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”
From Antioch of Pisidia, the missionaries traveled eastward to smaller towns. The first was Iconium, where again preaching led to division and controversy. The team of Paul and Barnabas then moved on to Lystra, the setting of today’s text. Lystra was modest-sized town on a secondary highway and thus somewhat isolated from contact with the wider world. There a man with a lifelong disability comes to the forefront of the account.
Perhaps like so many in his condition, there is little he can do except beg for money to survive. He reminds us of the man encountered by Peter and John at the gate to the temple, also lame from his birth. Both unnamed men were living in deep need, never having encountered anything that could change their condition.
The man with the disability hears the preaching of Paul about Jesus. The man’s response to the message illustrates the beginning of faith. The text describes Paul looking closely at him, as Peter had done with the lame man at the temple. From what Paul sees, perhaps by various expressions of body language, the apostle understands that the man has faith to be healed. The man is convinced that the Jesus whom Paul preaches can change his life as no other can.
Perceiving the man’s faith, Paul boldly commands him to do what he has never done before: stand on his powerless legs. The man does that and more, like the man healed earlier at the beautiful gate to the temple. If the power of Jesus can accomplish this miracle, then surely it can bring the fullness of God’s blessings to the people of Lystra!
What did you learn about God from an occasion when you exercised your Christian faith publicly?
In verse 11, when the crowd saw the miracle they perceived based on their own understanding. Absent of devout Jews in Lystra, it’s safe to assume that everyone there worshipped pagan deities. So naturally the people try to comprehend the miracle just witnessed within the framework of stories about those gods. They concluded that Paul and Barnabas must be two of those gods come down in human form.
What can we do to correct misconceptions of what being a Christian implies or means?
Attack and Aid -
Attack and Aid -
But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.
Paul and Barnabas attempt to correct the false impression in the intervening verses that are not part of today’s lesson text. The fickleness of the crowd is seen in what comes next. The miracle has made an enormous impact on the people of Lystra. But this does not ensure a favorable hearing from everyone! The preaching of Paul and Barnabas had stirred up opposition in places previously visited - Antioch of Pisidia and Iconium. Jewish opposition from those two towns now seek to suppress the gospel in Lystra. Their determination is seen in their willingness to travel many miles. Their opposition is so persuasive that mob action erupts.
They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city. Stoning is one means of execution in the ancient world, employed to engage members of the entire community in the judgment against the accused. In many cases the victim is first cast into a pit, then large stones are dropped or thrown on him or her. We cannot know the specific means of Paul’s stoning. But it is certainly a horrific experience as a crowd of people overtakes Paul, utterly convinced that he deserves to die. The fact that those who stone Paul do not stop until they believe him to be dead implies that he suffers visibly severe injuries.
Paul came to experience the kind of persecution he had inflicted on others. It could make him even more grateful that the Lord had forgiven him and saved him from such a sinful life. In verse 20 we are told that the disciples gathered around him - which could be seen as a typology of God protection surrounding him from further harm.
Departure and Return -
Departure and Return -
But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.
Paul and Barnabas must make a decision: stay in Lystra or leave town. There is no record of God’s revealing a divine decision in this regard. After being stoned the bible records that the next day he sets out on a 60 mile journey to Derbe. Clearly God’s power has protected and preserved Paul just as much as his power made the lame man whole.
Prior to reaching Derbe, Paul and Barnabas had met serious opposition in every city in which they preached in the Galatian region. As we read about their continuing travels and ministry, we are amazed that they continue in the face of such serious resistance. Yet they do indeed preach in Derbe, with influence on many people there. Even more surprising is the missionaries’ following move: returning to each of the cities where they experienced persecution! They retrace their steps, going back to the sites of their suffering.
When was a time God called you to minister in a hostile environment? How did things turn out? Regarding ministry to a fellow believer; regarding ministry to an unbeliever?
Verse 22 reveals something quite interesting - the missionaries’ purpose in retracing their steps is so that they can continue to teach the new followers of Jesus. Such ongoing teaching is always important, but it is especially vital when those new to the faith live in an environment that is hostile to that faith.
The strengthening spoken of here is that of urging the new disciples to embrace attitudes and behaviors consistent with their new faith. Christians in every era have realized the importance of grounding new converts in their faith with ongoing teaching. The text emphasizes a particular aspect of the missionaries’ ongoing teaching: the significance of suffering for the followers of Jesus. The story of God’s people in the Bible is repeatedly a story of hardship and suffering.
Being God’s person does not mean an end to suffering. Rather, it means suffering as other suffer. Even more than that, it means distinctly suffering because of belonging to God and so not conforming to the pattern of the world. But this suffering is not pointless. By his sufferings Christ brought the kingdom of God, God’s promised rule, into the world. Because of his suffering, Christ is exalted at God’s right hand and extends his rule ultimately to embrace all the earth. Acts shows that by living in step with Jesus’ teaching, the followers of Jesus encounter hardships and persecution as he did.
Whose experience with suffering inspires you? Why is that?
Acts shows that by living in step with Jesus’ teaching, the followers of Jesus encounter hardships and persecution as he did.
Verse 23 shows that the new believers will need leadership after the missionaries depart, so Paul and Barnabas select leaders for them. Elders is the term used here and elsewhere in the New Testament for these leaders. These leaders are to look out for the welfare of those in their charge, with analogy to shepherds who feed and protect their flock of sheep. The responsibility to nurture and lead the church never falls to one person alone. It is always a shared duty, part of the church’s fellowship in the love of Christ, who is the Chief Shepherd.
The context implies clearly enough a certain level of spiritual maturity to serve as one of the leaders who shepherd God’s people. If much trouble marks the way of God’s kingdom, then those who lead others on that way must know what it is to suffer faithfully as Christ’s followers. That experience in turn will enable them to guide others who encounter their own suffering.
Stories and experiences of opposition to the Christian faith can be very discouraging to us. Sometimes we look to the past and think that there was a time when the Christian faith was warmly and widely received. That selective memory contrasts with our view of the present, when it seems that hostility to Christian faith is common in all quarters.
We do well in such instances to remember that suffering is the means by which we experience God’s kingdom. None of the biblical exemplars of our faith escaped suffering, and Jesus himself suffered supremely at the hands of his enemies. Hostility to faith should not surprise us. But neither should those experiences of persecution blind us to the other things that God is doing.
As he did with Paul and Barnabas, God is bringing people to saving faith through the faithful witness of his suffering people. Are we ready to accept and act on both of these realities? Can we demonstrate firm faith in Christ when our faith is tested by suffering and persecution? Will we revere Christ in our hearts and serve in his name with our hands, despite the hardships and with expectation of his victory? Do we desire to see the victory of God enough that we are willing to see it in our own suffering?
We ask your blessing on our ministries, O God. Let us listen to those who compliment us and to those who criticize us - but only to learn more about how to serve. Shake us out of any complacency in our spiritual lives or our ministries. Give us fortitude to move ahead in the face of opposition. Show us how you continue to work, even in the difficulties of our ministries. We ask you to bring fruit to our work; in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.