Sunday Morning Sermon — Acts 14:1-7 “Keys to Persistence in Ministry”

6 Jan

As we begin Acts 14 this week we move with Paul and Barnabus to the city of Iconium.

Paul and Barnabus travel about 80 miles southeast from Pisidian Antioch to Iconium. Iconium was a city that retained more of a Greek culture than a Roman culture. It was a kind of melting pot, with the native Phrygians, Greeks, Jews and Romans. Iconium was not a large city like Ephesus. So we see in the decision to go to Iconium a strategic choice. First, the diversity of the city will mean the gospel will reach more kinds of people and this is what Paul and Barnabus want to do, to take the gospel to all people. Second, going to a smaller city like Iconium at this stage was wise, because they would be received more seriously than they would if they went to a big city at this point. It is like a local band trying to book Madison Square Garden. Until they are better known, it doesn’t make sense to do so. Start out by playing local places and then move up the line. This is what Paul and Barnabus are doing. They start with culturally diverse, smaller towns and move on from there. There is one other aspect to their strategy that has not changed as well, and we see it in verse 1 . . .

1 Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.

Now if you were here last week you might remember that Paul and Barnabus went into the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch and preached there and they were well-received. But then when the Jews saw all the Gentiles of the city flocking to hear Paul’s message they rejected him. And Paul and Barnabus shook the dust off their feet and said, “now we are going to the Gentiles.” But here we are in verse 1 and they are back in the synagogue. So what’s going on? Well, it seems that Paul and Barnabus are merciful like God is merciful. They go to each local congregation of Jews and respond based on the response of that local congregation. So while the focus of their mission is the Gentiles, they have not forgotten their people, they still long for them to come to the Lord. And mercifully many do. Here it is both Jews and Greeks who believe. But again we have the problem of opposition in verse 2 . . .

2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.
Again, when the true gospel is preached, it will be both received and rejected. Some will rejoice and some will be bitterly angry. This happened with Jesus. Everybody loved him when he multiplied the loaves and fishes in John 6, but when He started talking about His mission at the end of the chapter, many of those who followed Him left. Jesus said that His coming would cause division in families, that a husband would believe and a wife reject or a sister would believe and a brother would reject. Many of you have felt that dynamic, perhaps when you got together for the holidays and you dealt with the tension of family members who don’t believe and would perhaps even mock your faith.
Now I want you to notice two things about the unbelieving Jews in verse 2. First, their unbelief is not just an intellectual thing, it has real ramifications. Their unbelief directs their actions. They try to poison the minds of others because they are unbelieving. So their unbelief motivates them just as Paul’s faith motivates him. This is why in the Bible faith is so often linked with obedience and unbelief with disobedience. Obedience is the fruit of faith and disobedience is the fruit of unbelief. And this is why it is non-sensical to say that a person who lives like the devil and never goes to church and never reads their Bible is a person of faith. Their disobedience shows that they don’t believe. Belief or unbelief is not just something that effects eternity, it impacts us every day at thousands of points of obedience or disobedience, where we exercise faith or live in unbelief.
Now the second thing I want you to notice is that the unbelieving Jews poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brothers. In other words, they did not attack the message, they attacked the people. The message was wonderful, grace through Jesus Christ for all who believe. But the messengers were an easy target. We don’t know the details of how Paul and Barnabus were discreditied, but it could have been anything. It could have been a personality issue. It could have been something about their appearance. It could have been the way they spoke. It could have been something about their background. It could have been and probably was in part, something made up. But this is a common strategy when we hear truth we don’t like: focus on the messenger. Many people use the worst examples of Christianity as an excuse to avoid dealing with Christ. So they see some Benny Hinn type figure on TV or they hear of some pastor somewhere in Missouri who abused a church member and they say, “See, they’re all crooks. Christ can’t be trusted, look at these people.” I have served under and been ministered to by several fine pastors. I remember one man who was really excellent, a man of godly character. And I remember visiting with another man whose children were in the youth when I was working with the youth. And he wouldn’t get involved in the church, he said, because the pastor strutted around in $600 suits. Now I don’t know what the pastor paid for his clothes, but I didn’t see anything flashy about him. Yet this guy was finding any little thing he could criticize. Because he didn’t want to deal with the message, he figured he would tear down the man. This is such a common thing. Be aware of this in your conversations with unbelieving family and friends. Stay focused on Jesus. Don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked. And don’t let someone come along and poison your mind by turning your eyes toward people rather than Jesus.
And for you who are sharing the message with family and friends, notice Paul’s and Barnabus’ response in verse 3 . . .
3 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.
Notice this little word “so.” This connects back to verse 2. It is another demonstration of the true grit of Paul and Barnabus. So, precisely because the Jews were poisoning the minds of the Gentiles against them, because of this, they stayed and contended for the Gospel. They didn’t let the final word be a word about them. They turned the tables and shifted the conversation back to Jesus. And Jesus met them in that by giving them signs and wonders as a testimony to the truthfulness of the message.
As is so often the case in the Bible, miracles affirm the message. I think one of the reasons we don’t see many miracles in our day is because we want the miracle just for the miracle and we really don’t care much about how the miracle is connected to the message. Most of the time in the Bible, miracles come before or after great moves of the message of salvation. God uses miracles to make a point about His saving power. This is most often the function of miracles in the Bible, they are pointers to the greater miracle of God bringing dead souls to life in Him through Christ. A foolish generation seeks a sign, we are foolish to go chasing after miracles, but maybe we would see more if we were seeking to take the gospel to people who haven’t heard it before. I heard just this last week of what seemed to be a clearly miraculous intervention in the life of a family in an unreached part of northern China, where an unbelieving family received what appeared to be a miraculous healing that might make them more open to the message of Jesus.
Notice here too that it was the Lord who granted or gave these miracles, not Paul and Barnabus. We can’t make miracles happen but God can bring them about for His own purposes.
I think the bottom line of this verse, even above the miracles, is that God honors us and meets us with help when we are bold to step out for His gospel. When we are faithful to share in spite of opposition, God will meet us in that and will give us a hundred gifts to get through and even to thrive under the challenges of opposition. This is why Paul could say in 2 Corinthians 4, We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
Now we see in verse 4 the aftermath of Paul’s labor and the Jews destructive work-

4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles.
In some ways, this is a discouraging verse. In spite of Paul’s and Barnabus’ persistence, in spite of the miracles from God’s hands, the city was divided. These who had been sent by God as apostles from the church in Antioch are rejected by some and received by others.
This shows us that the power of slander speech is strong. James gives us such powerful warnings against the misuse of the tongue in his letter because he knows that our words have incredible influence. When we speak against someone else, we can make a deep and lasting impact on others.
Second, this verse shows us that the gospel is divisive and that we won’t be liked by all when we speak it boldly. If your goal is to be liked by everyone, you should never go into ministry. I think sadly that the reason many of us do not speak boldly for Jesus in our lives is that our desire to be liked is greater than our desire to see others hear about Him. Paul and Barnabus show us that if we are faithful many will turn to the Lord, but many will turn on us as well. Our lives, if lived for God’s glory, will be somewhat tumultuous but also filled with God’s presence and power and blessing. Smooth sailing is nice but it is not the norm for Christians. I am convinced that the weakness of many Christians lives is owing to the fact that they think the Christian life is more like being in a pond in a paddleboat than it is going somewhere over the seas. Our goal is comfort rather than comformity to Christ, pleasure rather that the pursuit of opportunities to share the gospel. We don’t all have the same mission as Paul, some of us have a much smaller sphere of influence. But let’s be faithful to speak and to live for Jesus, even if it makes us unpopular.
Now notice what happens when Paul and Barnabus stand their ground.

5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them,
The Jews and ungodly Gentiles couldn’t stomach the thought of even a divided city. The enemies of the gospel are not content until those who proclaim it are silenced. So they will sometimes go to great lengths to shut it down. In this case, Paul’s and Barnabus’ ministry so enraged them that they took the law into their own hands. They could have asked the city leaders to ban Paul and Barnabus from the city and this would have worked. This seems to be what had happened in Pisidian Antioch. But they go a step further, intending to stone Paul and Barnabus. This was the Jewish way to execute someone for speaking against God. This was the fate Stephen faced back in chapter 7. Now Paul and Barnabus faced this threat. So look at what they do in verse 6 . . .

6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country,
One preacher said of this verse that “Paul and Barnabus were born again but they weren’t born yesterday. When the persecution got extreme and their lives and future ministry were threatened, Paul and Barnabus fled. There is a time to stay and a time to leave.” We see this truth in this very passage. When the opposition was to Paul and Barnabus they stayed and contended for the message of the gospel. Now that their lives are threatened the spread of the message and its strength in Iconium is threatened too. Therefore Paul and Barnabus leave and go 20 miles away to Lystra.

7 and there they continued to preach the gospel.

Now I love this. They continued to preach the gospel. Now let’s get to our question we asked at the start, how could they have kept going when they faced such opposition? What motivated Paul and Barnabus to persevere? First, we must recognize that this kind of perseverance had been a matter of prayer in the early church from its founding. In Acts 4, the church specifically prayed for boldness.
Acts 4:29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness,
So one answer to how Paul and Barnabus persevered is that they and the other believers prayed for the strength to persevere in boldly sharing the gospel. We need to pray and fast because when we go out to share Jesus with others we are going to be opposed, sometimes angrily. We are going to be denounced and called fools and intolerant. We need spiritual resources to deal with that or we will fold like a cheap suit at the first hint of opposition. I see how weak my spiritual life is when I realize how discouraged I get at the light opposition I face when I share the gospel. How would I react if people wanted to harm me physically? Unless God is at work in me I would wilt under such pressure. So we need to live now in such a way that our hearts are being prepared for rejection. We need to pray earnestly for strength.

Second, Paul and Barnabus persevered because their hearts were captured by the glory of the gospel. They knew Jesus was the risen Son of God who fulfilled God’s promises to Israel and the world, who offered forgiveness and freedom and newness of life. When we see the gospel as precious and God as our infinite treasure, then we can do bold things and speak truth without regard to our own comfort. When we see the gospel as something nice but not something central, we will not speak out. When we love Jesus more than we fear people, we will speak. So this is one of the places of reading and studying and meditating over the gospel. Our Sunday nights in Romans are not about academics. They are not about you getting fed. They are about you getting equipped to walk more deeply with Jesus and serve Him more faithfully. As we verse by verse, word by word work through these texts we are getting equipped. And then, once a quarter on Ministry Night, we will try to apply what we are learning in a joint effort of ministry. But ministry night is just a small slice of the ministry you do. So we must pray and we must love the gospel if we are to be bold like Paul, if we are to persevere like Barnabus.

Finally, we must live what we believe. This is the hardest part. To say Jesus is Savior and life is found in Him is one thing. To live in such a way with each other that the world knows we are His disciples by the love we have for one another is another thing. The first places to start in living it are being connected to God and being connected to fellow believers. You have to spend time in the Word and prayer each day. These are your life lines to God, you points of connection and relationship. If you can’t take a few minutes each day to meditate over the Word and to pray, what will you possibly have to share with anyone else? And on the matter of being connected to other believers, how can you be connected if you are never here? I am convinced that our first line of outreach ought to be Sunday School members who are not active in your classes. Then we need to pursue people who are no longer active in the life of our church. Along with that we need to go to our neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers. In other words, we have no lack of people to reach out to. But if you’re not here, you can’t do that, and you can’t be connected to other believers. If you sleep in two Sundays a month and go to the lake another Sunday don’t wonder why you don’t feel close to anybody. If you don’t make any effort to get to know anybody don’t rail about how unfriendly everybody is. If you are not here, you can’t get connected. So jump into a Sunday School class. By all means be here on Sunday morning as we all gather together to worship. Come on Sunday night. Don’t be a consumer of religious information, be an active participant in the body of Christ. I know some of you have been burned. I just want you to know today that if you really live you will get burned, and often. But you will also experience immeasurable joys that will take a lot of the sting out of the burns. As you get established in your walk with God and as you get encouraged by fellow believers you will find yourself suddenly out of the paddleboat and onto the open seas, with a purpose in God’s plan. Yes, the waves may get rocky and the storms may come, but you are going somewhere and you are pointing others to a life lived for eternity rather than a life lived to rack up comforts. And remember, God controls the winds and the waves. He will see you through.

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