The In-Between Years Part 64

Series: The In-Between Years

April 25, 2022
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. It was launched in Antioch of Syria (where Jesus’ disciples were first called Christians) with the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas as missionaries to the Gentiles. They went to the island of Cyprus, then to the mainland of Asia Minor and the city of Antioch in Pisidia.

When they arrived, their first stop in the city was the local synagogue. Paul was asked to give a word. So he preached his first recorded message in the Bible. It was powerful and centered on the risen Jesus. Here’s what happened…

48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.  Acts 13:48–52 (ESV)

They went to the city of Iconium. Iconium was 90 miles southeast of Pisidian Antioch. It was an ancient place even to the people of the First Century (who are ancient to us!). Iconium had been occupied since the third millennium BC, that’s 2,000 years before the early church. That makes it one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in the ancient world.

I don’t know whether Luke, the author of Acts, intended this or not, but his account of Paul and Barnabas’ missionary enterprises there reads like a tennis match. 

Let’s take a look this morning. Paul and Barnabas make the serve…

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.  Acts 14:1 (ESV)

If you recall, this is Paul’s modus operandi, the set way he did things on his missionary travels. Go to the Jew first and then the Greeks. He went to the Jews first by hitting the synagogue. Most likely, just as it happened at the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, the leaders of the Iconium synagogue noticed what appeared to be distinguished guests (Paul had been a Pharisee) and asked for a word.

Paul stood up, preached the gospel, and spoke in such a way a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. We are probably safe to assume the Greeks here present in the synagogue were God-fearers, Gentiles converted to Judaism (like at Pisidia).

The gospel was served, here’s the volley…

2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  Acts 14:2 (ESV)

Now there’s some debate over who the Gentiles are here. Gentiles and Greeks are generally synonyms. It’s assumed Luke uses the term Gentiles here as opposed to Greeks in v. 1 because they are regular citizens of Iconium as opposed to those Gentiles who converted to Judaism, God-fearers.

That begs a question. Why would the unbelieving Jews not try to stir up the Jews and God-fearers who believed? In other words, why didn’t they focus on those in their synagogue who converted? I think their goal was to run Paul and Barnabas out of the city, a city governed by Gentiles, so they were going for the bigger picture. “We’ll cut our losses in the synagogue and focus on shutting this down for good.” It was a wise decision. The enemy isn’t stupid. Sometimes they are better at being the enemy than we are the good guys.

This lob of persecution from the other side happened at Pisidia also, as we’ve seen. It will happen in a similar form again at Lystra. And at Philippi. And Ephesus. And finally at Jerusalem towards the end.

But Paul and Barnabas don’t miss a beat. They volley back…

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.  Acts 14:3 (ESV)

The Jews rose up against them, so they hunkered down for a while. Why would they stay? For the same reason they stayed in Antioch of Syria for a long time, the many new believers there needed discipling. Luke mentions two things about this:

  1. They spoke boldly. That’s what we would call a Lukan word. It’s translated from a Greek word Luke uses often and in the same context every time. Of its nine occurrences in the NT, seven are in Acts. He loved to refer to the apostles’ preaching as being bold

Reminds me of my time at Long Hollow. Their word was “strong.” They still use it today. It kind of got on my nerves, so please don’t say I preached a “strong” message today. Probably no danger of that :)

Bold for Luke carries the idea of saying what you want to say freely without fear, with courage, to spite heavy opposition. I like how one commentator put it, “Paul and Barnabas stayed because the brothers needed their support, and the greater the opposition the bolder they became.”

How were they able to do that? Luke tells us. They spoke boldly not just anyone but for the Lord JESUS.

  1. Jesus, in response, bore witness to their message. They spoke of him, his teachings, his words of grace. And the way he blessed their faithfulness was by granting signs and wonders (we’ll see an example of that next week).

One scholar writes: “Greater opposition kindles greater boldness. They counter this opposition with ‘the message of his grace’—shorthand for the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, which resulted in the offer of the forgiveness of sins to both Jews and gentiles—and with ‘signs and wonders’ that the Lord performs through them.”

It’s 40 love and time for the final volley. I have no idea what that means, just that it’s a tennis term and sounds really cool. Yep, I know zip about the sport of tennis either. Some of you were getting excited I’m sorry. Verse 4, final volley….

4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. 5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia [lik ay OH nih uh], and to the surrounding country, Acts 14:4–6 (ESV)

The gospel split the city's sympathy and affections. That speaks to Paul and Barnabas’ impact. They spoke and taught and ministered with such boldness during their stay, that by the time their missionary work drew to an end it had impacted the whole area.

Verse 5 confirms my suspicions of why the Jews worked on stirring up the city’s native inhabitants, the Gentiles. They were able to get the leaders of the synagogue and the leaders of the city — the governing officials — on the same page. They had enough support to organize a lynching but with a stoning instead of a hanging. Ugly, wicked, godless, evil business in any era, ancient or otherwise.

Paul and Barnabas learned of the plot and fled. What happened to the boldness? Why all of a sudden do they run? Well, they had been called at that time to be witnesses, not martyrs. Jesus did the same throughout the gospels. He preached boldly without fear and slipped away when things got too hot for three years, and it was time. He allowed himself to be arrested and crucified. Much later on in the very end, Paul realizes it’s his time and allows himself to be caught and imprisoned. And then beheaded.

Look at verse seven, our last verse today. They fled to Lystra and Derbe…

7 and there they continued to preach the gospel.  Acts 14:7 (ESV)

They didn’t flee to hide or regroup. They fled simply to preach the gospel somewhere else.

I am going to be honest with you. I struggled with this text. Not with understanding it. It’s simple and straightforward. But with what angle I should preach it. What’s the application? What does it teach us? What does it compel us to change or do? But as is always the case with Scripture, the problem was me and not the Word. I ended up with multiple applications.

I think maybe the most evident application is…

The gospel is divisive and controversial; it stirs up opposition and persecution. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve come across this truth in Acts. It won’t be the last by far. You might even say it’s a theme. The city was divided over the good news of the risen Jesus. That division was not along ethnic or religious lines. Both Jews and Gentiles took sides. No doubt this division even pitted family against family, neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. It even led to plans for a murder!

Now that probably sounds odd, wrong even, to many of us, especially if we are Gen x or older (I hate spinning that wheel on internet forms!). Or maybe it sounds right for back then but not now. The gospel, the Bible, the Word, the Lord, all that is what our nation, our laws, our culture are founded on. Since we have lived and moved and had our being in a country, a culture steeped in Christianity, it’s hard to understand how it can be divisive. People should unite around it!

But then we remember the words of Jesus…

49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”  Luke 12:49–53 (ESV)

It’s as if our text today, what happened at Iconium and following, is a case study on what Jesus said. Over and over again as the gospel progressed and turned the world upside down it brought conflict and division, that is until it became the official religion of Rome some 250 years later. Then, not so much. When it became favored by the authorities and the culture, it wasn’t so effective, it wasn’t so transformative, so divisive, at least not in the way it once was. The way it was with Paul and the early church.

When the church became favored there was division, there was confrontation, but it was the other way around. It wasn’t the world attacking Christians, it was those who named Christ doing horrible, inhumane things in the name of the church and Christianity. The records of history record that sad story. We won’t go there today.

Of all the commentaries I read — and I read many since, as I said, this text was hard at first — one by NT Wright really hit home, which is not surprising since you hear me quote him often. In his commentary on Acts 14:1-7, he tells the story of a young man he knew who suffered terribly from depression. Professor Wright counseled him to get help. His condition was obviously becoming clinical. The doctors prescribed medication which helped but he quit taking it after a while.

“All the highs and lows disappeared,” the young man complained. “OK, I don’t like the lows. In fact, they’re terrible. But the highs went as well. I just felt like a cow, mooching around, never getting excited about anything. I can’t live like that. It’s just not me.”

He stopped taking the medication and worked with a counselor to get better (you can’t always do that and Wright was sure to point that out). He writes…

Sometimes medication may be the only way to help someone out of the deepest part of a depression so that they can begin to work on the real issues. But that notion stuck with me, of doing away with the highs and the lows. And I find myself thinking of it as I read a passage like this and compare it with what I know of ordinary church life in today’s Western world.

Those of us in what we like to think of as ‘mainstream’ denominations—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, and some others—are, by and large, respectable. All right, we are not as socially acceptable, in many places, as we once were. But there are two things you won’t find much of in our ordinary day-by-day life. You won’t find much in the way of persecution. Nobody is stirring up and poisoning people’s minds against us (well, they do sometimes, but not as sharply as they might). And you won’t find much in the way of signs and wonders. Nobody is running and jumping about the streets showing that God has healed them (well, they do sometimes, but we are normally so afraid of ‘extremism’, and of charlatans claiming to be healers when all they’re interested in is money, that we tend to fight shy of even the possibility of healing).

And I can’t help reflecting that we have become like my young friend on medication. The lows have gone, but so have the highs. What is the medication that we have taken which has made us the ecclesiastical equivalent of a herd of cows, mooing and mooching to and fro, doing nobody any harm, but never getting excited either? Nobody much gets healed, and nobody much gets stoned.[by stoned there he means in the sense of Paul’s stoning in this same chapter]

In other words, why does it seem the church of today, especially the Western church, is on something, something that makes us numb and mellow, too mellow, so much so that we don’t see the kind of division and confrontation, the lows, and we don’t experience the miraculous, the glorious transformations of people and cities, the highs like we see in Acts?

Here’s why, as far I see it, and you can take it for what it’s worth. Christianity has been favored and accepted by our nation from the very beginning. As I said, our laws have been founded on it. Our culture traditionally has embraced it. Remind us of anything in the church’s history? Rome’s acceptance. And the division and confrontation we are seeing right now, which many say is persecution, is in fact not the world attacking us and poisoning people’s minds against us as much as it is the “church” attacking the culture and demanding all line up not with gospel issues but political issues, pandemic issues, and such. See the difference?

The church and the gospel were born in hostile territory yet Christianity thrived, exploded, and transformed. All of the NT is written from the perspective that those who follow Christ would face opposition for sharing and living the gospel. Christianity in the West is resisted and opposed but not because we’ve preached it with boldness and effectiveness, with words of grace. It’s because we’ve weaponized it and tried to use it as a means to get our candidates elected, our non-gospel-related agendas in place.

And I think perhaps that’s why we don’t see the same highs and lows the early church did. I have been careful to point out that this problem is one those of us in the older generations need to be shown. The younger already see these things and are disgusted. They don’t want to be part of a church on meds. They are ready and willing to proclaim the gospel truth and they long to see transformation, and they are even willing to face opposition, but the established church is too busy doing other things. So they avoid it. And some the whole faith altogether.

Conclusion: What do we do? Wright was especially helpful here and I’m going to end our tennis match today with a rather long quote from his commentary. Settle into your seats and just listen with prayerful hearts…

… how might we, in today’s mainstream churches, go about a more apostolic witness to our wider community? Is there, shall we say, a less depressing way of living and speaking the gospel than the one in which many find themselves caught?

For a start, it’s important to make sure we really are announcing, and living by, the gospel itself—the full message about Jesus as the risen son of God, fulfilling God’s ancient promises for the benefit of the whole world, offering forgiveness of sins (not just a comforting, cosseting spirituality) and the hope of God’s new world (not just pie in the sky when you die). If we really sort that out, that’s one step in the right direction.

For another thing, we need to pray more seriously, perhaps with fasting. As we have seen, the genuine gospel is bound to confront other power-structures, other thought-systems. We will need all the spiritual resources we can muster.

But, when those are in place, what is the equivalent, for us, of what Paul and Barnabas were doing when they went into the local synagogues?…

The synagogue wasn’t just a place of worship. It was the main community centre for Jews in each locality, the place where they came together to address and settle all kinds of issues. The equivalent in many towns and cities wouldn’t necessarily be a ‘religious’ building, but what we often call ‘the public square’—which might literally be just that, a public square, but might well be a network of council chambers, government offices, town halls, health services, police stations and all the other paraphernalia of contemporary civic life. And the message wouldn’t be simply a ‘religious’ one about God, heard in terms of private spirituality and an escapist ‘heaven’ to hope for hereafter, with some odd moral codes thrown in for the present. It would be, for our world and our day, what Paul’s message to the synagogue always was: that for which you have longed is here, but it doesn’t look like you thought it would.

But what is our society longing for? Peace; justice; freedom; a voice and a vote which will count; health. Around and above all of those, love. Inside and through all of those: to satisfy the hunger of the heart, a hunger which no amount of money, fine houses, fast cars, luxury vacations and love affairs will ever begin to reach. And the task of the church, though it certainly goes much wider and deeper than this, at least includes the following: that we should, in prayer and with wisdom, be able to tell the story of our world, our increasingly neo-pagan society, in terms of the long history of promises we have clung onto and pledges we have made and broken. We should be prepared to think it all through so we can tell the story that people know is their story, the one they always knew they wanted to hear. And we have to tell it so that, like Paul telling the story of Israel, it ends with Jesus, not artificially or like a conjuror pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but so that he appears as what and who he is: the truly human one, the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the living bread through whom all our hungers are satisfied.

And of course it’s no good at all simply trying to say it. We have to live it. We have to create, and sustain, communities where this life is being lived in such a way that when we speak of it we are obviously telling the truth. That is the hard part. As long as our churches are places where we struggle to sustain an hour or two’s public worship per week, with ‘real life’ only minimally affected by it, we will indeed end up like a bunch of vaguely religious cows in a field, mooing on Sunday mornings and chewing the cud the rest of the time. No highs and no lows. But if we really worked at trying to be for our world what the apostles were for their Jewish world, things might change. The gospel might come alive. Vested interests would be challenged, and they would bite back. But we would be on the map once more: the map which Luke is offering us, even as the apostles hurry on once more to the next cities and districts, ready for more highs and more lows in the cause of God’s kingdom.

And I really don’t have much else to say beyond that. We are here to tell the story of a risen Savior and his name is Jesus. He is the only one who can make us right with God. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died and he offers that to anyone as a gift, you simply need to receive it by faith and repentance (and that’s just turning away from yourself and towards God). This is what’s behind the most amazing promise ever made…

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)

Christians are we telling the story of Jesus with our mouths and our lives?

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