To the jaws of death and back

INDEX

First missionary journey

Following the incitement to violence by the Jewish people in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas travelled Iconium. (Acts 13:49-51) There are times in our Christian lives when we need to be as bold as Paul and Barnabas in protesting against the religion that is rife in our land and the traditions that render God's word ineffective.

"Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!" (Matthew 15:6-7)

We need to speak out the truth of what God has done for us through - and only through - the death, resurrection and anointing of Jesus. ("Anointing" is the root meaning of the word "Christ" or "Messiah" and Jesus is spoken of as "the anointed one".) Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with a set of rules that must be kept. It has everything to do with a relationship with God Himself, the very creator of the universe. That relationship is all about love – not that we deserve any of His love but, rather, because He first loved us (1 John 4:18-19)

Acts 14:1-7

At the beginning of chapter fourteen, we find Paul and Barnabas in Iconium, doing what they always did when they went to a new place: attending the Jewish synagogue where they were asked to speak. The same thing had happened in Antioch and, as previously, a great number of Jewish and Gentile people believed their message. (Acts 14:1)

Truth

Notice too that, once again, some Jewish people refused to believe. It's a good illustration of the fact that Christianity is not about a set of rules to be blindly followed. It is a series of choices that you and I are given. We can either believe them and choose to respond accordingly or we can refuse to believe them. The choice is ours, but trying to avoid the choice is simply the same thing as refusing to believe. There are no spiritual, logical or moral arguments that can prove or disprove the good news about Jesus. It is a matter of faith. Many intelligent people choose to put their faith in Christ and many intelligent people refuse to do so. It isn't about intelligence but faith.

The natural consequence to refusing to believe is people siding with those who are against Jesus. Jesus Himself told His disciples when He was with them on earth: "Anyone who is not for me is against me; those who are not helping me are hurting my cause.” (Luke 11:23) The same is true for us today. When we stand before the Judgement Seat of God, do we want to be accused of hurting the cause of Jesus? It is only those who respond with faith and put their trust in Jesus whose names will be entered in the "Book of Life" as those who have acknowledged Jesus to be their Lord and Saviour. (Revelation 20:11-15)

The reaction of Paul and Barnabas was to remain and preach the good news - the best news of all – about Jesus Christ. How might we have reacted? That’s a very pertinent question because, the more openly you and I preach the good news, the more we are going to be under attack. (Acts 14:3-4) However, we can take heart from the way in which the Lord upheld these two men. He backed up His word as they preached it by empowering them to do miracles. Not only did these people have the opportunity to receive God's word, but they could not ignore the miracles either. Those who listened to and received what Paul and Barnabas had to say, had their lives turned right way up. Those who refused to accept the truth went about trying to silence permanently the men who had challenged them so deeply. (Acts 14:5-7)

For every Christian, there comes a time when we have to evaluate how much more we can contribute to the people among whom we are working, without it affecting the wider picture of what God has called us to do. God had not called these men to die in Iconium, but to preach to people throughout the world and to establish churches wherever they went. What has God called us to do? Are we in the place He wants us to be, doing the things He wants us to do? Are we being effective? If not, what do we need to change to put things right? We should ask God, because He knows the answers to our questions before we even ask them!

It was now time for Paul and Barnabas to move on or to lose their lives, so they moved on to Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe and to all the surrounding areas. It was the same story: go to the next place, preach the good news, encourage those who respond and become believers, then move on again.

Acts 14:8-20

So the apostles arrived in Lystra, where a miraculous healing takes place. (Acts 14:8-10) You will doubtless remember that this is not the first time in the Book of Acts where we have seen a man, lame from birth, being healed. Previously, it was Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem who commanded a lame man to get up and walk. To the astonishment and amazement of the watching crowds, the man did just that... "walking and leaping and praising God." (Acts 3:2-8)

Witnesses to the world

God’s healing was not just intended for the Jewish people; neither was it limited to the apostles in Jerusalem to perform acts of healing. Jesus made it quite clear that not only do we, as believers, have a responsibility to preach the good news everywhere, but it was (and is) the responsibility of all believers to lay hands on the sick so that they recover. (Mark 16:15-18) We can either believe what Jesus said and get on and obey, or we can disobey and fail to enter into the exciting challenges that the Holy Spirit will bring to us. The sad thing is that the Holy Spirit will eventually stop bringing us opportunities if we keep turning our backs on them and our lives will settle into the humdrum existence of those who are just hanging around, not making a difference but simply waiting to die so that we can be with the Lord. Great that we shall be with Him one day, but how sad that so many miss out on "life in all its fullness". (John 10:10)

Of course, the second point about this lame man in Lystra was that he had faith to be healed. Paul noticed him and realised this. In today’s society, things are not so very different. People may not want to be healed for a wide variety of reasons - reliance on state benefits is just one example - so it is essential to listen to the Holy Spirit. He will guide us to the person or people with whom He wants us to spend our time. It is pointless laying hands on someone who doesn’t believe in healing, doesn’t want to be healed and rather likes the attention and sympathy of being sick!

Paul did not waste time on finding out where the lame man lived, who brought him to the meeting, why he was like he was, what his parents were like or what abuse he had suffered as a child; instead he got directly to the point! (Acts 14:10) As Christians, we should not waste time but get on with what God has called us to do. Time is short for each one of us and each of us has work to do that can only be done in our lifetime. There is a parable told by Jesus about the need to be watchful and prepared - as wise stewards. (Matthew 24:36-51) The consequences of not being prepared are truly dreadful! Jesus expects the world to end and that’s all there is to it. Perhaps the questions we need to ask at this stage are:

  • Do we expect Jesus to return? (When He does it will be to judge us on all that we have done.)
  • What will we be doing when (not if!) Jesus returns?
  • What will we be in charge of after He has returned? (Matthew 24:45-47)

Paul was aware all the time of what Jesus had commissioned him to do and, whilst he was aware that his life would never be - in fact, never had been - easy, he also knew that, when he had finished the work that he had been given to do, he would receive "a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

Paul also knew that, while he was here on Earth, he had things to learn. He had to look ahead, not dwelling on past mistakes, as he strained to reach the goal – the end of the race that God had set for him – and to win the prize, receiving the fulfillment of what Jesus had done for him. Just as Paul did, so you and I should do. (Philippians 3:13-14)

Jesus first

Paul also recognised that this particular race he was running was one that required stamina, diligence and single-mindedness. He saw, in his mind’s eye, believers throughout the ages who have lived, worked and believed in eager anticipation of the "last days": the culmination of the ages that will be reached when Jesus returns. He pictured them as a great crowd of witnesses, onlookers who encourage us on our way. He saw the people of the Old Testament – Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Josiah, Hezekiah and all those who are mentioned in the "Hall of Faith" in Hebrews, chapter eleven - and imagined them marvelling at the unfolding story of God's rescue mission to the human race. He saw his own part in the ongoing struggle to throw off the distractions and diversions of human selfishness and to fix his eyes on the prize: all that Jesus has accomplished for us and His ultimate elevation: to sit at God's right hand. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Paul also recognised that all who, by faith, accept what Jesus has done for them and follow Him wholeheartedly will themselves be transformed, considered righteous ("justified") and - in Jesus - glorified as brothers and sisters of the eldest son, Jesus. (Romans 8:28-30)

The healing of the man produced a result from the crowd of astonished onlookers that neither Paul nor Barnabas could have expected. They were hailed as gods! (Acts 14:11-13) There was a reason for this unexpected turn of events. Zeus and Hermes (also known as Jupiter and Mercury) were two popular gods in the Roman world. People from Lystra claimed that these gods had once visited their city. According to legend, no-one offered them hospitality except an old couple, so Zeus and Hermes killed the rest of the people and rewarded the old couple. When the citizens of Lystra saw the miracles of Paul and Barnabas, they concluded that the gods were revisiting them. Remembering the story of what had happened to the previous citizens, they immediately honoured Paul and Barnabas and showered them with gifts.

When we begin to accept and use the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we must not assume that those we serve will understand, either where the power of these gifts originates, or the motives that we have in using them. Some of the reaction to Paul and Barnabas was driven by fear: these people did not want what had happened to their ancestors to happen to them! At the same time, there was also amazement that the gods, whom they had worshipped for so long and who had never responded before, had suddenly started not only to hear their pleas but had actually decided to visit them.

We can expect similar responses - fear or adulation - today and must be prepared to respond as Paul and Barnabas did, reminding people that we are only human. (Acts 14:14-17) Notice how they reacted immediately and decisively, refusing the accolades that these people wanted to shower on them and explaining that they were ordinary people like those in Lystra themselves. Most importantly, they explained why they had come: to give them good news from the one true God, together with an opportunity for them to turn from their foolish ways and instead give their lives to the living God. They explained to them that God never leaves himself “without testimony" such as the regular provision of rain and crops, that are evidence of His goodness. Later, Paul wrote that this evidence from nature leaves people everywhere without any excuse for unbelief. (Romans 1:20) When we have doubts about our faith and God, we only need to look around us and we will see abundant evidence that He is at work in our world. It was only with difficulty that Paul and Barnabas succeeded in stopping the people of Lystra from sacrificing to them as gods.

It is amazing what a difference a day or even a few days makes in the lives of people. One day they were hailing the apostles as gods and wanting to offer them sacrifices but, just a few days later, they were listening to the Jewish people who had come from Antioch and Iconium. They quickly succeeded in poisoning the minds of the people of Lystra. From being an interested and fascinated crowd, they became an angry mob. (Acts 14:19-20)

Occasionally, we too will find that we are misunderstood. The doors of opportunity that, just yesterday, appeared exciting and about to open, suddenly slam shut in our faces! This can often happen when people in authority allow their insecurities to get the better of them, or when people misunderstand, (perhaps deliberately!) our motives. There are many fears that our enemy can use to blind the minds and hearts of people. Jesus Himself understood how fickle crowds can be. (See John 2:24-25.) When many people approve of us, we feel good, but that should never cloud our thinking or affect our decisions. We should not live to please the crowd - especially in our spiritual lives. Like Jesus, we need to understand the nature of people in crowds and not put our trust in them. Our trust must be in God alone.

The apostles and other disciples narrowly escaped being stoned in Iconium (Acts 14:1-7), but Jewish people from Antioch and Iconium tracked Paul down to Lystra, where he was stoned and left for dead. However, he had not completed the task that Jesus had assigned him, so Paul recovered, got up and went back into the city to continue preaching the good news. That is true commitment! Being a disciple of Jesus - the "Anointed One" - calls for total commitment. As Christians, we no longer belong to ourselves but to our Lord, for whom we are called to suffer. Suffering in this context can take many forms: ridicule, persecution or sanctions may be just some but, whatever form it does take, we are called to overcome it and to press on to our calling and the completion of our race.

How difficult are things for you as you tell others about Jesus? Have you given up, or like Paul and Barnabas, gone back to the site of your discouragement, overcome it, then moved on? Our enemy will never be able to put out the fire of God in a person’s life unless he has permission from the person himself. So... don’t give him that permission. Remember, he only prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He is actually a toothless, pussy-cat when he faces up to the authority of the living God and, then, even Satan’s worst is not good enough. (1 Peter 5:7-9)

On the day after the stoning, Satan probably thought that Paul would bother him no more. How wrong he was. As a result of Paul’s commitment and dedication, literally millions of people have received forgiveness for their sins and new life in Jesus. Some have gone on to change the world. That would never have happened if Paul had given up when he was stoned that day in Lystra. What about us? Will we be bold and strong in Jesus and go on with our life, "doing exploits" as God intended? ("The people that do know their God shall be strong and do exploits." Daniel 11:32)

Paul and Barnabas then went on to Derbe. There they went about their God-appointed task of winning many to Jesus. What an exciting way to live! The people we meet and those who receive what we have to say will never, ever be the same again. We are called to make disciples of all nations. These two people did not just stand up on Saturday, Sunday or any other day of the week and get people saved; they taught them so that they would have a strong grounding in the Word of God. When they moved on to the next place on their journey, those left behind were able to continue and, in turn, make disciples themselves. This is very much what God calls us to do. Jesus said: "Feed my lambs." (John 21:15)

Commitment

Can our lives be like that? It is entirely in our hands. It’s called commitment. Working together with the Holy Spirit makes a difference, firstly in just one life, then another, then another! In this way, we can affect an entire community. It is up to us! After Derbe, the apostles returned the way they had come – through all the towns that they had been to on the outward journey – through all the towns where they had had trouble before. They risked their lives again by going back.

Today, very few of us know the meaning of the word in this context. If we stick it out, to the very end... and then some more, we shall see amazing fruit in our lives. Christianity is not a brief, exciting experience that lasts for a few days or weeks; it is a lifetime commitment to Jesus. It involves continuing through times of plenty and times of need, being thankful and keeping on keeping on. (Philippians 4:11-13) The key to all of this is in our relationship with Jesus. We can accomplish all that God asks us to with Jesus' help because He can give us the strength and power. No Jesus - no power! It’s as simple as that. If we don’t work with Him, we work on our own and we soon learn which is easier and which will get the job done! Part of the reason that Paul and Barnabas risked their lives to return to these cities was to organize leadership within the new churches. They were not just following up on a loosely knit group; they were helping the believers get organised with spiritual leaders who could help them grow. Churches grow under Spirit-led leaders.

One of the problems in the church today is that those who lead them are not leaders at all. Leaders have specific characteristics. Primarily, they are servants. This is not to say that they are just there to sweep the floor (although occasionally they may do that!) They show that they are servants in the way they develop other people. Leaders will help others to grow and to climb up on their "spiritual shoulders", permitting them to outgrow the leaders themselves. Of course, in doing that, leaders will also grow. Unfortunately, many so-called leaders are protective and defensive of the role in which they have been placed. Under such circumstances, a church will never grow. In the church today, there are many managers trying to be leaders. They will never achieve what an anointed leader will. In too many cases, men and women have appointed people to a position that they call "leadership" when it is nothing of the sort. They are then confused and distressed when the church appears to be going nowhere.

King Saul was just such an appointee - the peoples’ choice - hiding in the baggage when he should have been leading the people. David on the other hand was a true leader. He was a man "after God’s own heart". When he made a mistake, he went straight to God and put it right, accepting the consequences for doing his own thing, but nonetheless facing the problem. Pray for your church leaders and support them. If God puts his finger on you, humbly accept the responsibility of a leadership role in your church, but only do it if God says to do it. Are you a leader? An easy way to discover whether you are a leader or not is to turn round! If there are people following you, then you are probably a leader. The reason that Paul and Barnabas did not appoint leaders in the church on their first visit (a common theme as they developed the churches, and helped them to grow) was that they wanted to see who would naturally rise to that position. They also wanted to see what the Holy Spirit said.

First missionary journey

If you have a barrel of stones and you want to select the big ones, just shake the barrel (you may have to shake it for a while) and you will find that gradually all the stones grade themselves, with the big ones rising to the top. Put all your potential leaders in a "spiritual barrel" then watch what happens to them as the Holy Spirit shakes them. You will soon know who are the real leaders in a church – and you may be surprised! Paul and Barnabas’ way of doing this is a plan that God uses regularly.

"They encouraged them to continue in the faith in spite of all the persecution, reminding them that they must enter into the Kingdom of God through many tribulations. Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church and prayed for them with fasting, turning them over to the care of the Lord in whom they trusted." (Acts 14:22-23)

When you have identified God’s leaders in your church, pray for them, fast for them, and above all, hand them over to the Lord for safe keeping.

Just imagine the scene as Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch! Every person in the church must have been present to hear what had happened and whether or not the Gentiles had been converted. What an exciting trip this had been! (Acts 14:24-26) Once the desire to be a missionary has taken root in our heart, it takes an enormous effort to come against it. When God has put it there in the first place, there is very little point in trying to prevent its development. "Guard your heart, for out of it is the wellspring of life." (Proverbs 4:23) What amazing stories Paul and Barnabas must have told, leading all to praise and thanksgiving. (Acts 14:27-28)

How do you feel after reading chapter fourteen of Acts? Has God spoken to you about your role and place? If He has, do not try to bottle it up; go for it with all your heart and mind. Enjoy what God has given you to do. It will always be a huge challenge to you. You will never stop seeing God performing miracles and answering prayer in your life. Accept the challenge - perhaps to pack your suitcase or rucksack - and go where the Lord tells you. Simply trust Him for safety and the safety of your loved ones. Above all, do not be like the Jewish people at Iconium who refused to believe! Never be in the position of attacking God's chosen ambassador!


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