In Iconium

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Tonight we're re-starting our series in Acts – 'the unstoppable message', which is still unstoppable; it's just been on pause for us for a while. So before we jump into tonight's text Acts 14.1-7 let's try and re-gain our bearings. This is Paul's first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas have been (ref 13.2) set aside by the Holy Spirit for missionary work; in particular they will bring the message of God's grace to the Gentiles.

So far been to Cyprus and confronted the false prophet and sorcerer: Elymas as a result of this the pro-counsel is converted. Paul and Barnabas then move to Pisidian Antioch in North West Turkey where Paul gives a lengthy Bible overview explaining how Jesus is the promised Messiah, God's anointed king; some believe but many Jews reject the Gospel so in 13.46 Paul and Barnabas say:

"We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.

The Gentiles gladly accept the Gospel and honour God's word but this results in the Jews inciting the upper classes to expel Paul and Barnabas from the region. So here they are 110 miles East in Iconium (now called Konya, in modern day Turkey).

In v1-7 we get a brief account of Paul and Barnabas's time spent in Iconium, it's less detailed than the accounts that follow in Lystra and Derbe, in particular it gives us very little information about the content of what Paul and Barnabas said. So why is it included – for the sake of completeness? Perhaps but it also functions as a template, a prototype for how Paul and Barnabas will go about their mission in the following chapters.

What'[s more Luke records in the very first verse of this account that it was successful; 'a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed'. That's a pretty good report surely, if that was the entry for HTG we'd be pretty happy wouldn't we? 'At HTG a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed' – translates directly and quite excitingly if you live in Bensham, if not then we might say people from many different ethnic groups; Brits, Africans, Mainland Chinese, Australians even believed.

What I want us to see tonight how this passage can function as a template, a model for Gospel work both in Turkey 2000 years a go and now in Gateshead in 2011. What's behind this success, what lessons can we learn from it? I've got 5 things to draw our attention to:

1. Strategy is spiritual

2. Preaching – unfashionable but effective

3. God's power is responsible for results

4. A city divided

5. Expect lasting fruit in the end

1. Strategy is spiritual

We're on page 779 of the blue Bibles, 1 Corinthians 14.1:

1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue.

Paul and Barnabas are only in Iconium because the Jewish elite had rejected the Gospel in Pisidian Antioch, whipped up opposition and driven Paul and Barnabas out of town and yet v1 says that they; 'went as usual into the Jewish synagogue', despite the Jews largely rejecting the Gospel earlier, Paul and Barnabas still go straight to the Synagogue in Iconium – didn't they learn their lesson? Not only that but were told that they did this 'as usual' this is their pattern and it's one that continues throughout Paul's missionary journeys.

This is their deliberate strategy and it's not one to be blown off course by initial opposition. Back in at the end of ch13 Paul says to the Jews in Antioch: "We had to speak the word of God to you first", suggesting that this was the specific task given to himself and Barnabas by the Holy Spirit at the beginning of chapter 13 – to preach to Jew and then Gentile. Paul will later say that he is obligated to both Jew and Gentile.

Certainly they have been given a commission to bring God's message of grace to the wider world; both Jew and Gentile and this is their strategy: First to go to the synagogue; a place of spiritual interest, where God-fearers both Jew and Gentile would be found, to preach and then to work out from there making disciples, quickly establishing a local church with effective leadership and then moving on. That's the plan. It makes sense on a human, rational level; good sense but it isn't unspiritual that they have a plan, a template for ministry which they repeat again and again, it's wise and part of the work the Holy Spirit set Paul and Barnabas aside for.

So let's apply that today; we don't have a synagogue in the same way Paul and Barnabas did – a central place where spiritually interested people gather – so what do we do?

1. Look for places where people are spiritually interested eg 'Wonders of the Universe' – water cooler conversations. Be proactive about looking in media/culture for places of spiritual interest. Acts 17 'I see you are very religious'

2. Secondly, bring people to church. Over the next few weeks you'll see a plan to help, hopefully many, non-Christians start hearing about Jesus. Next Sunday evening it's our Easter music invitation service, Rod will be stood here giving a talk designed to simply explain the good news about Jesus we'll have great music from the choir. Next Tuesday we've got the curry night which we hope will wet people's appetite for the next Christianity Explored course starting May 5th. That's a plan, it's not necessarily the best plan in the world but it has the potential to start introducing people to us and more importantly to Jesus. So put the dates in your diary and think about your personal strategy – who you could invite and what you need to do to make that happen – have people over for dinner before, pick them up. Then on Wednesday please come to the prayer meeting and pray with us that God would work through these events to bring new life. Strategy can be spiritual but we also need to ask for God's help.

2. Preaching – unfashionable but effective

v1b There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.

Secondly: method, we're told that Paul and Barnabas pitch up in Iconium and make straight for the synagogue and that there a great number of Jews and Gentiles believe – how? It says that Paul and Barnabas spoke effectively, in other words they proclaimed, they preached and as a result a great number believe.

Preaching isn't always popular, many say that a man standing at the front speaking for twenty minutes in monologue is simply outdated and irrelevant in the twenty-first century some type of conversation surely would be more appropriate. Certainly there are other ways of communicating the truths of the Gospel, we don't preach in home groups for example, nor do you need a pulpit to talk to you friend or work colleague about Jesus. However, the Bible repeatedly puts special emphasis on preaching for example Romans 10.14 says:

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

Paul himself later charges his trainee; Timothy: 'In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus' to preach the word. Preaching is marked out as the primary method of people hearing the good news of God's grace and it's the repeated practise of Paul and Barnabas here. A preacher shouldn't think that they address a room of people because of their own importance but rather they are simply obedient servants to God who has chosen in his grace to reveal himself through this method. Hearers also need to respect the preached word, we should expect it to work, not because of the preacher but because of the one who says; preach. In view of that can I ask you two questions?

1. Do you pray for the preaching here at HTG? We need you to.

2. Do you really believe that it will work – that many will be saved?

As I said before these verses don't give us much information about what exactly was said, preached in Iconium. We can reasonably assume that it was something similar to Paul's sermon recorded in the second half of chapter 13, after all we've already seen that they had a repeatable strategy and they were again in the synagogue. In this passage it is simply referred to in v3 as 'the message of God's grace'. That's the content that is to be preached time and time again, the message of God's grace, the good news that Jesus lived the life that we should have, died the death that none of us could have and has brought us the free offer of forgiveness and eternal life with God, he has proved all this by rising from the dead.

So we should have a strategy and that plan should be rooted in the preaching of God's message of grace. If we do that we should expect dramatic results and that's exactly what we see in the second half of this passage which we're going to look at next. First we'll look at God's power at work in Paul and Barnabas ministry before we spend some time thinking about the way the people of Iconium's respond to the message of God's grace.

3. God's power is responsible for results

Read v3 with me again:

3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.

Paul and Barnabas spend a considerable amount of time in Iconium boldly preaching the Gospel as God had commanded them. The second half of v3 tells us that God confirmed he authenticated that message (the message of God's grace) by giving Paul and Barnabas the power to do miraculous signs and wonders. What do we learn here? Well we don't get a systematic theology of signs and wonders from this verse alone, so I won't try and give you one. We do however, learn something about their role. These signs are given to Paul and Barnabas to 'confirm the message of God's grace', they authenticate the truthfulness of what they are saying, confirming that this is God's message, not merely the words of Paul and Barnabas. The significance of signs and wonders lies in their ability to point people to the truthfulness and authority of the Gospel message.

These signs and wonders are visible proof that God is at work in the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. The reason that many believe is that God has been at work in the preaching of Paul and Barnabas. Notice that a great number have already believed before these signs and wonders are given – they are not required before belief can occur, rather they confirm that God has already been miraculously at work in the lives of many Jews and Gentiles who have heard the message of God's grace and believed.

God's power is at work here as the Gospel is taken throughout the known world. It is him who makes Paul and Barnabas effective, he who allows dead rebels to accept grace. In view of that let me ask you those same two questions:

1. Do you pray for the preaching here at HTG? We need you to.

2. Do you really believe that it will work – that many will be saved?

Knowing that it is God's power that creates results should lead to us increasingly answering yes to those questions. We need to humbly ask for God's help because we can't do the task that he has given us.

We should be humble but we should also be expectant. The God who hung each star, who brought the sun up this morning is passionately pursuing a people to worship and enjoy him forever, even sacrificing his Son to achieve this. Our responsibility, our task is like Paul and Barnabas's to simply bring the message of God's grace to anyone who will hear it and then to rest in the knowledge that God's power is responsible for and will bring about dramatic results.

4. A city divided

4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles.

One of the things that hits you hard throughout this passage are the dramatic responses to the message of God's grace. We started by looking at v1 which said that a great number of both Jews and Gentiles believed but v2 goes on to say that some Jews refused to believe, even 'poisoning' the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas, Verse 4 neatly summarises the vastly different responses to Paul and Barnabas's ministry:

Now remember that these verses form a template for Gospel ministry, one that has been authenticated by God's power being visibly and powerfully at work. What I mean by that is that this is Gospel ministry done well, there's no suggestion that it was done thoughtlessly or without grace, in fact just the opposite – it was strategic and graceful. And yet, the response is deep division in the city. In other words the natural response to the Gospel being preached is division: some will accept it with joy, to others it is the stench of death.

There are ways in which we can cause offence that do not fall within faithful Gospel ministry which should not needlessly offend. Nevertheless normal Christian ministry will result in division leading to aggressive even, at times, violent opposition.

So how do Paul and Barnabas deal with this? What do they make of the mixed response their message is receiving? Well the answer depends upon how much of chapter 14 you've read. Take a look at how Paul and Barnabas respond in v3; after on one hand a great number of Jews and Gentiles have believed and  on the other those Jews who refused to believe have begun to poison the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas, we'll read from v2:

2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord…

Notice that little word 'so', because their message was being accepted by some and even because their message was being rejected by others Paul and Barnabas stay in Iconium for some 'considerable time', 'speaking boldly for the Lord'. That's quite incredible; these two mixed but dramatic sets of responses to the Gospel spur Paul and Barnabas on rather than putting them off – why?

1. They know they're doing something right – these two reactions are evidence that the Gospel is going forward: some gladly accept, others aggressively refuse to believe.

2. They love the people of Iconium, particularly the Jews. They must do otherwise they wouldn't have returned to a synagogue after Pisidian Antioch, we know from his later letters that Paul longs for his Jewish brothers to accept their Messiah. So even in the face of their fellow Jews 'poisoning the minds' of the Gentiles they pursue them in love not giving up on them.

Gospel ministry is difficult. Even here where Paul and Barnabas are being obedient to the Holy Spirit by carrying out this mission, where they are preaching faithfully the message of God's grace and have had that miraculously confirmed. Even here it's difficult, the response is varied and so they require perseverance and faith, remembering that this was the task that God had called them to.

That's a helpful warning to us today. Responses to our attempts to tell the message of God's grace will be varied – it won't often be easy. We need to remember - that's normal and hold on to the task that God has called us to – to make disciples of all nations. We also need to cultivate our love for the people we are bringing that message to. How can we do that?

1. Pray for them, its difficult not to grow affection for people you are regularly bringing to or heavenly father in prayer.

2. Spend time with them. Paul and Barnabas spent 'a considerable time' in Iconium speaking bodly. Gospel ministry tends to be long-term; relationships take time to develop, most people here the good news of Jesus multiple times before accepting it. Are you willing to invest 'considerable time' in your work-mates, neighbours, family who don't know Jesus. We're a time-poor society so that's both a significant commitment and potentially a radical way of living that speaks of the work God has done in our lives.

So Paul and Barnabas deal with the varied reaction to their message by remembering that they were doing God's will and investing themselves even more heavily in the lives of the Iconians. I said though that Paul and Barnabas response depended on how much you had read of chapter 14, let's read on in our final point:

5. Expect lasting fruit in the end

5 There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to ill-treat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country 7 where they continued to preach the good news.

Things have changed now; we've already seen that Paul and Barnabas are committed to preaching the Gospel even when they face aggressive opposition. Now however, there is a specific plan being made to stone them and they make a strategic retreat. Paul and Barnabas have played their part boldly and faithfully proclaiming the message of God's grace for an extended period of time. Now they leave. Except that's not quite the end of the story is it? Verse 6 tells us that Paul and Barnabas move South to Lystra and then Derbe to do what? - To continue to preach the good news!

Just as Pisidian Antioch didn't prevent Paul and Barnabas from bringing the message of God's grace to the Jews in Iconium, so now the persecution they've experienced whilst in Iconium doesn't put them off their commission to preach the good news to the surrounding country – they persevere, continuing to be obedient to the task God has given them. Iconium isn't forgotten about either, skip down to verses 21-23 of chapter 14;

21 They preached the good news in that city (Derbe) and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

We'll pick this up in more detail in a couple of weeks but it's incredibly encouraging isn't it? Despite opposition, despite being essentially run out of town, Paul and Barnabas' ministry has born fruit; disciples have been made; now leaders are being instituted to run church plants. Leaders who, even through many hardships can now be committed to the Lord in whom they had put their trust.

So what have we learnt from this template for Gospel ministry?

1. Strategy is spiritual - A plan for Gospel work is important but it can't succeed without God's help.

2. That plan must be rooted in the preaching of God's message of grace.

3. God's power is responsible for results. We should expect dramatic results because of God's power. So we should pray and plan humbly yet expectantly leaving the results to God.

4. Gospel ministry will provoke a response: joy for some, the stench of death for others. We should expect this and respond by reminding ourselves of the incredible mission God has included us in and by cultivating an increasing love for those we are ministering to.

5. We should expect disappointments, however we should also expect fruit that will last. So plan accordingly; allowing for God's grace, persevering in the task he has given us:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Matthew 28.18-20

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