Tonight, we begin again our studies in the book of Acts.
Acts is the second in a two part account of what Jesus has done written by a doctor named Luke. The first part (Luke) covers the period when Jesus was on the earth. Acts covers the period after Jesus has risen from the dead and most of the book is about what Jesus was (and still is) doing through the church after he returned to heaven.
We’ve finished 13 chapters so far and it is well worth looking up the previous sermons in the series on our website www.church.org.uk –to refresh your memory and to catch up on what you missed.
We rejoin Acts as Paul and Barnabas are travelling around the area we now call Turkey. What are they doing there?
Earlier in the book, Paul (who used to hunt down and kill Christians) himself met the risen Jesus and became a Christian. At that time God explained that He had chosen him to play a special role in taking the church beyond its Jewish beginning to the whole world.
In Acts 9:15, Jesus says about Paul: “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
By this stage Paul and Barnabas have been sent out from their church in Antioch and their aim was to start a new church by preaching the gospel to those who had never heard it so that they would believe in Jesus. They have just arrived in the city of ‘Konia’ or Iconium (as it was called then).
Let’s read together from Acts 14:1-7, on page 1109 in the church bibles and see what they got up to there:-
1At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. 2But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3So 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. 4The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7where they continued to preach the good news.
They get straight to work by preaching powerfully about Jesus in the synagogue (where the Jews met together to pray and worship) and were very successful. We read that a ‘great number of Jews and Gentiles believed’, but that led to opposition from some of the Jews. They were not put off – far from it - and boldly continued their work of preaching the gospel, presumably outside the synagogue. Their preaching about Jesus was backed up by miracles and other signs that God was with them. Eventually, opposition grew stronger and an assassination with the full support of key leaders in the city was planned. God made sure they knew about the plan and they found it wise to flee to the next town where they continued their work.
Well those are the facts. Next I want to ask the questions “What can we learn from this?” The key to working that out is to look at what the author (Luke) wanted to tell us. I think Luke is teaching us about three areas and those three areas make up my three headings, which are:-
1. Our task: to speak to all
2. Our attitude: to endure hardship and
3. Our encouragement: this is God’s work
So first, Our task: to speak to all
The first thing Luke points out is that they spoke effectively. In v1, we read that they spoke “so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed”.
What does it mean that they spoke effectively? A good number of translations phrase it like this: “they spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (ESV).
It is possible this means they were well prepared and knew their subject or that they spoke passionately and persuasively or were good at delivering speeches. It’s not spelled out for us in detail. But whatever it refers to, it does means that they spoke in a way that was understandable and persuasive to those they were speaking to. That may seem like a basic point, but it’s an essential one.
Imagine you had moved to Japan and wanted to preach the gospel to those who had never heard it so that they would believe in Jesus. Would you do it in Spanish? Or English? Or Chinese? No of course not – you would speak in a way that was understandable – using Japanese – otherwise it wouldn’t be effective. It’s no good preaching in Swahili (no matter how passionate or eloquent you are!) with the view, ‘well I’m preaching the gospel and the gospel is powerful enough – it doesn’t need me to make it more effective”.
That is, of course, true! The message of the gospel is powerful! It doesn’t need any editing, or updating or extra “bling”! However it does need to be communicated in such as way as to be correctly understood and so we need to intentionally speak about Jesus in a way that is understandable to those we speak to. That is what Paul and Barnabas did in the Jewish Synagogue at Iconium.
But just speaking in the right language doesn’t automatically make it understandable. For example, even if you don’t move to Japan you would still want to preach the gospel to those around you who had never heard it so that they would believe in Jesus. However one problem with speaking about Jesus in England can be that people think they know what it is all about. The biggest misunderstanding in our culture about Christianity is that it is all about being a good person so that God would reward you with a good life now, and maybe even with a resident visa for heaven when you die. If we are not careful in how we speak about Jesus, all we do is reinforce that misunderstanding and so our speaking is not effective. We need to intentionally make the effort to speak in a way that is understandable.
The key to this is to know as much as you can about the people you are speaking to – you need to know your audience. That means not just speaking at them, but speaking with them. It means listening well, so that you can speak about Jesus effectively.
Those involved in the marketing world know this principle well – they are very interested in studying people in order to be able to sell their products better. There are some humorous examples of what happens if care isn’t taken in communication: When Kentucky Fried Chicken entered the Chinese market, to their horror they discovered that their slogan "finger lickin' good" came out as "eat your fingers off". Things weren't much easier for Pepsi. The translation of their slogan "Pepsi Brings you Back to Life" was a little more literal than they intended. In Chinese, the slogan meant, "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave".
We have a far more important message than KFC or Pepsi to communicate to the world! Paul and Barnabas spoke about Jesus effectively. We need to do that too.
They also spoke about Jesus boldly.
Paul and Barnabas had just come from Pisidian Antioch and 3 verses before our passage we read, in Acts 13:50:
“But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.”
So did they avoid the Jews and steer clear of synagogues after that? No. ch 14, v1:-
“At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue.”
And then in v2 we read:-
“But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.”
Well – they were in a new place and they tried again to speak to the Jews. After all – it is best to assume the best of people isn’t it – no reason these Jews will react the same way as those in Psidian Antioch. But it turned out they did. So now did they avoid speaking to those people? No. Read on to v3:
“So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord. ”
As we’ll see in a minute the message the brought involved speaking about sin and its consequences, about the day of judgment and how everyone will be held responsible for the wrong they have done and explaining to a deeply religious people that all the religious activity they did to try and earn God’s favour was a waste of time.
They spoke boldly about Jesus. And we must too. The message of Christianity is a deeply offensive one and without God’s help we will not be able to speak like that. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us that boldness – he helps us to speak boldly, and we would do well to pray for such boldness for ourselves and for one another.
The third thing Luke points out about the way they spoke is perhaps the most important. Paul and Barnabas spoke to all about the gospel of grace.
Look at v3:
“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.”
Right before this, in Ch13, Paul and Barnabas were at nearby Pisidian Antioch and we have a more detailed account of what exactly they preached about Jesus.
That context is where we find the answer to the question ‘what exactly was the message of God’s grace?’. Look back to 13:38-39:-
“38Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”
Remember Paul is speaking to those who knew that God existed and who knew that a final day of judgment was coming when we would receive the punishment we deserve for ignoring God and ignoring his instructions to
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself’. (Luke 10:27)
The punishment we deserve is eternal death in hell – which will always seem harsh and unnecessary to us, until we realise how serious our rebellion against God actually is.
But the good news of Christianity is that through Jesus (and through Jesus alone) we can be forgiven and do not have to receive the punishment we deserve.
But why is it called the message of grace? It is called grace because the forgiveness that we receive is totally undeserved and unearned. We can be forgiven simply by believing that Jesus is God come to earth as a man. All we need to do is trust that when he died on the cross – a sinless man – he took the punishment that I should have had instead of me. He was my substitute.
The first verse of the song we have just sung sums it up well.
Though we were undeserving
Christ died to wash us clean.
He bore the Father's anger
While nailed upon the tree.
In darkness and in turmoil,
The judgement fell on him
Bringing us forgiveness,
That new life might begin.
So the good news is not just that Jesus forgives sins (although it is that). It is that we are saved by grace, not by following the Law of Moses. We are saved by what God has done for us and not by obeying his law. It’s the total opposite of what most people thing Christianity is about today.
And that is the message that they were preaching to everyone and that divided people sharply. Obeying the law was useless for salvation. There was nothing they could do to earn God's acceptance. It has to be by grace.
Do you believe that? Some believed, but we also read that many refused to believe.
You may find this hard to believe – but it was actually the most religious people who most struggled with the message of God’s grace. And that’s still the case today. To be told that your religious efforts to please God are a waste of time is deeply insulting and humbling.
But maybe that’s a message you need to hear. Too many of us still live as if God will accept us only if we are good Christians – and that is a lie straight from the devil. That wonderful message of good news however kept getting Paul and Barnabas in trouble, and with that we move onto the second point I believe Luke is teaching us about.
2. Our attitude: to endure hardship
You cannot miss the obvious hardship that Paul and Barnabas went through in this passage. And it comes from those who refused to believe their message. Look at v2:
“But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.”
“4The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to ill-treat them and stone them.”
It is not a surprise that the gospel of grace would offend those who refuse to bow to God or recognise we’ve done wrong. Accepting forgiveness is deeply humbling. And Luke helps us to see that Paul and Barnabas endured hardship without giving in, patiently and faithfully.
Firstly, they endured hardship without giving in.
What was their attitude to the opposition of v2? Look at v3, ‘So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there...”
The aim of opposition is to get us to shut up and stop speaking of the gospel of grace. But they did not give in – they stayed around and kept speaking.
What about their reaction to the attempt to kill them off in vv4-5? Look at v6-7,
‘But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news.’
They did not give in – they left Iconium for the time being – although they do return very soon as we read in v21. But they didn’t stop preaching. We too are to endure hardship without giving in.
We should not be surprised when some people refuse to believe our message and oppose us and we should not blame ourselves. As we see here some refused to believe in the message even when Paul and Barnabas preached effectively and God worked miracles. If we are clear on what our role is we are less likely to give in when we see different responses to the gospel of grace. Our role is simply to clearly and boldly speak to all about the gospel of grace. It is God’s job to bring people to believe in him. So we must endure hardship without giving in.
Second they endured hardship patiently.
We can see that in v3, ‘So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there...”
Notice that it was precisely because of the negative response in v2 that they stayed as long as they did in Iconium. One of the things this shows is that they were patient in the face of opposition to their message. They knew that it can take time for some people to respond to the message of God’s grace and so the stuck around and kept speaking of Jesus.
In 2 Peter 3:9 it says
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."
Since God is patient with people, we must learn to be. We want people to come to Christ and be saved, but for some it may take a while. We must keep on praying and loving people.
Third, they endured hardship faithfully
As we saw from the passage in Acts 9 earlier, Paul knew right from the first moment he became a Christian that the task God has given him would involve suffering. And now, so did the Christians at Iconium. As well as continuing to try and persuade those who hadn’t yet believed, another reason Paul and Barnabas stayed around as long as they did was to encourage the Christians to endure hardship faithfully.
A bit later on, in v21 and 22 we read that
“they returned to ...Iconium... 22strengthening 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.”
Paul and Barnabas set a great example for the believers in Iconium to follow! They themselves were willing to endure hardship faithfully and they did not try and hide the cost of following Jesus from them. I’ve worked at this church for 13 years now with international students and over the years I’ve had the great privilege of seeing many come to know Jesus as their lord and saviour. For many of my friends, that choice to follow Jesus has meant hardship after hardship – such as opposition from family and friends, vastly reduced opportunities to marry (especially for the women) and for some the reality of the same sort of government-sponsored opposition that Paul and Barnabas encountered.
By their example and teaching Paul and Barnabas stood before those young Christians and declared ‘Following Jesus has cost us all that we have – our homes, our jobs, our secure environment. But his love and his grace in our lives are worth all of that and more. We therefore invite you to follow him with us enduring hardship faithfully.’
How can we speak about Jesus to all effectively, boldly and about the gospel of grace? How are we to endure hardship patiently, faithfully and without giving in?
We need to remember the third, very simple lesson:-
3. Our encouragement: this is God’s work
Right the way through the book of Acts we are reminded again and again that the growth of the church is God’s work. This section of Acts began in chapter 13, where the Holy Spirit directed the church to send out their two most senior leaders into non-Jewish territory to work on God’s mission that all people, everywhere, should hear the message of forgiveness in Jesus.
But that is not just a theme for the book as a whole. There are three places in this passage where we see that this is God’s work.
1. In v1, where “a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” – that could not happen if God was not at work.
2. In v3, where God “confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders” – that was a clear sign that God was with them and was a sign especially for the non-Christians hearing their message.
3. In v6, where we read that “they found out about” the plot to kill them – a sign that God was with them and was protecting them.
All those things were a huge encouragement to them (and us) and the greatest reason to keep speaking of Jesus and enduring hardship.
And like them, we need to remember that we are not alone!
That doesn’t mean we’ll be kept from opposition, persecution or even death. Although this time, God helped them find out about the plot and escape, in the next town shortly after this we read, in v19, that “They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.”
When we face persecution God is able to save, but he might not. However knowing that this is God’s work, we can know that we are not alone and we can expect to see signs that God is at work among us.
“So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
We also need to remember that our mission cannot fail!
Because it is not ‘our mission’. It is his. And the big question is: will we make his mission our own. Or will we allow “trouble or persecution that comes because of the word” to cause us to back off. Will we allow “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” to crowd out our involvement in what God is going in allowing all people, everywhere, to hear the message of forgiveness in Jesus
I’m more aware now than I was when I first became a Christian how much it costs to follow Jesus and at times I feel my weakness acutely. I have more evidence than I need that without him I cannot go on. But again and again I’m reminded that ‘love so amazing, so divine. Demands my souls, life, my all.”
So, what lengths are we willing to go to?
What risks are we willing to take?
What comforts are we willing to risk?
What money are we willing to risk?
What time are we willing to give?
What sacrifice are we willing to make?
As we play our part in what God is doing?
In ancient Rome, crowds by the tens of thousands would gather in the Colosseum to watch as Christians were torn apart by wild animals. Paul Rader (leader of the Salvation Army), commenting on his visit to this famous landmark, said, "I stood uncovered to the heavens above, where He sits for whom they gladly died, and asked myself, ’Would I, could I, die for Him tonight to get this gospel to the ends of the earth?’"
Rader continued, "I prayed most fervently in that Roman arena for the spirit of a martyr, and for the working of the Holy Spirit in my heart, as He worked in Paul’s heart when He brought him on his handcuffed way to Rome."
Those early Christians "lived on the threshold of heaven, within a heartbeat of home, no possessions to hold them back."