Our current series is called 'Discipleship Masterclass'. We are learning lessons from a selection of role-models in the Bible. And today we're looking at the topic of perseverance. I don't know what comes into your head when you think of perseverance? Maybe the cross-country runner who keeps on going up the hill, along the muddy track, through the forest, across the meadow, all the way to the finish! Or maybe it's the PhD student who starts with enthusiasm in his first year, but then encounters data collection problems in his second year, data analysis issues in year three, differences of opinion with his supervisor in year four, but still presses on to the end!
In the Bible, there are lots of models of spiritual perseverance. Think of Abraham persevering in prayer for Sodom in Genesis chapter 18. Think of Moses and Nehemiah who persevere in leading God's disobedient people. Think of Job persevering in trusting God through his sickness.
This evening, we're going to look at Paul as a model of perseverance in evangelism. Paul kept on speaking about Jesus in the face of opposition – and not just any opposition – but fierce opposition.
But wasn't Paul a) an apostle b) a pioneer church planter? So not very much like us at all? How can we apply his example to us?
Let me read 2 Timothy 3:10-12.
Paul writes to Timothy:
"You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; (we're just about to read more detail this in Acts 14) yet from them all the Lord rescued me."
So Paul wants Timothy to imitate his example. But it's not just Timothy who needs to copy Paul's example. It's all Christians – including us. Verse 12:
"Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted."
So we'll spend some time now walking through Acts 14, then I'll zoom in on two lessons for us today. So, open your Bibles to Acts 14 if you would – or find the passage on your phones.
1. Paul's Perseverance in Iconium (14:1-7)
The wider context is that Paul and Barnabus have been sent off by the church in Antioch on their first missionary journey. Their task is to do pioneer church planting in Cyprus and Turkey. (As the writer Luke follows the drama, his camera focus is mainly on Paul, but Barnabus plays an important role too.)
The immediate context of chapter 14 is that Paul and Barnabus have just been driven out of Pisidian Antioch by Jewish opposition. They shared the gospel. There was fruit. But there was also opposition. And they were forced to leave. But they still persevered on their missionary journey. Next stop is Iconium.
Let's see what happens! Verse 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."
A good start! But again there's opposition. Verse 2:
"But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers"
So, in the face of slander, did Paul and Barnabus give up? No! They persevered! Verse 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."
And the result? Verse 4:
"But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles."
The gospel ministry of Paul and Barnabus was like a large industrial scale import of Marmite arriving in Iconium! You either loved it or you hated it! It's the same today too – you can't remain indifferent to Jesus for long – you can't sit on the fence forever – you either love the real Jesus or you hate him.
Next the opposition moved quickly up through the gears. Verse 5:
"When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them,"
…and Paul and Barnabus fled the city. Verse 6:
"they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel."
So here's the question. Why did Paul and Barnabus – who had persevered already through so much opposition – not persevere here and run away?
Paul and Barnabus are willing to face a public stoning for the sake of the gospel (as we'll see in a moment in verse 19). But equally they are not religious fanatics who seek martyrdom. So when an attempt is made on their lives, they follow Jesus' command in Matthew 10:23: when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next. And, notice that they certainly don't give up preaching, but continue to preach the good news in the region.
2. Paul's Perseverance in Lystra and Derbe (14:8-20)
Paul's ministry in Lystra starts which a dramatic healing. Look at verse 8.
"Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, 'Stand upright on your feet.' And he sprang up and began walking."
As we saw in 14:3, God is bearing witness to the truth of message Paul and Barnabus are preaching, by working miracles.
But rather than the people starting to listen more carefully to Paul and Barnabus' message as a result of this healing, there's a very bizarre and unexpected response from the crowd!
Look at verse 11:
"And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!" Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds."
This is more than Turkish hospitality – more than a red-carpet welcome – this is like the beginning of that Star Trek film 'Into Darkness' where creatures from a previously unreached planet start worship an image of the Enterprise! Certainly this seems a bit different to the opposition they got in Antioch!
How do Paul and Barnabus respond? It's another gospel opportunity! Verse 14:
"But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 'Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.' Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them."
What we have here is a kind of pre-evangelistic message. There is no reference to the Old Testament. Paul makes no assumptions. He connects with the local gentile people where they are at and tells them they need to turn from pagan religion back to the kind living Creator God. This is a reminder for us too. While the end of our evangelism must always be a call to turn back to Jesus Christ and believe in him, we need to start where people are.
But then there's a dramatic turn of events! Verse 19:
"But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead."
How fickle the crowds are! One minute they worship Paul and Barnabus as gods and the next moment they stone Paul! Luke lays particular blame on the fanatical Jews who came all the way from other cities to oppose gospel preaching – just as Paul himself did before his conversion.
If you were Paul, what would you have done at that point? Time for some R & R? Or to file an official complaint with local synagogue? Or press charges for a religious hate crime? Later in Acts, we see Paul making full use of his legal rights, but not here. So what does Paul do? Verses 20-21:
"But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,"
Paul kept on going! He persevered! And more and more people started believing in Jesus!
3. Paul's Perseverance Across the Region (14:21-28)
Why can't Paul and Barnabus just leave the region at this point? Surely they have done enough – they have preached the gospel in several places and are physically and emotionally battered! No! They still had work to do!
Firstly, they couldn't leave the region, because they needed to teach the new believers. Verse 21"
"They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith."
What message would you have passed on to these brand new believers?
The message of Paul and Barnabus was not:
- 'Keep following Jesus and your life will get easier' or
- 'Keep following Jesus and your problems will go away'
No! Just as Paul and Barnabus had suffered to bring the gospel to these believers, so they taught these young believers they would need to suffer as they lived out the Christian life. They were saying – verse 22 – "that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God."
Secondly, Paul and Barnabus couldn't leave the region, because they needed to choose church leaders to lead the new believers. Verse 23:
"And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed."
This is remarkable. After such a short time with these Turkish believers, Paul and Barnabus move on. They trust God enough to take care of his church, so they appoint local Turkish leaders. And by this point, Paul's first missionary journey has come to an end. It's time to go back to base. Verse 24:
"Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples."
In 13:2, the Holy Spirit had told the church in Antioch to "set apart for him Barnabus and Saul for the work to which he had called them…" In 14:26, we see that they have now fulfilled that work to which they were called. They had persevered in preaching the gospel in the face of much opposition. And what was the fruit of Paul and Barnabus' perseverance? Churches in Turkey! Many unreached Gentiles had heard the gospel and believed in Jesus.
- Perseverance in evangelism means we need to be willing to suffer for Jesus
That's the example of the apostle Paul. What are the lessons for us today?
Firstly, perseverance in evangelism means we need to be willing to suffer for Jesus.
In Acts 14, Paul suffered slander, death threats and a stoning. And Paul and Barnabus prepared brand-new believers to suffer for Jesus. And we must be willing to suffer for Jesus today too as we speak about him.
Think about our situation in the UK. Compared to even 10-15 years ago, we are more likely to face stronger opposition as we speak about Jesus today. People have fierce objections on topics like LGBT and abortion. People have deep-seated objections on theological discussions about sin, hell and the uniqueness of Jesus. And the idea of repentance, us needing to turn away from living our lives our way and submit to the authority of God, which Paul commanded the Lystran people to do, just seems so alien to people today, because secular culture tells us that we have the rights to live how he choose – and no 'God' (if he exists) has the right to tell anyone how to live.
Yet Paul's example challenges us to be willing to face this suffering as we speak of Jesus. Let me speak briefly to two different groups of people.
I think there's a word of encouragement to those who are suffering right now because you are speaking about Jesus – in your family, on campus, at work. Keep going! You're following the example of Paul! Jesus never promised that life would be easy for us, so persevere, friend, persevere.
There's also a word of challenge to those who have never experienced suffering for the gospel… could it be that that's you this evening? You are avoiding our responsibility to share the gospel for fear of suffering… or perhaps you simply haven't yet experienced any opposition yet – maybe you've only just started to follow Jesus – well, when you do face opposition, will you continue to speak openly for Christ and suffer for it? …and if you're not yet a Christian, you need to factor this in as you consider whether or not to follow Jesus – if you do, you will go through many hardships.
And we need to think about this corporately, as well as individually.
Church planting, which Paul and Barnabus were doing in Turkey, sounds romantic and exciting – it is exciting (I'm not sure about romantic!?) but church planting comes with suffering. So as we at JPC think, plan and pray about planting churches in the North-East of England over the next 30 years, so we also need to pray that we're ready for suffering.
Now I agree that we don't want to be fanatical and seek suffering – Paul and Barnabus didn't - they fled Iconium when they heard of the plot to stone them. But we will suffer as a church family if we keep speaking faithfully of Jesus Christ. Think of a faithful army of foot soldiers who carry out their objectives regardless of whether they come under no enemy fire – light enemy fire - heavy enemy fire – injury in battle – or death in battle.
First lesson. Perseverance in evangelism means we need to be willing to suffer for Jesus.
The second lesson we can learn from Paul's example is this one. Perseverance in evangelism means we need to trust Jesus is growing his church.
Look at the fruit from Paul and Barnabus' ministry in Acts 14! Many new believers!
Friends, there are people – yes, people in Newcastle, in Gateshead, in Tyneside, in apathetic England, who are ready to respond to the gospel! Yes, society is becoming more and more secular, but does the stronger opposition to the gospel mean that Jesus can't grow his church in the UK? It does not! On my recent visit to Kenya, I flew over Ethiopia. Jesus has been growing his church in Ethiopia as his people have preserved in evangelism.
Dick McLellan in his book, Messengers of Ethiopia writes this:
"The seventeen years of communist rule in Ethiopia closed down most of the churches, burnt the Bibles, killed or imprisoned many of the church leaders as the communists tried to snuff out the light… But it was during those seventeen years that the number of believers doubled – and doubled again!"
This is happening all over the world: Iran, China, South America. Why not the UK too? Why not Europe? Surely our great Lord Jesus Christ will grow his church here too!
For some of you here this evening, it may well be that the issue with persevering in speaking about Jesus for you is not so much that you're scared of suffering. No, it's that you think it's pointless to speak about Jesus and suffer, because there won't be any fruit, because people in the UK have had spiritual 'anti-gospel vaccinations' and no-one wants Jesus any more.
It's helpful to remember that apathy is opposition to the gospel, as well as persecution. Paul persevered through it. And in time, people believed in Jesus. Let me ask you: Do you expect God to use you to bring people to know Jesus? You should! Corporately are we ambitious to see new churches planted? We should be! Because Jesus is growing his church and so it's not a waste of time to keep speaking about Jesus.