September 18, 2011

Facing Challenges

Last week we saw how Paul and Barnabas were ‘set aside’ and anointed for their task of bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. These are Jewish men, stepping outside their comfort zone by even talking to non-Jews. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they continue on their journey when driven out of Pisidian Antioch. They arrive in Iconium, not quite 100 miles southeast of Antioch, in south central Galatia (now Turkey).

In Acts 14 we hear “Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers.” Just as in other places, this angered the traditional Jewish population, seeking to uphold their ancestral traditions, so they “stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” However, this doesn’t deter Paul or Barnabas. Instead, “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them.” (Acts 14:1-7)

Only when an “an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to maltreat them and to stone them” did they leave and travel to Lystra (just a few miles south of Iconium) and on to Derbe (50 or so miles further on) where “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

In Lystra, the message of the Gospel is misunderstood. When Paul heals a crippled man, (seen in this art from the 15th century by Karl Dujardin) the people decide, “‘the gods have come down to us in human form!’” (Acts 14:8-12) They call Paul, Hermes and Barnabas, Zeus and prepare to offer sacrifice. This must have been abhorrent to the two disciples. “They tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the 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 follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.’ Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” (Acts 14:15-18)

For devout Jews, the idea of being hailed as gods, was no doubt deeply disturbing. In tearing their clothing, Paul and Barnabas expressed their distaste for the blasphemous idea. Tearing the clothing is a symbol of grief and a reaction to blasphemy. In Matthew 26:65, the “high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.’” In 2 Chronicles, “When the king [Josiah] heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes.” Job tears his clothing in grief upon hearing that his children have all died (Job 1:20)

The troublemakers from Antioch and Iconium arrive and incite the crowd who “stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.” Paul is not dead. “The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” (Acts 14:19-20)

In Derbe they make many disciples, and then retrace their steps through Lystra back to Antioch. The map at left shows the many miles traveled on this first missionary journey. On the way, they encourage the new converts telling them, “‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’ And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” (Acts 14:22-23)

On their way back to Antioch of Syria, they preach in Perga and Attalia on the coast. “From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed. When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:25-27)

I am always amazed at Paul’s resilience and persistence. It is easy to give up when the “going gets tough.” Certainly, Paul faced much resistance to the message of the Gospel. In several of his epistles, he enumerates beatings, stoning, imprisonment, and other harsh punishments. However, the Holy Spirit and the Risen Lord gave him the courage to continue to preach the Gospel.

Throughout history men and women of faith have persevered in the face of resistance and persecution. We should give thanks for these saints of the church who gave us a legacy of faith and courage for our own lives.

What challenges are you facing in proclaiming your faith today? Look to Paul and others throughout the centuries who stood firm preaching Jesus Christ as Lord of all. Their witness is written in the Bible and in church history for our encouragement. You and I can live as Christian men and women, standing on their shoulders.

Next week we will look at the earliest church council and see that differences of opinion, even within the faith community, are nothing new.

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