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"Through Many Tribulations"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
August 27, 2008
Theme: This passage shows us the variety of tribulations through which the early missionaries brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world.
The details of this chapter are a continuation of the story begun in 13:1-3; that is, the first missionary journey of Paul. We have seen how he and Barnabas were commissioned by the church in Syrian Antioch, under the leading of the Holy Spirit (13:1-3); and of how they first went to the island of Cyprus (13:4-12). Then, we saw how they traveled north to Pamphilia and brought the gospel to the 'other Antioch'—in Pisidia. It was in that later section of Acts 13 that we were given a detailed example of the gospel as Paul most likely presented it to the synagogues that he visited in every city he went (13:13-41).
The closing verses of chapter 13 tell us of the opposition that Paul and Barnabas experienced from the Jews; who were jealous over the remarkable response the gospel was receiving from the multitudes (13:42-52). In 13:51, we're told that the mounting opposition moved Paul and Barnabas to shake the dust off their feet against the opposing Jewish leaders; and then move on to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. And it's in these cities that some of their most remarkable adventures began to take place.
This chapter can be summed-up in the words that the apostle Paul spoke to the believers during his return pass through these three cities: "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (14:22). Jesus Himself warned that this would be so: "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
Note, then, the trials passed through—and the victories won—in these three ancient cities . . .
I. IN ICONIUM (vv. 1-7).
A. Iconium was about sixty miles southeast of Pisidian Antioch. (It exists today as the modern Turkish city of Konya). Note that here, as in Pisidian Antioch, the missionaries first went to the synagogue to preach the gospel (v. 1). And also note that a great multitude of people believed—both of the Jews and of the Greeks.
B. But the unbelieving Jews in Iconium "stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren" (v. 2). This may have been something like what we're told Elymas the sorcerer sought to do in 13:8—seeking to turn the proconsul Surgius Paulus "away from the faith". Note the response of the missionaries, however; that, because of the opposition, "they stayed there a long time" (v. 3.). The opposition they experienced motivated them to dig-in just a bit deeper; and continue their ministry of "speaking boldly in the Lord". And note also that the Lord Himself confirmed their ministry; "bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands". Paul may have made reference to some of these signs and wonders in comments to the Galatian believers (Galatians 3:5).
C. As they continued in their ministry, it may have been that there was much time during which there was little or no direct threat against them. But their ministry definitely became a cause of division. The multitudes were divided—some with the Jews, and others with the apostles (v. 4). (Note that Barnabas is here numbered with the apostles; see 14:14, and also 1 Corinthians 9:5-6.) When it came to their attention that a violent attempt was being planed against them by both Jews and Gentiles—an attempt to "abuse and stone them" (v. 5) that had the apparent support of the rulers of both groups—the missionaries fled south and further east to the two cities of Lystra and Derbe (v. 6). This wasn't out of cowardliness; but was in obedience to the Lord's command in Matthew 10:23—in confidence that the forced departure from one city meant the open door to another. They continued their preaching of the gospel in the region of those two cities (v. 7).
D. In Iconium, then, we receive an example of gospel-steadfastness in the face of the growing threat of opposition. When it had become a physical threat, they obeyed the Lord and left to go elsewhere; but since it had not fully broken out as a direct physical threat at first, it was right for them to stay and continue their ministry. May God help us not only to know when it's time to leave in our work of sharing the gospel; but also when it's time NOT to leave, but to stay and dig-in further!
II. IN LYSTRA (vv. 8-20).
A. Lystra was a place where Paul's impact for the gospel bore fruit later on for the church. It was the place from which his beloved apprentice Timothy had lived (16:1-2); and it may be that the work of Paul and Barnabas at this time was used by God to bring Timothy to Christ. There didn't appear to be a synagogue in the city of Lystra; and that may explain why Paul's approach was different. As he preached publicly, "a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting" and listening (v. 8). Luke (a physician, remember!) took the time to detail the man's disability—that he was "a cripple from his mother's womb, who had never walked". No doubt, this fact was known to all in the city. As the man listened intensely to Paul, Paul likewise paid intense attention to him. Paul—no doubt because of his growing experience as an evangelist, but also surely by the prompting of the Holy Spirit—saw that the crippled man had faith to believe (v. 9); and so, Paul spoke with a loud voice to him and said, "Stand up straight on your feet" (v. 10). And the man leaped and walked.
B. This was very similar to the amazing miracle that Peter and John performed on another lame man in the temple (Acts 3:1-10). But the reaction was not at all what Paul and Barnabas expected. The people of Lyconia (the larger region) immediately concluded that the missionaries were the physical visitation of the gods Zeus and Hermes. They concluded that Barnabas was Zeus—probably because he projected a commanding impression; and that Paul was the god-like messenger Hermes (or Mercury), because he was the one doing the talking (vv. 11-12). The ancient poets spoke of these two gods making an appearance among men; and so, the people of Lystra concluded that the miracle they had just seen had identified Paul and Barnabas as these two gods. The priest from the nearby temple of Zeus even began to bring sacrifices for the multitudes to offer to Paul and Barnabas (v. 13).
C. At first, Paul and Barnabas were unaware of what was happening. When they realized the mistake the people were making, the two missionaries were deeply distressed, tore their clothes as a sign of humble rejection of this blasphemous act, and ran in among the multitudes to urge them to stop (v. 14). Lesser men may have sought to take advantage of such circumstances; but the two missionaries would never allow attention to be drawn away from Christ. Note how they sought to tell the people that (1) they themselves were just men, (2) that they were calling the people to turn from such false gods and worship the one true God who made all things, (3) that though He allowed people in the past to "walk in their own ways", He now calls the to turn to Him, and (4) that He left them testimony of Himself by the good He has done to them (vv. 15-17; see similar words in Acts 17:22-31 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
D. And here's where we see the remarkable fickleness of the pagan people of Lystra. At first, Paul and Barnabas were hardly able to restrain them from making offerings to them as gods (v. 18). But the Jews from the cities they had just come from—Antioch and Iconium—also followed the missionaries to Lystra. And even though the Jews couldn't have said anything against the appeals Paul and Barnabas made to the people of Lystra in verses 15-17, they nevertheless persuaded the people against the missionaries because of their teaching about Jesus Christ (v. 19). And it's there that we see that they stoned Paul, dragged him out of the city, and left him for dead. What amazing conviction and courage it must have taken for Paul—surrounded by the disciples of Lystra—to then rise up and return to the very city in which he had just been stoned! (v. 20). Not only would the opposing people of Lystra have been amazed that he still lived; but they must have been impressed with the commitment he had to the Christ he had proclaimed to them! The next day, we're told, he and Barnabas departed to the city of Derbe—just a short distance away.
E. The experience of Lystra gives us an example of steadfastness even in the fact of actual suffering! In this case, it was time to leave. But it wasn't a departure of defeat, because it wouldn't be long before Paul would return (v. 21). The ministry of the gospel is a matter of great spiritual warfare; and the courage that our own Lord demonstrated is a necessary quality in all those who would proclaim it. May God make us such men and women of courage!
III. IN DERBE, AND BACK AGAIN (vv. 21-28).
A. In verse 21, we're told that Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Derbe, "and made many disciples". Imagine what a sight Paul must have been as he hobbled around bandaged, bruised and broken from having been stoned for the sake of the gospel! It must have made a tremendous impression on those who heard his preaching—something, perhaps, like the visual impression Jonah must have made in the people of Nineveh after having spent three days in the digestive juices of a great fish (Jonah 3:4-5). Paul was able to later say to the people of this region that he bore in his body "the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Gal. 6:17); and it may have been the very marks that he had received in Lystra that he had in mind!
B. After carrying on the work of disciple-making in Derbe, Paul and Barnabas then made a return trip through the cities in which they had just preached the gospel—Lystra, Iconium and Antioch—"strengthening the disciples" (v. 22a). The work of the gospel wasn't completed until the 'gains' for the gospel had been secured, and the new believers established. Part of establishing the new believers meant appointing elders for the oversight of the church (v. 23). But note that the missionaries exhorted these new believers to continue in the faith with the saying, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (v. 22b). No doubt, Paul's shocking appearance must have made that a very sober message indeed! Clearly, following Jesus meant taking up the cross! And so, with prayers and fasting, the two missionaries commended the new believers to the Lord in whom they had believed (v. 23).
C. Going from Pisidia, they passed down to the region of Pamphilia and preached the word in the nearby city of Perga—formerly the scene of the sad incident of the departure of John Mark (see 13:13). It may be that they hadn't preached there earlier because of Mark's having left them; but they clearly now felt at liberty to preach to the people of Perga (vv. 24-25). Then, after having passed through nearby Attalia, they returned across the Mediterranean to Syrian Antioch "where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed" (v. 26). They gathered the whole church together and "reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles"(v. 27). And thus, they stayed a long time in Antioch with the disciples (v. 28)—no doubt to continue their work of disciple-making; but also to get some much needed rest.
D. The experience of Derbe, and also of the return trip home, teaches us that God uses the tribulations we undergo in spreading the gospel to actually advance the cause of that gospel. Paul's trial of being stoned had opened doors, and had further confirmed to the new believers that following Christ is a serious matter. It also helped to embolden Paul and Barnabas to make further progress for the gospel in the places that they had already been.
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Truly, we must "through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God". But the God, whose kingdom is advanced by those tribulations, also sustains His workers in the midst of them. As Paul himself was able to testify to Timothy, near the end of his life; "But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me" (2 Timothy 3:10-11).
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