Through Many Tribulations We Must Enter the Kingdom of God

March 2, 2009

(This sermon on Acts 14 was preached on March 1, 2009. The audio will be posted at this link.)

There is more suffering in the true Christian life than you ever thought you could handle.

There is more joy in the true Christian life than you ever thought possible.

Those are the two main points of Acts 14. We’ll come back to them. But now: Suppose you knew you were about to die. What would you say to those remaining behind?

When the Apostle Paul wrote 2 Timothy, he knew he was about to die by execution. Recall that Timothy grew up in Lystra (Acts 16); Paul met him there for the first time in the visit recorded in today’s passage (Acts 14). Near the end of his life, he wrote:

You . . . know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance,  11 persecutions, sufferings– what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.  12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  13 while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it,  15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:10-17

Paul says “Timothy: Follow me as I follow Christ – and following Christ means suffering. Everyone who lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. And you know very well what happened to me in your hometown.”

As described in today’s text, Paul suffered horribly in Lystra – and he had the scars to prove it. Timothy too will suffer if he continues in the faith.

But Timothy is not to respond to this prediction of future suffering with fear! Instead, Timothy is to take encouragement from Paul’s own suffering. Paul says: ‘You will suffer – like I have suffered. So you must be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus! – like I was strong in His grace. You must continue – because you know me and my faith (and the faith of your Mom and grandmother), and you know the Word – this Word that makes you wise to salvation, and thoroughly equips you to suffer and endure.”

As we saw last week:   We must continue in the WORD – we must learn it, lean on it, love it. THIS is God’s revelation to us – and we will never get through times of suffering without it

But 2 Timothy is a letter neither of sorrow in suffering, nor of simply endurance through suffering. Paul shows himself to be full of joy in suffering. He goes on to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.”

Suffering – yet joy.

Just so in Acts 14: Tremendous suffering. And tremendous joy.

Let’s turn to that passage now. I want to read it in its entirety, just making a few comments along the way, and then reflect on what this passage tells us about suffering in the Christian life, and the accompanying joy.

Recall that in Acts 13 Paul and Barn had traveled to Antioch (in the middle of what is now Turkey). They had preached, and had seen a large response, especially among the Gentiles, but some leading Jews had become jealous. They then persuaded the leaders of the city to persecute them. They were probably beaten or whipped, and then thrown out of town.             But Paul and Barnabas shake the dust off their feet and go on. Those who had come to know Jesus in Antioch rejoice, because they are now in Christ. There is suffering – and there is joy. !

The apostles leave Antioch and travel to Iconium, about 90 miles away by road.

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. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 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. 4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. 5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel. Acts 14:1-7

Note that Lystra was about 20 miles from Iconium. We’re not sure of the location of ancient Derbe – it was somewhere between 35 and 50 miles further away.

There is no synagogue in Lystra, so Paul and Barnabas begin their ministry in a different way than in Antioch and Iconium:

8 Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. Acts 14:8-10.

Note that the lame man hears the Word from Paul. The Holy Spirit then enables Paul to discern that this man believes the implanted Word. Paul also is confident that the Holy Spirit now will heal this man physically, providing the people with a physical picture of this man’s inward spiritual healing.

Realize that this man had never walked. And when he is healed, what’s the first thing he does? He jumps! He doesn’t experience a gradual learning process. He is fully healed, immediately. And he rejoices!

Now to understand the next section, you have to be familiar with a local legend. As related by the Roman poet Ovid in a poem published about four decades before these events, Zeus, the chief god of the Greek pantheon, and Hermes, his spokesman, once had come to a town in this region disguised as humans, and no one had taken them in except one poor couple. Zeus ends up honoring the couple, but wreaking vengeance on everyone else, destroying the town. The people of Lystra remember this legend when they see two men walk into town and one performs a supernatural act of healing. They think, “Here they are again – let’s treat them right this time!”

Remember, Paul and Barnabas don’t speak the local language, Lycaonian, so they don’t understand what the people are saying.

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!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 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. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 15 “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. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 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.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. Acts 14:11-18

This is the first message Paul speaks in Acts to a totally Gentile crowd – people who have no knowledge of the Old Testament. So note the points he makes: “We are men like you – not gods in human form! We are preaching Good News to you! This Good News consists in your turning AWAY from these worthless, powerless, useless, dead idols, and turning TO the LIVING, POWERFUL God! He is the Creator God, the source of all living. You haven’t yet heard of Him because He was leaving every nation to go its own way. But though you had not heard of Him orally, through the centuries you did have witness of Him, for He is the source of all that is good: Your rain, your crops all come from Him. He gives you your heart’s desire: joy and sustenance.”

Paul will expand on these themes when he preaches in Athens (chapter 17) – we’ll look in more detail at these point at that time.

So at this point what has Paul done in Lystra? He healed a lame man. He did not let them treat him as a god. He has been humble and helpful. But that doesn’t keep opposition from arising. His enemies in earlier cities are so intent on getting rid of him, they find out where he’s gone and follow him. Their goal: his death.

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. 20 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. Acts 14:19-20

Luke relates this very briefly and with matter of fact simplicity. They throw stones at him – like those Paul witnessed thrown at Stephen.             They cut him. They knock him out. He is bleeding, and unconscious. His breath is so shallow they don’t notice it. He is hurt so badly they think he is dead. They drag him out to the city dump and leave his body there.

So their praise of him has turned to anger. As in the case of Jesus, where the praises of Palm Sunday turn to “Crucify! Crucify!” five days later, the crowd is fickle.

The believers find him, circle round him, undoubtedly crying. And while they wonder where to bury him, he sits up. And goes back into the city. The next day he begins walking dozens of miles to Derbe.

Note that from Derbe, the shortest, safest way home would be to head south to the coast – actually, right to Tarsus, Paul’s home town. Instead, what do they do?

21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 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. 24 ¶ Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 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. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples. Acts 14:21-28

Let’s now look at this chapter under two headings: The Fact of Suffering and The Response to Suffering.

The Fact of Suffering: Faithfulness inevitably leads to opposition and suffering

At the end of his journey, Paul returns to the three cities where he had been persecuted. He comes back to encourage the believers, and to give them a particular message: “It is necessary for us to enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations.” He says suffering is the necessary path, the only path to the kingdom.

Picture the scene in Lystra. The last time they saw him, his wounds were still open. He was near death. The Jews from Antioch and Iconium had traveled hours to get to him; another stone or two would have finished the job. So when Paul comes back to Lystra, the scars from the stoning are standing out on his face. He’ll have these scars the rest of his life. Indeed, he may have been referring to these scars when he wrote sometime later to these very churches, “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). What a powerful witness!

At the end of his life, Paul reflects on this experience in 2 Timothy, saying as we read earlier, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Faithfulness inevitably leads to opposition: Opposition from Satan, and opposition from men. This is as true for us as it was for Paul. Whenever we step out in faith, there will be suffering – both suffering that is directly the result of our witness – persecution – and suffering that is indirectly related – such as the separation from families that many missionaries experience.

Listen to these words of our Lord:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  . . . 16:1 ¶ “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.  2 They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  3 And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.  4 ¶ But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. John 15:18-19, 16:1-4

Could the message be clearer? If Jesus chooses you out of the world, the world hates you. He tells us that will happen so that it won’t surprise us, so that we’ll remember.             Yet we continue to be surprised.

Paul later will write:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:16-17

Note that our suffering is with Him. We are united with Christ. And a key part of our identification with Him is our suffering.

Those faithful to the Word suffer for it. This is true biblically, and true throughout Christian history. The way in which believers suffer differs in different ears, under different governments, but suffering continues.

Further, every great movement of God’s Spirit leads not to peace but to division and suffering.

Are you praying for revival? I hope so. But expect suffering to accompany it.

Perhaps some of you came to faith in Jesus through the witness of those who say, “Come to Jesus,you’re your problems will be solved!” Your most important problem is solved for sure: You were under God’s condemnation, but there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! Amen.

Furthermore, problems resulting from your rebellion against God will be solved once you are no longer in rebellion. Once again, praise God.

But upon becoming a believer, you’ll have a whole new set of problems. You will experience new types of suffering in this life. Paul makes clear in Romans 8:18 that these sufferings can’t even begin to compare to the glory that will accompany our future life with Christ. But that doesn’t mean the sufferings in this life are insignificant.

Yet our hope is not only for the life to come. We have great hope in this life – hope in the midst of sufferings. So let’s now turn from the fact of suffering to our right response to suffering.

Our Response to Suffering

We’ll look at four subheadings under this theme:

1) Respond with boldness

In Iconium, Acts 14:2 tells us that the unbelieving Jews stir up the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas. How do the apostles respond? Do they say, “Oh no, opposition! We’d better leave, or at least quiet down!” No. Look at verse 3: “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly.”

As John MacArthur said when preaching on this passage: If you always back off whenever you face opposition, you will never accomplish anything for God. For Satan will always oppose any step you take in faith.

Consider how much boldness Paul exhibits in this passage. He is stoned and left for dead – then when he revives, he doesn’t go hide in a cave somewhere, but goes right back into city where people want him dead. Then he continues on to Derbe to preach the same Gospel that got him stoned. Then he returns through Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, taking the long way home, putting himself at risk once again.

Now some of you may wonder whether or not Paul and Barnabas really exhibit boldness in verse 6, when they flee Iconium. Note carefully: The apostles did not act boldly in verse 3 and then fearfully in verse 6. They continue to preach the Gospel boldly – and Paul gets stoned. And, of course, they eventually return to Iconium.

Courage sometimes means staying, and sometimes means going. They apostles fled not out of fear, but out of a desire for effective witness. Sometimes the most effective witness comes from staying and suffering – even dying. Sometimes the most effective witness comes from fleeing, and never returning. Sometimes – as in this case – the most effective witness comes from fleeing for a time, then returning. The concern of the true disciple is not how to avoid suffering – the concern is how to have the most effective witness.

So however God leads us in witness, must be bold! We must have courage! We must take heart! For our Lord says, “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart – I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

2) Lean on God’s enabling power and wisdom

In Iconium, as verse 3 notes, when the apostles spoke boldly, God bore witness to the word of his grace. When we speak boldly despite opposition, there are many occasions for God to bear powerful witness to His Word. He does this at times through miracles – as in this case – and through giving his people yet more boldness and courage and confidence.

In Iconium, Paul’s ability to see into the lame mans’ heart as well as his healing power were all granted by God. Even the decision to leave Iconium was undoubtedly the result of their leaning on God for wisdom, through prayer.

Then, look down at verse 23. When they are concluding their journey, what do they do? They are leaving baby Christians surrounded by murderous opponents! “With prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” They leaned on god’s power and wisdom.

Christ has overcome the world. God is sovereign. He is our shepherd, and He will guard and protect us.             He protects us not from suffering in this life. Instead, He protects us in that when we are tempted, He will always provide a way out, He will always give us a power we never knew we had. As Paul writes in Romans 8, the Spirit will even pray for us when we don’t know how to pray. He will work ALL THINGS together for good for those whom He has called, for those who are in Christ. And every single one He calls will be glorified – none will be lost along the way. Nothing will separate us from his love.

You’ve got to remember that the same man who was left for dead in Lystra is the one who wrote Romans 8! This man suffered more physically than anyone in this room has suffered – likely more than any of us ever will suffer. And he endured it all by leaning on God’s gracious, enabling power and wisdom.

As we sang earlier today:

Man may trouble and distress me;
Twill but drive me to Thy breast.

3) Lean on one another, especially on your elders/pastors. Follow their example and pay close attention to their teaching.

Why did Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in every church? And why does Luke record that here?

Because elders are specially charged to do what Paul and Barnabas are doing here: Prepare God’s people to respond to opposition, to suffer, with bold confidence in God.

Note how the apostles accomplish that: They return to these three cities, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them, exhorting them to continue in the faith (verse 22). It is the God-breathed Scriptures which thoroughly equip the men and women of God for every good work, including boldness in the face of opposition. So, in his last letter, after reminding Timothy of that, Paul goes on to say, “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with great patience teaching all doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2). That’s how God’s people are equipped to face opposition, to continue in the faith.

Remember Acts 6: The Apostles, leading the Jerusalem church, say they must focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer. They must not be diverted from these two central tasks. Paul appoints elders for these churches who will do exactly that – who will then open up the Word and who will lift up the church before God in prayer. So when, in verse 23, they commit the church to the Lord, they are doing that in part through the ministry of the elders they have appointed.

Jesus says, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). We must endure. We must be exhorted to endure. We must be encouraged to endure – through the Word, through prayer, and through example. That’s the special responsibility of elders – so to teach, so to pray, and so to set and example, that the church is bold and courageous, enduring all that Satan throws at them. Together, we can endure. Isolated, we most often will not. We need elders, and we need the entire local assembly.

When we go through rough, spiritually dry times – and we all go through such times – Satan tempts us to back off, to back away from the church, to neglect meeting together. That is the worse thing you can do (and Satan knows it). When you act that way, you are playing into Satan’s hands. You need the body in those times – and you especially need elders then. You need those who will love you enough to exhort you, to rebuke you. You will fall prey to Satan on your own.

So, respond to suffering and opposition by leaning on one another.

The final way to respond to suffering and opposition:

4) Respond with joy

If Paul had been like you and me, how might he have responded to his stoning? He might have said, “Oh no! I’ve lost my looks! When I preach, people will just stare at these scars! I wonder if there is any cream I can buy that will cover them up?” Or: “Poor me! Why doesn’t anyone ever stone Barnabas? Why do I always have to go through the worst trials?”

Or consider the new Christians in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. They could well have thought, “Look what they did to Paul! We’d better shut up!” But instead, as we saw at the end of chapter 13, the word of God spread throughout the entire region because of their witness, and these new believers are filled with joy.

We are to respond to suffering with joy.

This truth comes out powerfully at the end of chapter 14, when Paul and Barnabas report on their work to their home church. Their friends undoubtedly noticed Paul’s scars. But the apostles don’t focus on their suffering – indeed, there is no mention of their suffering in these verses. Instead, what do they focus on? The joy of doing God’s work!

Verse 26 reminds us that before they set out, they had been commended to the grace of God for the work. And they had fulfilled it. So in verse 27 they declare “all that God had done with them.” That’s an unusual way to speak; we might expect Luke to say, “all that God had done through them.” And, indeed, that’s the way the NIV renders the phrase. But this is not the normal Greek preposition for “through,” and Luke presumably had a reason for using it. I think the idea here is that God did this work with them in the sense that He did it “in their presence.” They went out for the sake of His Name, they spoke, and then God worked mightily in their presence. They had the great joy and privilege of seeing Him open the door of faith to the Gentiles – that is, they say Him do exactly what their sending church had fasted and prayed for. That is great joy indeed!

We can respond to opposition and suffering with great joy because we know God will do away with all suffering in the life to come, and because right now God is working all things together – even my suffering – for his glory and my good.

Paul knew this. He knew that His suffering in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra was for his good and for the glory of God. So, as we read at the beginning, he reminded Timothy: “Remember what you saw as a teen of my persecutions. Follow me – as I follow Christ. Be ready to suffer. Be ready to endure. Be ready to exhort others to endure. And rejoice throughout at the work and wisdom of our sovereign, gracious God!”

Thus, the main point of the passage: There is more suffering in the true Christian life than you ever thought you could handle. And there is more joy in the true Christian life than you ever thought possible.

At times you will feel lonely. You will feel misunderstood. You will feel great physical pain. You will lose friends. Those you depend on will let you down. Your own body will let you down.

But take heart! Jesus has overcome the world.

  • He has given you His Word
  • He has given you His Spirit
  • He has given you elders
  • He has given you each other.
  • He has given you Himself
  • And He suffered Himself. He died horribly. He rose from the dead.
  • Furthermore, His suffering buys your pardon.

You deserve your suffering for rejecting the purpose of your Creator God.             But His suffering pays the penalty YOU deserve – if you only acknowledge your guilt and confess that He is Lord, that He is Savior.

So rejoice! Suffering will come. Pain is inevitable.

But believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved

Then: Be bold. Lean on God. Lean on each other. And rejoice that He is king.

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