...strengthening 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. (Acts 14:22) Passage: Acts 14:1-28
The next city they visited was Iconium, which is called Konya in Turkey today. Iconium is located about 150 Km south-east from Pisidian Antioch. Verse 14 reads, “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” Since Paul was a Pharisee, the mission team took the advantage of the Jewish synagogue. Paul and Barnabas spoke the gospel so effectively that a great number of people believed. Again where there was the work of God, there was the work of the devil. Some Jews who refused believe stirred up other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the disciples. Paul and Barnabas did not withdraw this time. They spoke boldly the message of God’s grace. The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles (4). As the division intensified, some tried to stone Paul and Barnabas.
Then the mission team decided to move to the cities of Lystra in Lycaonia. Verse 8 reads, “In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked.” Healing the lame person reminds us of what Peter did in Acts chapter 3. Peter said to the man, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (3:6). Verse 9 of today’s passage says that the lame person was listening to Paul’s message. Paul saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk (10). We would like to think about two things here.
Firstly, Paul had discernment to notice that the man had faith to be healed. This tells us that one needs to have faith to be healed. God works according to one’s faith. Once there was a woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years. She heard about Jesus. She had faith that she would be healed if she touched the edge of Jesus’ cloak. When she did so by faith, she was immediately healed. She tried to walk away secretly after being healed. But Jesus singled her out and said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” (Mark 5:34). Jesus’ healing power healed her. But Jesus highly commanded her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” Jesus worked according to her faith. In this passage, God worked according to the faith of the lame person. Jesus still works according to our faith today. How then can we have faith?
Secondly, the man was listening to Paul’s message. Faith comes from hearing the word of God. We human beings cannot generate faith by ourselves. Faith is a gift from God. Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes from hearing the message, the word about Christ. How can we hear the word of God that enables us to have faith? This may happen by reading the Scripture and accepting the word of God, having sincere Bible studies, and listening to the word of God during worship service.
Let us see how the people in Lystra responded to the healing of the man. They were amazed. They shouted in their Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They called Barnabas Zeus, Paul Hermes. At first, Paul and Barnabas did not know what they were talking about since they spoke in their own language. By the the time they brought bulls and wreaths, and tried to offer sacrifices to them, Paul and Barnabas knew what was going on.
How did Paul and Barnabas respond to them? They tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you” (14-15). They told them that the one who deserves their worship is the living God who made the heavens and the earth, and who provides everything for them.
Paul and Barnabas could have enjoyed the worship from the native people. Or they could have used this as a tool to influence or convince them to accept the gospel. But it is the violation of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). People may respect preachers or ministers as God’s servants. But they are not the objects of worship.
Some Jews came to Lystra from Antioch and Iconium to stir up people and persecute Paul and Barnabas. They were so violent that they stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. When he was stoned, Paul might have remembered Stephen who had been stoned to death under the approval of Paul himself. At that time, Paul was heartless and brutal in persecuting Christians. But now he was in the situation where Stephen had undergone. He silently bore such violent persecution. He got up and went back into the city.
Let us think about the suffering Paul had in Lystra. It seems that he just suffered for nothing. But Paul’s suffering near death was not in vain. How do we know? Paul later went to the same city during his second missionary journey. Chapter 16:1 says, “Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived...” A disciple named Timothy lived in the very city where Paul had been stoned. When Paul was stoned, God worked in the heart of a disciple, Timothy. Paul considered Timothy as his spiritual son in Christ. Paul reminded Timothy of the persecution he underwent in Lystra. 2 Timothy 3:10-11 read, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 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.” Then he continues, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
The mission team decided to return to their mother church, Antioch in Syria. They could have avoided those places they had been persecuted on the way back. But they went to Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. Why did they go back there? Verse 22 reads, “...strengthening 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 could not ignore those young disciples who recently accepted the gospel. If Paul and Barnabas were persecuted, these young disciples would be persecuted as well. They strengthened and encouraged them to remain true to the faith. What does it mean to remain true to the faith? The disciples saw how their teachers were persecuted. They might have been tempted to give up their faith thinking about the persecution. Or compromise with those persecutors, and fall into idol worship. When I accepted the the gospel years ago, one temptation was to bow down the deceased ancestors. This kind of compromise is not remaining true to the faith. To remain true to the faith means not to compromise with anything against the gospel. It means to worship God alone in Jesus in any situation.
Paul and Barnabas encouraged the disciples saying, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” It’s a powerful statement. It seems that they were talking about a “suicide squad”. How nice it would be if they said, “You will enter the kingdom of God without any hardships!” Going through many hardships is inevitable for us to enter the kingdom of God.
Let us now think about why disciples of Jesus must go through many hardships. Why do you think it is necessary for disciples to go through hardships? Is God having sadistic joy while we undergo hardships? Let’s think about hardships in general first. When it comes to hardships, everyone undergoes hardships. When my family moved to London Ontario for my graduate study at Western University years ago, our son Charles Jr was about to begin his Jr. kindergarten. A friend of mine said to me half-jokingly, “Once your son enrolls kindergarten, he will go through hardships all his life.” It is true. Hardships in primary, secondary and university, after university looking for a job. When he got a job, he still undergoes hardships. He is still having hardships as a single. When he establishes his home, there will be other types of hardships. That’s what Frank and Wendy are undergoing with two sons. Hardships continues. Late Dr. Lee said that everyone thinks his/her hardships are greater than other’s.
What about hardships as disciples of Christ? After Peter’s confession, Jesus taught his disciples the basic attitude of being a disciple in Luke 9:23. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Here, the word “whoever” indicates that Jesus welcomes anyone with right attitude with two aspects. One is that a disciple must deny themselves. That means to deny their own ideas and overcome their fixed ideas, and to obey God’s will. It is not a theory, it is practical. For example, when we are called to work and make money on Sundays instead of worshiping the Lord, it is time to deny ourselves, and obey God’s will. The other one is that a disciple must take up their cross daily and follow Jesus. Here the word “cross” can be “responsibility” such as study and work. No cross, no crown. A disciple has cross in following Jesus such as praying to the Lord, sharing the word of God, worshiping the Lord, and caring people with God’s love.
Another reason for disciples’ hardship is persecution in the world. Jesus said to his disciples in John 15:18-19, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Remember that Jesus underwent these hardships ahead of us. As his disciples, we follow his footsteps. Moreover, the hardships in Christ are most meaningful because these lead us to the eternal kingdom of God. Remember that hardships are inevitable for everyone in the world. But the hardships we have as disciples of Christ are eternally meaningful.
The mission team of Paul and Barnabas finally returned to their mother church in Antioch, Syria. They reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. That’s the end of the first missionary journey. Let us endure the meaningful hardships in Christ.