Entering the Kingdom through Many Tribulations
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 14:1–14:28
Perfect Safety Is an Illusion
In an article published by the International Mission Board, pastor Andy Johnson writes of the following experience…
The woman on the phone was gripped by that kind of fear that sounds like anger. I…was considering sending her adult son overseas for the summer. The place he hoped to go wasn’t a war-zone, exactly. But it was uncomfortably close to a war zone. And mama was not happy. I told her we were trying to be careful, wise, were seeking counsel, and how the risks seemed reasonable given the gospel opportunities. None of that helped.
Finally, in frustration she said, “Okay, if you can personally guarantee he’ll be absolutely safe, I’ll be okay with him going.” I replied something like, “Ma’am, nobody can do that. I can’t even guarantee he wasn’t run over by a bus five minutes ago right here in Washington, DC.” This was not the high mark for my pastoral sensitivity…[but] I stand by my point. Perfect safety is an illusion, everywhere.[i]
Two years ago, we had a missionary family speak at Redeemer. They serve in a dangerous war-zone in the horn of Africa. Americans often ask him, “How can you take your family to such an unsafe place?” He then likes to ask them, “Have you ever known a dead bolt to stop cancer? Is there a security system elaborate enough to prevent heart attacks? Does the comfort of family guarantee your children won’t be abused?” His questions get at the same truth the pastor pointed out: perfect safety is an illusion.
But that’s regularly the first question we ask, isn’t it? Will it be safe? Is the neighborhood safe? As another missionary to Equatorial Guinea put it, “our idol of safety…infests our decision to serve.”[ii] Following Jesus is not safe. Yes, we’re safe in the sense that God keeps us as his own. But we’re not safe in the sense that we won’t suffer. Jesus promised the opposite. In fact, as a matter of basic discipleship, his apostles say this: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Today’s passage will confront the idol of safety. But my hope is that it also replaces that idolatry with refuge in God’s grace. Let’s pick it up in verse 1…
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
We’re going to cover the whole chapter. I do want to spend more time next Sunday on Paul confronting the idolatry in Lystra. But today I’ll try to capture the big picture of chapter 14. In order to see the big picture, two observations are necessary.
One is the pattern of missionary work. They start in Antioch, travel next to Iconium, then down to Lystra, and then over to Derbe. With each city a pattern emerges: preaching, persecution, move, and so forth, until they reach Derbe. Then they returned to the very cities where they were persecuted, and strengthen the churches with these words: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Basic discipleship includes preaching the gospel and suffering for the gospel.
The other observation is this: God’s grace drives missionary work. Notice verse 26: “from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled…when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them.” When you reread chapter 14, you’ve got to read it with that in mind: God’s grace drives the work of missions. In particular we see five things God does…
1. God emboldens the disciples to preach the gospel of grace and confront idolatrous worldviews.
One, God emboldens the disciples to preach the gospel of grace and confront idolatrous worldviews. What happened at the end of chapter 13? The Jews drive out Paul and Barnabas from Antioch. They don’t want to hear the gospel. If these brothers preach, they need boldness (cf. Acts 4:29). God gives it to them.
Verse 1, “they spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.” Verse 3, “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord.” Verse 7, “[in the face of persecution] they continued to preach the gospel.” Verse 21, “When they had preached the gospel to that city.” There’s one message these brothers can’t keep quiet: the gospel of God’s grace.
The primary aim of missionary work is preaching the gospel of grace. Yes, we befriend the people, we dig wells, we teach ESL, we seek the good of our neighbor. But foremost in our mind is spreading the news about God’s grace, sharing the news about God’s work to save rotten sinners through Jesus Christ. But who stands behind the preaching? God. Verse 27, “they declared all that God had done with them.” God emboldens his disciples to speak his grace.
But not just that. God also emboldens them to confront idolatrous worldviews. A worldview is your all-encompassing perspective on everything that matters. It represents your most fundamental assumptions about reality.[iii] In this case, we encounter a polytheistic worldview in Lystra. The people worship Zeus, lord of sky and rain. They believed Zeus controlled natural phenomena on earth. Hermes was son of Zeus; and stories were told of him moving between the world of the gods and the world of men.
Let’s say that from childhood, you view the world from this perspective. Then, out of nowhere, some strangers show up and heal a crippled man. How do you think you’d interpret that? You’d interpret it according to your polytheistic worldview. It’s not the miracle that’s in question, but who did it? For them, it had to be Zeus and Hermes—“Maybe by offering sacrifices, they’ll show us favors too.”
Once Paul and Barnabas recognize the confusion, they rush into the crowd and confront this false worldview. They deconstruct the false worldview and replace it with the truth. “We’re men of like nature with you…” We’re no gods. “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…” See how he does that?
The work of missions isn’t waltzing into a village and proclaiming some prepackaged message and getting a few decisions for Christ. We must understand the worldviews shaping why people think the way they do, and then confront those worldviews where they contradict God’s self-revelation in Scripture. I want to walk through more of this next week in relation to Paul confronting their idolatry. But for now, just note how God emboldens them to preach the gospel and confront idolatrous worldviews. We can trust him to embolden us to do the same.
2. God authenticates the disciples’ message with signs and wonders.
Number two, God authenticates the disciples’ message with signs and wonders. Verse 3, “[the Lord] bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” We’ve seen this multiple times. The first time referred to Jesus’ ministry. God attested to Jesus through signs and wonders—Acts 2:22. But now the signs and wonders were God’s way of showing that Jesus’ ministry continues through the apostles.
Remember, these aren’t just random displays of power that came alongside their message but really had nothing to do with their message. Rather, the signs gave concrete expression to their message.[iv] They preached the kingdom of God healing the broken; and a broken man gets up and walks. The point was to compel belief in the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom. They had an undeniable apologetic function. Again, nobody’s debating whether the man was healed; they’re debating who healed him. It provides a platform to announce God’s kingdom breaking into the world.
But there’s something more happening. Here’s some homework. Go back and read Acts 2 and 3, and notice the development. Peter preaches the sermon at Pentecost, God authenticates the message with signs and wonders, and then we get an example of Peter doing a sign by healing a lame man. Paul preaches a sermon in chapter 13, God authenticates the message with signs and wonders, and now we get Paul doing a sign by healing a lame man. Why this pattern in Jerusalem and now in Lystra?
One thing is that Jesus was working through Paul just as much as he was through Peter. The mission in Jerusalem and the mission to the nations are one; and Paul is his guy too. But something else is this: God’s kingdom offers healing for Jews and healing for Gentiles the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re a monotheistic, self-righteous Pharisee, or a polytheistic, licentious pagan—God’s kingdom offers healing in Christ for all your brokenness. He will heal your relationship with God, and one day bring for you total healing in a new heaven and earth.
God authenticates that message. If he authenticates that message, we should preach that message to broken people? We should trust that message for ourselves. It doesn’t matter what kind of brokenness you have, Jesus is the answer. For broken marriages, he is the true husband. For broken parents, he is the Wonderful Counselor. For broken friendships, he knows betrayal and teaches us sacrificial love. For broken churches, he is the Head and Master builder against whom the gates of Hades have no power.
For broken desires, he gives a new heart. For broken communion with God, he brings reconciliation. For broken communities, he is the Prince of Peace. For broken governments, he is King of kings, Lord of lords. For broken bodies, he gives resurrection hope, and on we could go. The world around us is broken; we are broken—all because of sin. God has authenticated the message that brings true healing. Let’s preach it first to our broken selves; and then let’s preach it to the broken world.
3. God sustains the disciples through many tribulations.
Three, God sustains the disciples through many tribulations. Note the tribulations from city to city. In Antioch, the Jews contradict the disciples (Acts 13:45). They incite others to persecute Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:48). In Iconium, the Jews stir up the Gentiles and poison their minds against the brothers (Acts 14:2). Then a whole bunch of them try to mistreat and stone them (Acts 14:5). In Lystra, the people totally miss the point; and even after correcting them, verse 18 says, “Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people…” If that wasn’t a bummer, the Jews catch up, stone Paul, and drag him out of the city, supposing he’s dead (Acts 14:19).
But here’s what’s so remarkable. The tribulations they experience never squelch their missionary fervor. Sure, they flee from one town to the next when they’re persecuted. But let’s be clear: that decision wasn’t based on the fear of man but gospel strategy and the fear of God. We know it’s not fear of man, because they keep doing it from city to city. And they return to the same cities to strengthen the churches. That’s not fear of man; that’s strategy on what best serves the gospel’s advance.
How, though, does one keep going in the face of so many tribulations? Jealousy, contradiction, deception, mistreatment, misunderstanding, dragging-you-out-of-the-city-half-dead type of hostility. How does one keep offering the gospel in that kind of world—and that’s the real world? Here you go moms (and dads like me!): how do you say Yes to your son or daughter entering the darkest, war-torn, abusive village to bring them Christ? How do you keep saying Yes when they don’t come back home? What enables you to tell others “Jesus is good news,” when you’re washing gravel out of your face?
The grace of God in Christ—that’s the only answer. You can’t pump yourself up for this kind of ministry. You won’t last unless you know God’s grace and lean on God’s grace. They declared all that God had done with them. God sustained them through the tribulations. Grace must give you strength; and these happenings are in your Bible to reassure you that grace will be there for you. No matter what tribulation you’re facing for Christ’s sake, grace will strengthen you. Grace will help you lay it all on the line to see others happy in your gracious God.
4. God establishes churches by encouraging disciples, appointing elders, and committing them to the Lord in prayer.
Four, God establishes churches by encouraging disciples, appointing elders, and committing them to the Lord in prayer. Verse 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, 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.”
Paul and Barnabas do more than win converts. They establish disciples by encouraging them. That is, by the words they speak they give courage to act, to persevere. Notice, they don’t feed them a bunch of false promises about how life is so much easier with Jesus. No, the crown of the kingdom only comes with a cross to bear. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Let’s be clear. They’re not laying out a one-time entry plan—like, the kingdom is here and you must walk through this door of tribulation to get in. Once you’re in, you’re good. No. They’re explaining that tribulation is the way of life God ordained for his people before the kingdom comes. The must is a divine must—it points to God’s sovereign will and determination. The kingdom without suffering is coming, and we’re going to enter it—but 10,000 tribulations will bring you to your knees along the way.
This is Discipleship 101. They’re just repeating what Jesus promised. Matthew 10:16-18, “Behold, I’m sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…Beware of men, for they’ll deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, [and here’s the purpose] to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” The persecution is not on accident. It’s the designed platform to announce that Christ is superior to everything in this world.
Or John 15:20, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus promised that his followers would suffer tribulation. Which means these sufferings in the book of Acts prove that Jesus is trustworthy. He didn’t lie to us. He told us it would be this way. Following Jesus means tribulation; and you need to know that.
You need to know that so you won’t be surprised and think something is wrong, or think God’s not in control, or that the gospel isn’t working—when some of the freedoms you enjoy now, disappear. You need to know that so we can teach other people to count the cost before they enter the church. You can’t have Jesus unless you deny yourself and take up your cross—the cross means death in the path of love.
You need to know that so you don’t throw in the towel at the first whiff of tribulation. I remember facing some real hardships when I first started pastoring. There were so many days when I could’ve thrown in the towel. I cried so much from pain and betrayal and loneliness during my first two years. I’d go hide in a corner and just cry and pray. It was passages like these that helped me see, “O right, tribulation is normal. It’s part of the cost. Don’t look for comfort, Bret, in another church! Don’t look for ease in another job, Bret!* “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
There’s so much grace to persevere in these words. It helps us understand Christianity, period. It’s our calling, Peter says. 1 Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” The only church is a suffering church, because the message of the cross is at the heart of who we are in Christ. God strengthened disciples with this truth.
God also appointed elders in the church. Verse 23, “When they had appointed elders for them in every church.” Every church gets a plurality of elders—that’s the paradigm in Scripture. These men are given to the church to equip the church for the work of ministry (Eph 4:11-12). They lead and they teach and they protect God’s people. It’s not healthy when churches go without godly leadership. In missionary work, we’ve got to be careful not to jump in, gather some converts, and then move on to new work. No, we must appoint godly men to keep equipping the disciples.
Even more important is committing churches to the Lord in prayer. It says, “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” The Lord is the only one who can build the church. The Lord is the only one who can sustain the church. The Lord is the only one who can keep the church vibrant and pure. That means we must commit each other to the Lord in prayer.
God works through prayer. I’ve been journaling like crazy lately the way God is answering prayer in this church. Weekly, sometimes daily, I see answers to prayer. He asks us to come boldly before him in Christ. He says to cast your anxieties upon him, because he cares for you. Don’t miss the privilege of prayer.
5. God nurtures sending churches by reporting the gospel’s advance.
Finally, God nurtures sending churches by reporting the gospel’s advance. In Acts 13:3 the church in Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas. Almost a year later, they return and notice what they do. Verse 27, “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.” They share what God was doing among the nations.
At Redeemer, how encouraging is it to hear reports of what God is doing among the nations? I can’t get enough of the reports. If Tim and Sheryl return from working among the deaf in Congo; if some of our more permanent missionaries return and share what’s going on. Or, just read the prayer updates on the City. Don’t swipe them from your inbox—read what their saying. It’s such an encouragement to our faith.
These reports keep the bigger picture before us of God’s grace working to reach all peoples. If you want to nurture this church, one way you can do this is by joining a Barnabas Team. A Barnabas Team represents one of our missionaries, and reports God’s work through our missionaries. We try to do it every members meeting. Come see me or Bill Maddox if you want in.
Freedom to Serve Comes by Resting in God’s Grace
We’ve covered a lot of ground today. But the main point was to show you God’s grace driving missionary work, especially when that work involves tribulation. In a culture that idolizes safety, Christians need these two reminders. Following Jesus will mean tribulation. When we preach the gospel, we can expect persecution. When we confront the world’s idols, we can expect suffering and being misunderstood.
But God’s grace will sustain us. God will help us speak boldly. God will keep building his church. Opposition may come, but the gospel of grace will prevail to all peoples. Let’s not allow the idol of safety to infest our decision to follow Jesus into tough and uncomfortable places. Too often that’s the case for many of us. Our culture has trained us to think this way. Will it be safe? But perfect safety is an illusion.
This passage shows the mission isn’t safe; but it’s good. God’s grace is perfect for every trial when we’re following Jesus. The Lord’s grace is sufficient to sustain through every tribulation, when we’re following Jesus. So let’s imitate the apostles in their missionary work. Let’s imitate their fear of God over the fear of man. Let’s imitate their evangelism. Let’s take the risks into hard areas to love those who’ve never heard. But that won’t begin as long as the idol of safety enslaves us and shapes the main questions we’re asking. Freedom from the idol of safety comes by resting in God’s all-sufficient grace. You’ve seen that grace revealed in Acts 14. Learn to rest in it. Confess to your Father your greatest fears. Then ask God to help you rest in his grace. And as he does, may he make us like Paul and Barnabas, taking risks to get others the gospel.
[i]Andy Johnson, “Should We Care about Safety on Short-term Mission Trips,” IMB.org (April 12, 2017); accessed January 25, 2018 at https://www.imb.org/2017/04/12/care-safety-short-term-mission-trips/.
[ii]Mike Petengill, “Missions: Not Safe but Good,” TheGospelCoalition.org (March 10, 2013); accessed January 25, 2018 at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/missions-not-safe-but-good/.
[iii]One of the best summaries that I’ve heard on “worldview” is by James Anderson. The wording here comes from the lecture found at the following link: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-are-worldviews-why-do-worldviews-matter-how-does-one-change-worldviews/.
[iv]For more on how signs and wonders legitimate the apostles intrinsically, see the helpful treatment by Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 248-54.