1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of His grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the good news.
8 In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, He let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet He has not left Himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’ 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
21 They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 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. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
We begin this morning by jumping forward a little to Acts 17, reading from verse 2: “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house.”
“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here.”
The NKJV translates those words as follows: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.”
These were the very early days of the Christian Church, and Paul, Barnabas and the others were making a significant impact on the world around them. Just as today though, not everyone appreciated them or was pleased by their efforts, but their work was recognised everywhere they went. There was a lot of anger and resentment towards the Church then, just as there is today.
In every city Paul went to, he reached people for Christ, but he also made enemies along the way. The religious leaders of his time had tremendous power and wealth, and they were quite happy with the status quo. As far as they were concerned, they had no use for a man who was turning the world upside down (or to put it more accurately, the right way up) for Jesus. To them, Paul and his companions were nothing more than troublemakers. One of the reasons was that when people came to a saving knowledge of Christ, they abandoned the old form of religion, they rejected the authority of the Pharisees, and entered instead into a new and vibrant relationship with Jesus.
This affected the leaders of established religion, and in many cases it affected the income of those who profited from it.
Today we join Paul and Barnabas on part of their first missionary journey to Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Antioch.
It’s now almost two thousand later, and the world is completely different to the one Paul and Barnabas lived in, yet the challenges we face today are remarkably similar.
The people and circumstances are different, but we continue to deal with the same issues that Paul faced. And if we going to be serious and committed to turning the world the right way up for Jesus, we need to be aware of the challenges Paul faced, because we still face them today. There’s a lot of wisdom in the old saying that history teaches us about the future.
We need to be able to identify the challenges we face, as well as learn some valuable lessons from the ministry of Paul and his companions.
Verses 2 and 4 say “The Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles.”
I suppose we’re able to take at least some comfort from the fact that division in the Church is nothing new…
Paul certainly did not intentionally seek to create division, but it quickly appeared anyway. The Jews who refuted the teaching of Jesus stirred up the Gentiles, creating doubt and division among them.
In those days religion had a much larger influence on society in general than it does today, so even though Paul had only been there for a short time, the city had quickly become seriously divided. Preach Christ crucified, buried and risen from the dead, and you will find division.
One of the greatest challenges the Church faces today is division and the ripple effect of problems it causes. One of the most devastating consequences of division within the Church is that we waste precious time, effort, money and expertise on trying to deal with division. We’re wasting resources that we could and should be using for ministry. We’re supposed to be reaching the lost for Christ, but instead we find ourselves wasting time at General Assemblies and Presbytery meetings listening to people bickering and arguing with each other.
If we are to be effective in reaching the lost for Christ, we must guard against the great challenge of division. Jesus said in Mark 3:25, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
When Paul and Barnabas began preaching in Iconium, God anointed their preaching, and many Jews and Gentiles believed. But not all of the Jews believed. Many of them rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the Gospel Paul preached. They saw the Gospel of Jesus as a threat because it led people away from organised religion. In a sense though, this kind of division is understandable, because just as today, people are challenged to either accept Jesus Christ, or reject Him.
You either believe the truth of who Jesus is, or you choose to reject it as a lie.
What is not acceptable though, are the squabbles and petty arguments within the group who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. It’s no wonder the non-believing world treats the Christian Church with contempt when we cannot agree on things which in the light of eternity will have no lasting effect. For instance, if it was absolutely crucial to know whether children should be allowed to take Holy Communion or not, and our very salvation depended on making the right decision, don’t you think the Bible would have told us what to do? And what about the theological hot potato we call infant baptism? I think that it’s safe to say that if baptising babies was a mortal sin and those who practised it would be condemned forever, the Bible would say so.
I was speaking to a colleague a week or so ago who was telling me about my previous congregation in Eston. They don’t have a full time minister, so each Sunday they invite a visitor to preach. A while ago they had someone in their pulpit who told them in no uncertain terms that it was wrong and unbiblical to baptise infants. The very next Sunday another minister visited and what happened? They had an infant baptism!
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…
So many Churches have split over trivial issues, and we become distracted by them.
There is a much bigger threat from within the Church that we need to be dealing with. We are living in an age in which many have compromised truth for the approval and acceptance of men. So many have given in to the modern pressures of society and abandoned the truth of the Gospel. That is the kind of division in the Church we should be dealing with. God is not interested in our endless debates about which musical instruments we should have in the Church.
What He is interested in is this: Are we preaching Jesus Christ, crucified, buried and risen from the dead?
If we are committed to standing on the truth of God’s Word and preaching Jesus as the only means of salvation and that creates division, then bring it on. That’s the kind of stuff we need to purge the Church of. Those who want to water down the Gospel of Jesus in the interests of tolerance and acceptance have no place in the Christian Church.
Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy: “The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:3-5)
Opposition to the truth that Paul proclaimed grew stronger each day, with people being forced to choose sides, but Paul was not deterred. Despite mounting opposition, he continued to preach the Gospel without compromise. He knew that there were many who disagreed with what he taught, but he refused to abandon the message, and he remained steadfast in his commitment to Christ.
Society expects us to buckle under the pressures of our day, but we simply have to stand firm and be faithful to the Truth of God. satan loves it when there is division within the Church, because if he can get us to waste time and money on pointless debates, our preaching and teaching of the Truth suffers.
Paul and Barnabas refused to buckle under the pressure they faced, so much so that their very lives were threatened. A group of those who did not accept the Gospel decided to stone them, so Paul and Barnabas fled from Iconium to the nearby cities of Lystra and Derbe.
Division did not end Paul’s ministry – he kept on preaching, but what it did do was affect the new Christians in Iconium. Paul had to flee for his life, and the Church suffered because of it. That so often happens.
Many Churches have become so seriously divided that the faithful within that Church eventually move on. The ones who genuinely want to serve God are usually the ones to suffer when division continues to build so much that it eventually reaches a breaking point. It is heart-breaking to hear people who are deeply committed to serving God throw up their hands in despair and say, “Do you know something? I’ve had enough. I can’t do this anymore, and it’s time to move on to a new challenge somewhere else.”
We will never make a real difference for Jesus when division is in the Church.
So Paul and Barnabas went to Lystra and remained faithful to God. One of the first things he did was to heal a crippled man.
Unfortunately though, the people who saw all of this happen were confused. They thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and the pagan priest called for a sacrifice to be made to them. Paul and Barnabas had a difficult time convincing them that they had no power within themselves, and that it was all the power of God working through them.
This kind of confusion remains today. God still uses normal people to bring about some amazing miracles. But the people that God chooses often become unwilling heroes.
During one of Angus Buchan’s Mighty Men conferences a number of years ago, he had a bit of a health scare. It turned out to be nothing more serious than fatigue, but initially they thought he’d had a heart attack, so he was evacuated by helicopter to hospital. It was in the middle of the men’s conference, but when word began to spread that Angus would no longer be preaching, cars began streaming out. Many stayed, because they were there for the right reason. They were looking for Jesus. But many others were looking for Angus Buchan. I hasten to add that he was devastated when he heard what happened.
The gospel is about Jesus. It’s not about the people who proclaim it.
Paul certainly understood this, and he and Barnabas continued to preach and teach Jesus Christ, but then, as we read on in Acts 14, the rabble-rousers from Iconium suddenly reappeared. Not satisfied with hounding these men of God out of their own city, they followed Paul and Barnabas to Lystra, and even managed to convince the people who a short time ago were worshipping Paul as a god to turn on him and stone him, and leave him for dead.
Generally speaking we have not experienced persecution like so many others have, but we can rest assured that satan does not like those who are productive and effective for Jesus. Preach Christ, and you will face persecution.
When we begin to make a difference in our community for Christ, persecution will come.
During the last weekend of October African Enterprise will be partnering with the Churches in Howick for a weekend mission to Howick. We can expect opposition to that, and we must be prepared to face it.
Paul suffered because he served God, and when we obey God and are faithful to Him, we too will suffer.
Stoned and left for dead, Paul still refused to abandon his calling. He dragged himself to his feet, battered and bruised, and returned to his ministry. He moved on to Derbe, preaching the Gospel, but amazingly, he then went back to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. He went back to the towns where his own life was threatened, in order to encourage the Christians in those towns.
Difficulties and opposition will come, but when they do, we need the kind of resolve Paul had. We simply must remain committed to the work of the Lord, even if we are despised and abused by the world. A Church that is faithful to God is an effective Church.
Jesus faced incredible suffering in order to secure our salvation. Countless people during the past two thousand years have also faced tremendous suffering for the cause of Christ. It still continues today in other parts of the world. For now, in our country, we are able to worship and witness freely, but there are no guarantees.
The bottom line is that regardless of what the circumstances are, we cannot abandon Christ in our generation. If we refuse to stand for Him, who will?
Paul didn’t give up. He didn’t ride off into the sunset and just give everything up. He immediately and faithfully resumed the ministry God had called him to. Some of you are doing the Life Worth Living course on Thursdays. In the book of Philippians, Paul finds himself in a dungeon chained to Roman guards. So what does he do? He preaches Christ to them!
His life was dramatically changed when he met Jesus on the Damascus road. His life that had been upside down was turned the right way up, and he now faithfully obeyed God. He was called to preach Christ to the lost, and he was determined to do that, regardless of where God took him.
We easily forget that Paul had an intimate knowledge of the challenges and the persecution which the Church faced, and how determined those people were to get rid of the Christian faith, because he had once been one of them. He had been instrumental in devising the plan to destroy the Church.
He knew exactly what he was getting himself into, but he did it anyway.
Paul was now determined to strengthen the faith of the early Church and he challenged them to continue their task of telling the world about Jesus.
Today is no different. It’s not a matter of if opposition and adversity will come, but when. The question is, how will we react when it does?
A generation ago we had Scripture classes in our schools. Kids were taught the Lord’s Prayer at school. Our parliament would begin each day with prayer, but no more.
The Christian faith is facing more and more opposition from the pagan world and from the deceit of false religions like Islam. And it’s not going to get easier – it is going to get harder to be faithful to Jesus.
How will we react?
Will we listen to the voices of the world and even those in the Church that say it isn’t worth it? Or will we be like Paul? Will we encourage each other to seek God’s power and remain faithful to our calling to reach the lost for Christ?
2 Timothy 4 again: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” May that not be said of us and of this Church!
We continue to face the same challenges Paul and Barnabas did. But they believed God and they trusted Him, and they overcame every challenge they faced. Do you have that same steely resolve and determination they had? What challenges do you face as a disciple of Jesus, and are you seeking His strength to help you overcome them?
On the other hand, maybe you’re a bit like the people of Lystra. You’re looking in all the wrong places for answers and guidance in your life. Maybe you’re serving the gods of pleasure, or are depending on your good works to merit acceptance by God. That’s all emptiness.
Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation and eternal life.
That is the message the Christian Church has been called to proclaim, and with God’s help that is the only message this Church will proclaim.
We want to be a Church and a congregation of people that is faithful to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. Will you join us?
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Acts 17:2-8
Paul and his companions faced a tremendous amount of opposition to their preaching of the Gospel of Jesus.
Today the Christian message remains unpopular.
Discuss some of the changes we’ve seen in our own country during the last few decades in the way the Gospel is received.
What new challenges do we face as the Church?
Which challenges are the same as in Paul’s day?
Acts 17:6 in the New King James Version says, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.”
How have you seen the Gospel turning the world upside down? (or the right way up!)
In which ways have you personally experienced God changing your life?
Division and confusion within the Church is damaging not only to the image of the Church, but our endless meetings and debates caused by them waste valuable time and money which could be better used for ministry and reaching the lost.
How have you seen the Church distracted by meaningless arguments to the detriment of real ministry?
How do these things affect your own faith?
What role are you able to play in keeping the Church focused on the things that really matter?
Close by praying for the Church in general, and our congregation in particular. Ask the Lord to make us into a Church which is faithful to Jesus.