Saturday 21 September 2013

Keep calm and carry on (Acts 14:1-20)

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 Greeks believed.
Acts 14:1

This was the routine: whenever Paul and Barnabas went to a new place, the first thing they did was talk to the Jews. Verse 1 says, they went “as usual” into the Jewish synagogue. It’s like when Chinese people look for Chinatown. The first thing we do when we move to a new place is look for Chinese food. We look for a Chinese school to send our kids. Some of us look for a Chinese Church. Maybe that is why you are here today: Today is Mid-Autumn Festival and you know there are going to be lots of Chinese people here at the Chinese Church, which is true!

For Paul and Barnabas, the first thing they did, when they arrived at a new place was to look for their heng tai and tell them about Jesus. “They went as usual to the synagogue,” and, it says there in verse 1 that “they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” Lots of people said, “I want to follow Jesus.” Amazing! Lots of Jews believed and became Christians.

But notice, lots of Greeks also believed. That is because Iconium was Greek city, not Chinese, I mean, Jewish. Even though Paul and Barnabas began with their heng tai - their brothers - their job was to tell the gospel to everyone. Their job was to go to places where no one knows Jesus and talk to the non-Christians, to talk to the non-Jews, to talk to the non-Chinese in that city, and tell them, “You need to trust in Jesus as your Saviour and Lord.”

Well, that is what they did. As a result, lots of people became Christians. As a result, lots of people began to oppose the Christians in that city.

2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other 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.
Acts 14:2-3

They didn’t give up on that city even though their heng tai, it says there in verse 2, the Jews were poisoning the minds of their friends. Instead, they kept on talking about Jesus. And God enabled Paul and Barnabas to do miraculous signs and wonders as a confirmation of their message of grace, saying, “Hey, you need to listen to what these two guys are saying.”

Even with persecution, Paul and Barnabas did not give up. Why? Because they weren’t surprised they were being persecuted. Because God was with them, causing miracles to happen. Because it’s possible that verse 2 is not talking about persecution against Paul and Barnabas but persecution against Christians - the “brothers” in verse 2 could refer to the new Christians who had just said, “I want to follow Jesus,” - and Paul and Barnabas were concerned for their brothers who were new believers facing rejection from friends because of their faith.

Why did they spend “a considerable time” in that city? Because they could see the gospel working on that city. Wherever the gospel is preached you get both positive and negative reactions to the gospel. Wherever the gospel is preached clearly, you get repentance and rejection. Both are responses to the gospel.

That is, what the gospel does is divide us.

4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them.
Acts 14:4-5

I know that some will say, “This is the problem with religion. It leads to conflict.” It is sad when something like this happens. Lines are drawn. People pick sides. But I want you to see that this division was not simply two people disagreeing with one another - two political parties debating with one another, for instance - but that this division resulted in one side persecuting the other. Verse 2: The Jews stirred up the Gentiles against the brothers. Verse 5: The Gentiles and Jews plotted to stone the apostles. In response, what did Paul and Barnabas do? Just one thing: They kept preaching the gospel.

This week I read of a preacher in Scotland who was arrested for talking about Jesus openly on the streets. A crowd gathered around him. Some shouted abuse at him. He kept on preaching. The police were called in. They warned him that he was too loud and pointed to his microphone. It wasn’t a microphone but an MP3 recorder. He kept on preaching. Finally he was arrested.

Verse 5 tells us that both the Gentiles and Jews (so it wasn’t just one culture), together with their leaders plotted to harm the apostles. But...

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 gospel.
Acts 14:6-7

They kept on going. They went on to the next city and continued preaching the gospel.

Same difference

Now, it’s in Lystra where things start to get interesting because on the one hand, Paul and Barnabas do the exact same thing they did in the previous town: they preach the gospel, they perform miracles. In a sense, what we see in Lystra is just an expansion of what we saw in Iconium. There are miracles: a healing of the lame man. There is the gospel: Paul preaches to the crowd. In both places, there is a plan afoot to stone Paul and here in Iconium they succeed in carrying out their plan before he gets a chance to escape.

But on the other hand, there are big differences, the biggest one being that Paul is evangelising a non-Jewish crowd. In verse 11, we see that they speak the local language of Lycaonian, meaning this was a rural town with its own culture separate from the rest of the Roman world. Only in verse 19 do we see Jewish people coming over from the neighbouring towns of Antioch and Iconium (the place Paul just came from) to cause trouble. Lystra was, as far as we can tell, 100% Gentile.

This becomes a source of confusion. It is frustrating for Paul who says one thing and gets misunderstood as another thing. You are speaking into a culture that is so different from yours and trying to relate a different language, people and worldview. That is the challenge faced by an missionary, of course. How do you communicate the gospel to a culture so different from your own? And yet the main lesson we learn is not that of cross-cultural communication but idolatry.

You see, the temptation is to change the message to suit the culture; to adapt the gospel to the culture; when actually what we are meant to do with the gospel is expose the idols of the culture. You might be from a religious background or you might call yourself a free-thinker; you might be Asian or maybe you grew up here in the UK; whoever you are and wherever you’ve come from, the gospel says to every single one of us, “You are idol worshippers.” Every single one of us have hearts that bow down to something that gives us our true fulfilment, joy and identity; to something other than God. And the bible says, “That’s your idol.” In that sense, an idol can be something good. It could be your career, your marriage, your kids. It can be your university education. An idol is anything and anyone you are looking to for ultimate joy, happiness and fulfilment, anything, that is, other than God.

Such that when we finally see the real thing, when we encounter God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, when we hear the gospel clearly explained, our first reaction might not be to acknowledge God as God but instead to fall down and worship idols That is what happens here in Lystra.

8 In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way 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.
Acts 14:8-10

Paul is preaching and he sees a man who can’t walk, he sees (verse 9) that he has faith to be healed, and so, Paul heals him. “Stand up on your feet,” Paul says. The guy stands up immediately, this guy who been crippled all his life, gets up and walks. Now remember, what is the reason for such miracles in the bible? Verse 3 tells us: God enabled Paul to do miracles like this to confirm “the message of his grace.” To get us to pay attention not to what we have seen in the miracle itself but to what we have heard in the gospel.

Instead, the crowds see the miracle but they ignore the message. That’s very dangerous. They see what they want to see: evidence of their own gods. They see the real thing but they respond by worshipping a false god.

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.
Acts 14:11-13

The crowds shout out in their local language. They call in the local priest in order to sacrifice to their local gods. You could make an argument here for contextualisation. “This is a good thing,” you might say, “At least they acknowledge a higher being.” They have no problems with God becoming a man, so you could, perhaps, talk about the incarnation of Jesus Christ. They even understand the concept of sacrifice - the offering of bulls and goats at the temple - and you might use that as the basis of explaining the cross.

But no, Paul and Barnabas saw this reaction in the crowd and to them, this was bad. “They tore their clothes,” verse 14, as a sign of blasphemy. What the crowd was doing was an offense to the one true God.

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the 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.”
Acts 14:14-17

Now it is possible that Paul and Barnabas didn’t realise what was going on until it was too late. Back in verse 11, the crowd speak to one another in the Lycaonian language, meaning perhaps that Paul didn’t know what they said, or perhaps, the crowd didn’t understand what Paul was saying in his preaching about Jesus. So, it wasn’t until Paul and Barnabas saw the bulls. It wasn’t until Paul and Barnabas saw the priest carrying the wreaths and sharpening his swords that it finally clicked in their minds, “Whoa, this is bad! They weren’t listening to a word I was saying about Jesus!”

But more importantly, Paul responds by preaching to the crowd in a way that they could understand. He says three things. Firstly, Paul says: It’s not about us. “Men,” (verse 15), “we too are only men.” Secondly, Paul says: It’s about God. Verse 15: He is the “living God who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.” But thirdly: Turn away from your idols and face the true God. This is the main point of his message: To turn away from these “worthless things” as Paul calls them to face the true and living God.

Again, Paul is does three things. He establishes what they do have in common, what their differences are and what the gospel does. “We are just men,” the King James Version adds, “with the same passions”. Or, a Christian can rightly say to a non-Christian, “I am a sinner and my sin equally deserves God’s judgement.” But secondly, there is a difference; it’s not a difference between you and me, that’s not what I’m talking about; it is the difference between my God and your god. The bible tells us there is one God; one maker of the universe. He is not be confused with the pagan gods of Zeus and Hermes. He is not to be confused with Allah and Krishna. Only God is God alone.

But thirdly, the gospel calls us to face this God. You can turn away from idols and see the real thing in Jesus Christ. Back in verse 4, I said that one thing the gospel does is that it divides and maybe when you heard that, you thought, “What a horrible thing.” The solution to that, we think, is to get rid of religion. Get rid of all the God talk. But here in Lystra where there are no Jews, we see the result of that: a whole city which can’t tell the difference between God and man. A whole city which doesn’t care whether it is God or Allah or Buddha or Zeus. A city gripped in idolatry: the worship of whatever and whoever it wants.

“In the past,” Paul says in verse 16, God let all the nations go their own way. Before, you might have lived your life your own way, doing whatever you wanted, not worrying about the consequences. But now the gospel says it’s time to grow up and turn away from worthless things. By that Paul is talking about the worship of false gods like Zeus and Hermes, but he is also talking about the gods of our hearts. An idol is anything that we look to for our ultimate joy and meaning. It can be our job, our degree, our achievements. These are not necessarily bad things. After all, Paul goes on to say, “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.” But these things are not themselves God. Be careful of turning your search for happiness into God; your strive for success into God.

The problem with worshipping an idol is that ends up disappointing you or destroying you. Benefits you think you gain from worshipping an idol never last. You might say, “It’s harmless. Let the crowd sacrifice a couple of bulls in the name of their pagan god.” Well, this same crowd ends up trying to kill Paul, the same guy they tried to worship as their god.

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.
Acts 14:19-20

The crowd try to kill Paul (and probably almost succeeded). But he gets up; goes back to the city. I’m not sure if this was something miraculous. It could be, considering Paul recounts this episode in 2 Corinthians Chapter 11, alongside the five times he was lashed, three times beaten with rods and three times shipwrecked. This is a guy who has been physically beaten again and again because of his job as a missionary, because he kept talking about Jesus. Frankly, my question is, “Why get up again?” He just moves on to the next town and preaches the gospel all over again.

I think this passage shows us three things: Why Paul gets up; why he goes on; and why he keeps going on. The three reasons are hope, repentance and grace.

Why does Paul keep getting up? Because his hope is in the God who raises the dead. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is trusting in God who is in control. Paul preaches the gospel in hope that God will save through the hearing of this message. God knows whom he will call. God is the only one who can change hearts. That’s God’s job. Paul’s responsibility is preach faithfully, clearly, boldly.

Why does Paul keep going on? Because he understands repentance. People need to turn away from idols and face the true and living God, and the fact is, this takes time, patience and persistence, to expose those idols and destroy those idols. The people of Lystra heard the gospel yet fell down to worship their idols. He calls them worthless things. Money, success, sex, career, Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Worthless things not because they have no value but because we look these things to get something only God can provide. An identity. Approval. Love. Salvation.

Finally, why does Paul keep on keeping on? What I mean is, why risk his life so recklessly like this? They just tried to kill him, at least, take a holiday, Paul! No, for Paul, mission is a 100% full on commitment.

Why does Paul keep going full steam ahead? Grace. The answer is grace. God enabled them to perform miracles, it says in verse 4, to confirm his message of grace. God continues to provide us with food, with happiness, with life - verse 17 - as a testimony to his grace. Grace means goodness that God gives us - food, happiness, Jesus - that we do not deserve.

Why does Paul risk everything for the gospel? Because everything he has comes to him by God’s grace. He has nothing to lose and everything for him to gain.

I was talking to a brother recently who is facing a stressful situation at work. I wonder how many of you feel the same way about your job: You’re dreading going into the office tomorrow. This brother was struggling with expectations to perform. I said, “I would be lying to you if I said things will get easier. Jesus did not save us to give us a way out of our stressful situations. He saved us so that in the midst of our troubles - which are painful and stressful - we will still be able to rejoice in him. We know he already loves us because of the cross.”

I will close with these words from Paul - they’re taken from 2 Corinthians 4 - these words which tell us why he keeps getting up, going on and keeping on in Jesus. And as I read these words, I want you to ask yourself honestly, “What better reason do I have for getting up tomorrow morning?”

1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God….

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

2 Corinthians 4:1-2,7-10

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