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The German theologian Karl Barth—author of numerous theological tomes—was world famous in the mid-1900s.  Regardless of our critiques of some of his doctrines, there is no arguing that he was one of the most brilliant theologians who ever lived.  During one of his visits to the United States he was asked, “What is the most profound theological truth you have discovered?”  Barth answered simply, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

 

There is a lot to learn in the Christian life, but we must constantly come back to this core message called the Gospel of grace.  And as we learned in chapter 13, that message is simply this, “The Bible tells me that my sins are forgiven and Jesus loves me.”

 

In this first missionary journey, the single message of the Gospel is highlighted by the repeated pattern of Paul and Barnabas’ ministry:  they begin with preaching the Gospel of grace, follow with God’s mercy, and experience divine confirmation of that message.  We could put it more simply:  we must speak the Gospel, show the Gospel, and look for signs confirming the Gospel.

I. Taking the Gospel to the Religious (Acts 14:1-6)

Sharing the Gospel often results in division between belief and unbelief.  That division in Paul’s day sometimes resulted in hostility. This was the case at Paul and Barnabas’ first stop, Iconium.  As usual, they went to the synagogue and preached the Gospel.  These were religious people who regularly studied the Bible and tried to keep the law, so the message of forgiveness of sins could be expected to be controversial.  These synagogue worshipers were probably good citizens, decent people, and conservative.  Such can be the hardest to reach with the Gospel because they don’t think they need anything.  But they were missing something essential, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Without that, they were as hopeless of eternal life as any of the surrounding pagans.  In fact, their judgment would be worse because they had been so close to the Good News but rejected it.  Notice what is necessary to reach the religious with the Gospel. 


A. A Well-Crafted Message

It first requires a well-crafted message.  You need a good argument in order to convince comfortable, virtuous, conservative people that they are in desperate spiritual need.  The happy news is that a “great number” of these Jews and Gentiles did believe as a result of their preaching (1).  It is interesting to note that Luke attributes the successful campaign to the apostles’ “effective” speech.  Now we believe in the sovereignty of God and that it is he alone who converts.  In fact, I will make the point later that God actually moved Paul and Barnabas from place to place in order to make it obvious that he is the one who grows his Church.  But sometimes our comprehension of God’s sovereignty can make us lazy and sloppy.  We think it doesn’t matter what we do; in fact, sometimes we think the sloppier we are in ministry the more the Lord will be glorified.  But this little line implies differently.  God honors and blesses ministry done excellently for his glory. 


B. Mercy for the Soul

It also requires time to reach religiously comfortable people.  Old man-made religiosity dies hard.  Luke indicates as much by what he literally writes in v.2, “But the Jews who disobeyed.”  You might ask, “Disobeyed what?  I thought you said they were law-keepers?”  Yes, they prided themselves in keeping the letter of the law but they disobeyed the Gospel.  God commands everyone, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).  So when these religious leaders turned the minds of the Gentiles against the apostles, Paul and Barnabas decided to spend “considerable time there” in order to teach the new believers.  Many of us are tempted to give up when our message is opposed, but it is the nature of God’s grace to continue to pursue through difficulty and opposition.  The apostles wanted these new believers to get well grounded in their faith before they moved on.  It sometimes takes longer to convince someone of the Gospel who has been raised in a legalistic religious culture than it does those who have never heard.  Some of you have followed Christ for many years but you are still plagued by a previous religious culture, which insisted that you must do certain things in order to gain God’s favor.  So it is critical that you hear the Gospel over and over again.  That requires time and time requires patient and gracious instruction by loving teachers.

C. Divine Confirmation

Most importantly, religious people need God to confirm to them that the Gospel is true.  And God reveals his eagerness to do so.  Throughout the New Testament era, God generously provided miracles not just to glorify himself but more importantly to confirm the message of the Gospel to unbelievers (2 Co. 12:12). 

 

II. Taking the Gospel to the Unbeliever (Acts 14:8-20

Paul and Barnabas only left Iconium when they discovered a plot to mistreat and stone them.  As we will notice in a moment, these men were no cowards.  I believe they only left because they thought it would set the Gospel back.  They did not want the persecution to turn on the new believers. Now the apostles turn to a new class of people—unknowledgeable unbelievers.  How is the forgiveness of sins presented to blind unbelievers like the lame man and the Lycaonians?


A. A Powerful Message

Paul begins in the same way he always does, by preaching the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins.  Sometimes this message we Christians take so much for granted falls on unbelievers like water on a parched land.  That message would have been powerful to this lame man who probably believed that his paralysis was due to his own sins or his parents’.  That message is confirmed by his healing.  (Jn. 9) Remember, the message comes first and then confirmation.  So this man believed as a result of Paul’s preaching. 


B. Mercy for the Body

But this preaching ministry is also accompanied by mercy.  The message of the Gospel is incomplete if it is not accompanied by actions.  In fact, it is our merciful actions which often pave the way for the spoken Word.  Jesus said so, “Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).  Notice the very personal way that Paul deals with this lame man.  It is reminiscent of Peter’s healing of the cripple in chapter 3.  It begins with looking him in the eye.  Lame men were used to being looked over.  They were unimportant, useless to society.  But Paul looked at him first of all because he was a man created in the image of God and secondly because he was a man for whom Christ died.  I believe the man’s healing began with eye contact.  Even if he never walked, his soul would have begun to heal by means of Paul’s compassionate look accompanied with the Good News of grace.  Effective Gospel ministry begins with true love for people as people.


C. Divine Witness

God confirms the truth of the Gospel by enabling his people to do heroic acts of love.  That is true in this story.  There was folklore in the Lycaonian culture which explains why they treated the apostles as they did.  Among the people of Lystra there was a legend that once Zeus and Hermes visited their town in disguise.  No one welcomed them except a peasant couple named Philemon and Baucis.  As a result Zeus and Hermes destroyed the rest of the citizenry, made priests of the old couple, and built a magnificent temple where their home once stood.  When the couple died they were turned into two great trees.  Not wanting to repeat their old mistake, the Lystrans brought out the prize sacrificial bulls with ceremonial wreaths about their necks for sacrifice to these gods.  Paul was easily associated as Hermes, the god of speech.[1]  And Barnabas must have had a commanding presence and was thus identified as Zeus, the king of the gods.  Of course, we remember what happened to Herod in chapter 12 when he enjoyed identification as a god.  However, Paul and Barnabas would not have feared God’s judgment as much as they would have been personally horrified that the glory due to their beloved Father would be attributed to them.  So they reacted with great grief.

 

The key point of the passage is the way the Good News is presented to these unbelievers who have not been prepared for the Messiah by reading the Old Testament as the Jews had.  Someone has said that Paul had to begin with “nature to get to God.”  But Paul did not begin with nature; he began with the one true God whom they knew had been revealed in nature and whose truth they had suppressed.  This sermon forms the outline for what Paul will write in greater detail in Romans 1.  Paul made three brief points in this sermon.  First, God has been patient in giving people time to repent.  Second, God has testified to his goodness by giving good gifts in creation.  And third, he has placed a testimony of himself in every human’s heart through the gift of joy.  This deposit of joy—the ability to feel pleasure—is given to draw us to worship a gracious God.  Those same three points may be made to every person.  And the application is the same—we have worshiped the gifts he has given without giving God due credit.  Here is the kindness of God which is intended to draw you to repentance.

 

Paul and Barnabas remained popular until the religious leaders stirred up a mob to stone Paul.  Thinking he was dead, they dragged him out of the city.  But when the disciples gathered around him, he revived.  Of course it was God who preserved his life, but he used these men who loved Paul to breathe fresh life into Paul’s soul.  You know you can recover from anything and be freshly inspired to take on anything for Christ when a few loving people surround you.  People only lose hope when they lose people.  At the beginning of Paul’s ministry, disciples gathered around him and helped him flee under the cover of darkness.  He was ashamed of that and determined never to do it again.  He was strengthened then too by Christian friends, but the encouragement took him away from the battle instead of into it.  This time, the fuel of Christian encouragement propelled him into the fray.  Paul and we serve a risen King; there is no reason for retreat.  He revives us to do heroic acts of love for the Gospel.

 

So now you are sitting there asking what would make Christians crazy enough to go back to a group of people who stoned them?  It is this infinitely great message that Jesus forgives all sins and longs to set his love on sinners.  You need that today.

 

III. Taking the Gospel to the Converted (Acts 14:21-28)

It is not just unbelievers who need the Good News preached to them, but also believers.


A. An Encouraging Message

Christians need to be called again and again to remember that they have received the greatest of all gifts—the gift of forgiveness which leads to eternal life.  We need it for our encouragement when we are discouraged with ourselves.  We need it for encouragement when we are being persecuted or encounter hardships.  Paul and Barnabas remind these Christians that by virtue of our being united to Christ our lives will follow his pattern which means we will go through many hardships in this life.  God does not explain all of the reasons for this.  Some are obvious like we live in a broken creation—disease and sickness happen.  We also live in a sinful world—people do things to us because they are in rebellion against God.  But we also go through hardships to prove the reality of the Gospel.  The Good News is stronger than any bad news we can receive or encounter. 


B. Mercy for the Flock

Then mercifully the Lord gave each congregation elders.  God set up the Church as a household.  The elders are the fathers and the shepherds of the flock.  They bring the love and grace of God to people in personal ways.  Their primary responsibility is shepherding, not administration (Acts 20).  Pastors like Paul and Barnabas are nomads, moved about by the Holy Spirit for the strengthening of the Church.  It is the elders who are more static and tend to stay with their people for a long time. 


C. Divine Commendation

Finally, these elders are committed to the Lord with prayer and fasting.  Presbyterians tend to have receptions when we commit ministers and elders to the Lord, but the early Church showed their hunger to have God’s blessings on their leadership by skipping a meal.  There is a quaint phrase at the end of this verse, “they committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”  It had to be hard for these loving pastors to leave these people they loved, but they tenderly entrust them to the Lord.  The same gracious God who had delivered them from stoning and death and defeating discouragement is the same one who would take care of these precious flocks.

 

Now, I ask you to come back afresh to this simple Gospel and find all of your needs met, all of your sins forgiven, and all of your questions about the future put into perspective.

 

 

[1] There is a physical description of Paul in the mid-second-century Acts of Paul by Onesiphorus, supposedly a resident of Iconium:  “And he saw Paul approaching, a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.” W. M. Ramsay, the Church in the Roman Empire (London, 1893), 31-32.