Monday, August 7, 2017

Acts 14: 1-23 ”A Tale of Three Cities - The Gospel brings Salvation and Division "

“A Tale of Three Cities”, with apology to Charles Dickens who wrote the classic ,”A Tale of two Cities” (1859), a historical novel which is set in London and in Paris and the French countryside at the time of the French Revolution(1789). Incidentally, this book  has been listed  the second bestselling book in the history of literature[1] (The Bible, the all-time best seller,  and other religious  or political books excluded). Approximately 200 million copies have been sold.

The book begins with these famous opening lines:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

As I was researching  the  “Tale of two Cities”  on the internet, I saw  that   a book was in fact released this year  with the title “A Tale of Three Cities” ,  written   by  Bettany Hughes. This book is about  Istanbul, a famous city in modern day Turkey, the Byzantion of the ancient past (660 BC) ; the Constantinople that was the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire  (330 AD)  and seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which then became the  Istanbul  of the Muslim Ottoman empire (1453 AD) - three cities in one!  The cities in both books, London , Paris  and Istanbul   have  been associated with turbulent  times. 

Turbulence ! This  is the word  which we now  wish to use as we   observe  what the gospel  does as it invades these three cities,  Iconium (14:1-7), Lystra (14:8-20) and Derbe (v.21). These  cities  in Acts 14 are all found   in  modern Turkey.

I draw your attention  to  the  key text   in verse  22 (Paul and  Barnabas)  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.”   Here is something that we need to settle in our minds today. We have somehow developed the idea that the gospel  must bring joy, peace and happiness and paradise   into the world.  Where did we get that idea from? Only shallow reflection can come to such a conclusion and our text  certainly does not concur with such a sentiment. And neither does the Lord Jesus. 

Hear these words from   Luke  12:49-53 :
49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

John 15:18-23:  18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 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. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin,[a] but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also.

Now it is undoubtedly true that the gospel brings joy, peace and happiness to those that believe in Jesus, who are truly freed from their sins, who have been predestined by God, loved, adopted, who have become co-heirs with Christ and citizens of heaven.  But it is also true that this same gospel that liberates some also  brings  hatred, division  and unhappiness   to those  that will not accept the gospel, and who will in fact  come to hate and oppose the gospel.  To Matthew Henry is attributed the saying ,  “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay.[2] And  Spurgeon , citing this text  adds, “the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins” [3]. And so we observe  from the testimony of the Bible and from church history  that the kingdom of God  comes with  joy and  it comes amidst sorrow, bringing about, as Dickens  said, the best and  the worst of times.  

That is the  matter which  now consider  as we  take a brief look at  Chapter 14, and I submit  to you that this is a typical  experience , one that we must expect  also in our endeavours  to  bring the gospel  to  this generation  in its  many and varied contexts (family, friends, work colleagues, society at large).  This has been the pattern in the book of Acts so far. In our previous chapter we had seen this. The Gospel which Paul and Barnabas proclaimed had been accepted by Sergius Paulus the governor of Cyprus, but resisted by Elymas the magician. (13:1-12). They had preached the gospel in Pisidian Antioch   amidst great interest, but they were driven out of the city by the Jews filled with jealousy, stirring up persecution against Paul and Barnabas (13:13-52).

1.     Iconium  14:1-7
And so we see the pattern continue in Chapter 14.  The gospel is proclaimed in the Jewish synagogue, and a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. BUT the unbelieving Jews stirred up the gentiles and poisoned their minds… (14:2) – there you have it in one sentence.  There we find the effective preaching of the gospel and the immediate poisoning of the minds of the crowd by the enemies of the gospel.
We further note that the message of the gospel is a word of grace (14:3) and as such it should have been accepted by everyone, BUT note what the gospel accomplishes:  The people of the city were divided by the gospel (14:4). Attempt was made by both gentile and Jew to mistreat and stone Paul and Barnabas (14:5). This caused them to flee to Lystra  and Derbe  some  75 kilometres  to the east. Note the number of times Paul and the apostles had to flee for their lives, simply because of the gospel.

2.     Lystra and Derbe (14:8-20)
Luke focuses on what  happens in Lystra and gives little  insight  into what happened in Derbe, but  we believe  that the patterns are typical.    
The healing of a crippled man (14:8-10) almost sounds like a repetition of Acts 3:1ff , the story of the crippled man at the temple gate called ‘ Beautiful’ in which Peter and John  were the agents of divine healing.  What is significant is the extreme reaction of the crowd in Lystra in response to this healing.  From worshipping Paul and Barnabas as Hermes and Zeus as being gods, they  later stoned Paul – and again we must observe ,… for the sake of the gospel.

John  Stott, in his commentary gives some helpful insight into the mind-set of the people in Lystra.[4] About 50 years earlier the Latin poet Ovid had written a literary piece called “Metamorphoses”, relating to an ancient local legend. The story goes that the supreme god, Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) and his son Mercury (Hermes) once visited the hill country of Phrygia, disguised as mortal men.  They sought hospitality but were turned away a thousand times. At last they were offered lodging in a tiny cottage, by a couple called Philemon and Baucis. Later the gods rewarded them, but destroyed the homes of those who would not take them in by a flood.  It is reasonable to suppose that the people of Lystra knew this story, and so they would have been anxious   not to suffer the same fate as the inhospitable Phrygians.  
It is interesting to note how Paul and Barnabas responded to this false worship of them in vv.  15-17. This  is probably  an excerpt from the message that they spoke to these people.  And since these people were pure pagans, there is no reference to   the Scriptures (as in  Paul’s sermon in Ch. 13 in the context of a Synagogue)  because these people didn't know the Bible. So he begins where they are. He starts with general revelation. He establishes a point of contact with them, and he begins by telling them about the Creator, who made the heavens and the earth, the God who provides rain and fruitful seasons, and who satisfies the heart with food and gladness. (14: 16,17). It is clear that in Paul’s  mind there is  not different God in Lystra  and another one in Jerusalem. There only one God. But note, Paul is not able to get to the gospel of Jesus before  hostile  Jews came from Antioch  and Iconium,  and they persuaded the crowds.  Paul is dragged outside of the city and he's left outside of the city dead (14:19). So Paul and Barnabas were never enabled to finish  their   gospel presentation in Lystra on this occasion, but completed the work  as they revisited theses cities  on their return.

Isn’t it amazing that   Paul , after having been stoned  was able to preach the  gospel the very next day in Derbe, and in this  instance it is reported that  they had made many disciples (14:21) . Did it not have something to do with prayer of faith in 14:20?

And then they retraced their steps  back to Lystra, Iconium and  Pisidian 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.” (14:22). There we  are -  Gospel triumph and Gospel opposition. Both are marks of a biblical  Gospel  ministry.

Summary and Conclusion

You may say, ‘I don't experience such trouble and opposition and difficulties’.  Let me ask you plainly then: Is this it because you never speak about Jesus? Is this because your life says nothing about Jesus, and is a challenge to no one?
I think that one of the major challenges for the modern church and the modern Christian is that they want to be accepted by the world so very desperately. They do not want to be different.  They do not want to be counter cultural. The average modern Christian in our society appears to want to blend in with the world and be the friend of the world.
When this happens  we  may in fact not  see  much suffering  for the sake of the gospel  in  our  ranks, for  our  enemy the devil knows that he  has you and your  church in his possession. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Well, it mustn’t just make us think. It must make us weep and repent and return to Christ’s design for His followers, who were never called to enjoy a cushy life, but who were designed for a life of spiritual fruitfulness.  See how many converts as well as mental and physical bruises Paul and Barnabas   left in their wake in this first missionary journey.  It is all part of our calling. And it will be part of our eternal reward when we finally enter the kingdom of God. 

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