We are considering what the apostles and disciples preached as they went through the world declaring Jesus as Lord who rose from the dead. The attention of the book of Acts has its focus on the ministry work of Paul and Barnabas. They have been set apart by the Holy Spirit to travel through various areas of the Roman Empire preaching the gospel. They have been going into the Jewish synagogues proclaiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises (13:32-33). You have been forgiven and freed from all that you could not be freed from (13:38-39). Acts 14 opens by showing that Paul and Barnabas are going to more cities proclaiming this good news. As they go, they have a mixed response from the people. Acts 14:1 shows that there are a great number of both Jews and Gentiles that are believing when they hear this message about Jesus. But Acts 14:2 shows that there are unbelieving Jews who are going around stirring up the people and poisoning their minds against Paul and Barnabas. I wish we had the time to stay on that statement in verse 2. But I would like for you to consider it for a moment before we move on. The opposition was poisoning their minds to turn them against these Christian teachers. It is what the enemy does. Poisoning minds to turn them against the truth and the speakers of the truth. Verse 4 tells us that the city of Iconium was completely divided. Some were with the apostles and some were with the opposition. The opposition becomes so great that Gentiles and Jews along with the leaders of the city are conspiring to mistreat Paul and Barnabas and to kill them by stoning (14:5). They learn about the plot, however, and escape to the rest of the cities in the area.
Turn From Worthless Things (14:8-18)
Paul and Barnabas enter the city of Lystra and find a man who has been lame from birth. He has never walked. He was listening to Paul preaching. Paul looked at him and seeing his faith declared in a loud voice, “Stand up on your feet!” Immediately the man jumped up and began to walk. The crowd that was listening to Paul was astounded. But notice what they say in verse 11. “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” They think the Greek gods have come to earth. They called Barnabas, Zeus, and they called Paul, Hermes. The priest of Zeus brings out oxen and wreaths so that they could offer sacrifices to them and the crowd was going to join in (14:12-13). When Paul and Barnabas understand what the people are doing, look at what they do. They do not accept this. They do not receive their praise. They are not happy about what is happening. They tear their clothes and run into the crowd to tell them to stop. Listen to their message in verses 15-17.
“People! Why are you doing these things? We are people also, just like you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own way, although he did not leave himself without a witness, since he did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15–17 CSB)
Listen to the thrust of their message to the people. We are bringing good news to you. There are two parts that Paul and Barnabas highlight as the good news. First, the good news includes the knowledge that you are to turn from these worthless things to the living God who made all things. The good news is that we do not need to worship what has been created because doing so is worthless, useless, and empty. God wants us to understand this. We do not devote ourselves to people because they are created by God and do not fulfill us. We do not devote ourselves to sex because it was created by God and does not fulfill us. We do not devote ourselves to wealth and possessions because they are created by God and do not fulfill us. We do not devote ourselves to our work because it is created by God and does not fulfill us. The good news is that we will stop trying to find our hope, our value, and our satisfaction in the created because they are futile things that do not satisfy.
Second, God has shown his kindness to you by giving you these things, filling you with food and filling your hearts with joy. God created these things for your enjoyment, not so that you would praise it and value it, but praise and value God who gave these things to you. Turn to God and find that God is satisfying because he has shown you his kindness with all he has given to you. Turn from worthless things and turn to the Lord who gave you his plenty for your enjoyment. Everything is to point us to the living God. Friends, if we are involved in the worthless things of this world, how can we ever tell people to turn from the worthless things of the world to the living God? We must show by our actions, words, and attitudes that we value the Lord and not the emptiness of this world.
Tide Turns (14:19-20)
With this overflowing response in Lystra, one would think that the rest of the time would go well for Paul and Barnabas. They are barely restraining the people from worshiping them (14:18). But look at verse 19. Some of the opposing Jews from Antioch and Iconium persuaded the crowds. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, believing that he was dead. What a swing of opinion! The crowds go from trying to worship Paul and Barnabas to declaring that they are worthy of death. Here is what the Jewish Mishnah says was the means of stoning for execution from Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.
The place of stoning from which the condemned man is pushed to his death is a platform twice the height of an ordinary person. He is made to stand at the edge of the platform, and then one of the witnesses who testified against him pushes him down by the hips, so that he falls face up onto the ground. If he turned over onto his chest, with his face downward, the witness turns him over onto his hips. And if he dies through this fall to the ground, the obligation to stone the transgressor is fulfilled. And if the condemned man does not die from his fall, the second witness takes the stone that has been prepared for this task and places, i.e., casts, it on his chest. And if he dies with the casting of this first stone, the obligation to stone the transgressor is fulfilled. And if he does not die with the casting of this stone, then his stoning is completed by all of the Jewish people, i.e., by all the people who assembled for the execution, as it is stated: “The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (Deuteronomy 17:7).
After stoning Paul, the crowd drags him out of the city believing he is dead. How long did they throw rocks and how long is his body motionless before they suppose that he is dead? Clearly this means Paul was not moving and he is pretty beat up so that they would think that he was dead. After the crowd leaves, the disciples gather around him. Paul got up and went back into the city. Then the next day Paul and Barnabas leave for the next city. Even stoning does not stop Paul. They preach the gospel in the next city, Derbe, as well. They do not stop.
Through Many Hardships (14:21-28)
I want you to focus your attention on verses 21-22. Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra (the city where the city stoned him), Iconium (the city where the crowds and leaders were planning to stone them but escaped before they did), and to Antioch (the city where a persecution was stirred up against them so that they were driven out of the district). They went back to those cities and met with the disciples. What are you going to say to them after experiencing persecution in every city and being stoned and left for dead? What are you going to tell these disciples? Here is the message in verse 22.
“…Strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, ‘It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’” (CSB)
Paul and Barnabas want to strengthen the disciples. They want to encourage these disciples to continue in the faith. So here is the message. It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter God’s kingdom. We must enter through many hardships. Is that encouraging to you? Does that strengthen you? On the surface I think our immediate response is that it is not encouraging. I do not want to go through many hardships. I do not want it to be hard to enter the kingdom of God.
But I want us to see why this is an encouragement. Paul and Barnabas are meeting with these disciples. Paul is mending from his wounds. I wonder how bruised he looked. I wonder how many cuts are healing on his body. I wonder if any bones were broken like his fingers or ribs that are still healing. What is Paul trying to tell these disciples? He is telling them that nothing went wrong. This was not a mistake. We equate pain with making a mistake. Touch a hot burner and you experience pain which was a mistake. Break a bone because we made a mistake. Paul is telling us that going through hardships for the sake of Jesus is not a mistake. Pain in your life because you are trying to serve God is not mistake. Something did not go wrong. It is through our hardships that we will enter the kingdom of God. Nothing went wrong. There is going to be great opposition. But the mission must continue.
We need to hear these words from the apostle Paul. It is through many hardships that we must enter the kingdom of God. It is not through ease or comfort that we will enter. Holding on to this truth is very important because when we go through hardships, we have the tendency to draw back from God and hold on tighter to the vain and worthless things of the world. We can think that God is not working out well. So maybe we need to find our hope, joy, and satisfaction in wealth, career, family, sex, or something else. But God wants us to continue in the faith when we hit these hardships. Do not go back to the empty things that you have been redeemed and set free from. This is why Paul desires to go back to the church and encourage them through this strengthen message.
So here is the question. How many hardships are you willing to face to enter the kingdom of God? How many difficulties will you encounter before you give up? How much resistance are you willing to experience before you no longer continue in the faith? We must be ready to draw closer to God when resistance and hardships intensify. Jesus said this was the case about following him. Listen carefully to what he said.
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13–14 ESV)
The way that leads to life is hard. Through many difficulties we must enter the kingdom of God. What you are going through does not mean something has gone wrong. Facing resistance does not mean you need to leave God and go back to the worthless things. Whether your friends, family, or government stand against your faith, we must continue in the faith because this is the path to life in the kingdom of God.