THE MESSAGE WORTH HEARING
By Steve Zeisler
I was in Berkeley for a seminar with some friends recently, and at lunch break we wandered down Telegraph Avenue onto the south end of the University of California campus. As we came to Sproul Plaza and Sather Gate, we recalled that this was a place of historical significance. The free speech movement of the early sixties, which effectively led to the youth revolt with all its antagonism to the government during the Vietnam era, had its roots right there at the south end of the University of California campus.
I’ve been thinking since then about the clamor for freedom of speech, the insistence that all points of view should be given respect and opportunity. But the freedom to speak is not enough by itself, obviously. No good is accomplished unless the message declared is valuable. This generation, like all that have preceded it, loudly proclaims messages that are hollow at the core. We live in a time when the means of communication are more powerful than ever. But the world cries out for some message worth believing.
That’s why I find myself realizing as we return to the book of Acts, how simple and unadorned the stories it tells are. Yet despite its lack of sophistication compared to all of the media we have available to us today, the message is worth hearing. Paul declares in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation….” There is no other message with the inherent authority and beauty and holiness and truth of the story of Jesus and his love. Ordinary people went out without anything except the willingness and God-given courage to tell the gospel message, and they saw the world change. The gospel is still changing the world.
We have come to Acts 14. If you have a map of Paul’s missionary journeys in the back of your Bible, you may want to look at it.
Verses 6 and 7 make this reference:
[They] fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and
Derbe, and the surrounding region;
and there they continued to preach the gospel.
This was a journey eastward and sometimes southward from Antioch in Pisidia (a city they were run out of under harassment and threats). The journey just to the places named in these verses was more than 150 miles. As the journey continued outward as far as Derbe, the burden in every place was to preach the gospel where it hadn’t been preached before.
In verse 21 there is some more geography, as this story is coming to a conclusion:
After they had preached the gospel to that city [Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to
Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch ….
Now they were on a westward journey, ultimately to the coast, where they would board a ship back to their place of origin, Antioch of Syria. They were now retracing their route exactly through the places where they had preached the gospel. On the way back, you will notice, there is no reference to preaching the gospel. They had a different burden. Verses 22-23:
Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of
When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the
Lord in whom they had believed.
On the return trip they established churches. They gathered the disciples together into communities and strengthened them, encouraged them, and gave them shepherds so that the flock in each place would have some leadership and care, so that they could make it as living communities. Then each church would become the lighthouse for its region. The gospel would be preached through the life of the church, through its message and through its generosity.
The final reference to traveling is in verses 24-28:
They passed through Pisidia and came into Pamphylia.
When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.
From there they sailed to Antioch, from which they had been commended to the grace of
God for the work that they had accomplished.
When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that
God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
And they spent a long time with the disciples.
Remember, in the beginning of chapter 13 the elders of the church in Antioch of Syria had met together and the Holy Spirit had instructed them, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,” and that church had laid hands on them and sent them out as missionaries. Now they came back at the end of two years and gathered the church together to report what had been accomplished by the Lord. There are two big ideas in this. First, it says they reported all that God had done with them--not the things that they had done or the experiences that they had had. They reported of themselves only as God’s servants. Second, it says they reported to the church that had sent them out: “The Lord has opened the door for faith to the Gentiles! Glory of glories! The truth that has changed our lives is changing more lives! We are giving away the riches we have been entrusted with.” They were excited to report about all the new children of God in unexpected places. They spent time with the disciples there, receiving encouragement and passing on encouragement and joy from the telling of their story.
Remember what took place on this journey. They experienced hardship, persecution, illness, miracles, and new hope. They met magicians, idolaters, blasphemers, and believers from every context. They encountered uncontainable joy, courageous converts, showdowns of power and truth, jealousy, violence, faith, and gratitude. They were stalked, harassed, and lied about. Yet the summary they gave to those who had sent them out was not about their experiences, but about what God had done and the privilege it was to be part of it.
We want to live lives that are useful, that matter, that connect to something important. Remember the line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth:
Life…is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
That cannot be true. We insist that our lives count for something. We also want to be part of a community of folks in which there is real love, real connection to other people, real building up of one another, and real growth together. Everyone longs to hear the message that will establish such things. When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, they described the privilege of being used by God to tell these great truths to people who hadn’t heard them before. It’s a wonderful story with a wonderful ending.
What do people settle for if they don’t hear the good news of a life in Christ? I remember a discussion with one of the first employees of Apple. He was involved at the beginning of the personal computer era. He said he got up every day and went to work with a passion for what he was doing, and every day the circle of folks who worked there talked about how they were going to change the world. They were on the cutting edge. This man lost his marriage because he worked such long hours and discovered too late that he had believed a false promise.
We watch movies filled with mind-blowing special effects, partly because our lives are so ordinary. Some folks fall in love again and again, hoping each time that their heart’s need will be satisfied, only to realize after a while that this new romance isn’t going to be any better than the ones before. Who can declare the message of life that lasts?
I recently talked to Chris Nilson, who was telling me about his pattern of going every week to an elder care home to read the Bible, lead some songs, and tell people about Jesus. He often doesn’t feel like going. He is sometimes ridiculed for choosing to “waste” his time. Yet he said, “I’m going to people who may never get another chance to hear, because they are very old. It may be that they won’t be there next week. I have an opportunity to share the gospel with those whose need is obviously great.”
I have a lot of respect for folks who are in youth ministry, who spend many hours listening to kids, staying up late at night, eating too much pizza, and camping in crummy tents. They do things like that because young people are making decisions about how the rest of their life is going to turn out, and somebody needs to be there to tell them that God loves them, that there are answers, and that they can refuse all the dark opportunities.
What is worth giving yourself to? What is worth holding on to even if you have to let go of everything else? Human souls want to know that their existence matters. They want to know that they are loved and that they can belong to other people who are also living for what is worth having.
Paul and Barnabas came back from this long trip telling stories about these kinds of things. They were doing what was worth doing and they were seeing others captivated by it as well.
Having observed the beginning and end of a long trip and the geography itself in chapter 14, let’s go back and read the rest of the text.
In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the
Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of
Jews and of Greeks.
But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the
Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren.
Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the
Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.
But the people of the city were divided;
and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.
And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the
Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, they became aware of it and fled to the cities of
Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region;
and there they continued to preach the gospel.
There are a few observations we can make here. First, the word that brings faith also inevitably brings opposition. If we tell the truth accurately, fully, and confidently without leaving out any of the hard parts, we are going to see both acceptance and rejection. Most of us would like to share Christ in such a way that those with ears to hear will believe and the rest of the people will at least respect us. But the option of being faithful to Christ and universally approved of does not exist. We have to be willing to be opposed for telling the truth.
Another observation we can make is that Jesus testified to himself in verse 3. They spoke there “boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace….” In their speech the Lord was speaking of himself. Jesus said in John 15:18, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” The rejection that we receive is rejection of the Lord, and it is inevitable. He was crucified in his time on earth, and he has been rejected continually, time after time, since then.
Finally, we can observe that grace was being offered on the one hand, and embittering, or poisoning, of the mind was being offered on the other. Those who rejected the gospel poisoned the minds of those whom they stirred up. One message is life, the other is death.
Let’s read the next section, verses 8-20:
At Lystra a man was sitting who had no strength in his feet, lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked.
This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze on him and had seen that he had faith to be made well, said with a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.”
And he leaped up and began to walk.
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the
Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.”
And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and
Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.
The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things?
We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living
God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.
In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways;
and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that
He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
Even saying these things, with difficulty they restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned
Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.
But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city.
The next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe.
We observe something new here. Paul preached not in a synagogue but in a setting that was filled with superstition and Gentile idolatry. What happens in one city is not necessarily going to happen in another. When Paul spoke of the living God in the city of Lystra, he spoke about a Creator who gave rain on the earth, provision for those who were unaware of his care for them. Those who came to faith in Lystra did so not because they had been made to understand their guilt in the court of the Law of Moses, but because they had been given an opportunity to thank the one who provided for them. A lot of people spend their lives knowing they must thank someone for all they have been given, and not knowing whom to thank. I’ve known a number of men and women who came to Christ because they were finally given an opportunity to say thank you to the Benefactor whose name they had never known.
Paul was stoned and left for dead. He would later write to the Galatians, “Let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (6:17). The scars that he took home with him from this city represented to him the ownership of Christ.
The preaching of the gospel will take us to new places. It will put us in unexpected settings. It will require us to speak to folks who are different from the ones we have spoken to before. God will be creative in how he reaches folks in the preaching of the gospel. One size does not fit all.
Now as I said, the journey home had a different burden.
As Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps through the cities where they had been persecuted and harassed before, they established churches. Verse 22 says they strengthened souls and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying that through tribulations they must enter the kingdom of God. And they appointed elders for them.
Why is it important to leave behind a message of confidence even in struggle? Why is it important to put in place leadership to care for the flock? Why is it that God, having saved individuals, calls them to be part of a community together? Ultimately this: in order for our souls to be strengthened, in order for us to discover the use God would make of us, in order for us to know how to handle tribulation, we have to be joined to one another. As they prayed for these elders with fasting, we need to pray for those who are called to lead the community so that the community can thrive. Paul was sent out by a church from Antioch, and he returned to that church.
How will you discover your place in serving God, unless you discover it in connection with other people who can understand your gifts and help you know what call God would make in your life? How can you receive the love you need to encourage you unless you are part of a community? We need to recognize that this community is one God has called us to. We are raising our children here. We are sending folks into service from here. We are speaking words of encouragement to one another. We are talking about standing up under tribulation and hardship. We are a flock that has shepherds who need to be prayed for, because they are human and have inadequacies of their own. Our life in Christ, growing together and discovering what it means to have purpose and community, all will happen in a church, among those with whom God insists we band together.
Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible, ã 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Catalog No. 4762
May 18, 2003
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