Acts 14:1-7, Acts 14:8-23
August 19, 2007
Today we’ve made it as far as Acts 14. Last week we got a glimpse of the real hunger for the word that was in the world in those days. Today, though, we’re going to see that these were also some difficult times for the Apostles – in a number of ways!
This passage marks the end of Paul’s first “missionary journey.” And I want you to get a picture of this bizarre scene that takes place here. This fourteenth chapter is definitely a time when things don’t go so well. This is definitely one of the places where there are some “bumps in the road.”
First of all, we have the Apostles coming to the city of Iconium. And again, we find them in the Jewish synagogue. (As opposed to what other kind of synagogue?) And at first, they are well received. “A great company believed, both Jews and Greeks.” But then, it says, “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.” And at this point, a real debate ensued. Paul and Barnabas debated long and hard, but in the end it says “the city was divided.” And then they left the city, because they had “gotten wind” that their opposition was about to “molest and stone them.”
That was definitely a turn for the worst. It makes me wonder what happens in people’s minds when such a “debate” turns into an “attack.” That often happens in our world, doesn’t it? Sometimes people become so adamant about not “losing” a debate, that they then begin to “attack” the other side. In this case, that almost literally happened! That’s the first bump in the road for the Apostles.
Well, it doesn’t get much better after that. In fact it becomes quite bizarre! Paul and Barnabas move on to the city of Lystra, where they find this disabled man who it says, “could not use his feet and had never walked.” Paul was in the middle of speaking, and the man was listening to him. But then Paul turned to this man, and he said in a loud voice – very dramatically – “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up, and walked! It was another great miracle. But what happened next was strange, to say the least!
The people who said this happen shouted out, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” This was apparently a myth in that region that the gods Zeus and Hermes had actually visited some people “in the likeness of men.” Well, these people saw that something powerful was happening in their midst, but they couldn’t break away from their myth or their “tradition.” And so they placed the Apostles in their understanding of those things.
Now, if that wasn’t strange enough, they started to make preparations to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas! This scene took place near the temple of Zeus, which was right in the center of their town. And the priests of Zeus came out “with oxen and garlands” to make sacrifices. This was a big scene! They were going to slaughter “oxen!” How many? It doesn’t say. But “oxen” implies at least two. Can you imagine this? Oxen are big animals!
Well, Paul and Barnabas go running out through the crowd, trying to stop this crazy thing from happening. They tried to explain – in the midst of this frenzy – that these people shouldn’t sacrifice to them. In fact, they shouldn’t be offering sacrifice at all. Instead, they should consider worshipping the one God, who made all things.
Did they convince them? Did they stop them from offering their sacrifice? That part of the passage concludes, “With these words, they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.” Yes, it seems they stopped them, but they didn’t convince them of anything. This was a definite bump in the road!
Well, that wasn’t the end of this story. It then says, “The Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium…” Those who wanted to stop the message Paul was preaching now began to follow him from town to town. And in this case it says, they “persuaded the people.” And then it says the people “stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city” and left him for dead. This was a terrible bump in the road!
This has gone from the bizarre to the serious! But, I want to ask you, did this stop the message?! Did the Apostles give up? And that’s the important question! Much is written in the New Testament – by Paul himself – about perseverance and endurance. And these early days of the Church were great proving grounds for those things. In Romans 5 Paul writes, “…we rejoice in our sufferings. For we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Paul knew about suffering and endurance. The fact is that, in the early Church, the Apostles had many bumps in the road. And so do we. And ever since that time, and way before that, for that matter, this has been one of those perpetual problems for the Church. How do we deal with the bumps in the road? How can a God who supposedly loves us allow us to have those bumps? If he truly loves us, why does he allow us to be unhappy, even miserable at times?
I like this metaphor of a bumpy road. That’s often been used to describe such times in life. A “rocky road” is another way of saying it. Like a bumpy road, the tough times in our lives can start to “wear us down” after a while. We can find ourselves wondering “is this ever going to end?” You see, we’re usually not depressed, or hopeless, or desperate just because we have a bump or two along the road. When we get to that depressed or desperate state, it’s because those bumps have come too often, and they start to seem like they’re never going to end. Maybe you’ve felt that way in your life. Maybe you feel that way now!
One of my “words of wisdom” I’ve used over the years with people going through tough times is to tell them, “It’s not always going to be like this.” I say that because that’s what it seems like. And again, that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not the occasional bump that gets to us. It’s the continual, never ending bumps. We need to know, “It’s not always going to be like this.” Of course the down side of that is, I can’t guarantee it will be better. It might be worse!
That is the struggle, isn’t it? When things seem never ending, when the bumps in the road are continual, we struggle, and we lose hope. We get “worn down” little by little. And we’re not alone!
If you want a good example of that same struggle, look at the Psalms. So many of them, particularly in around the 30th to about the 70th psalm have that theme. “My enemies surround me, Lord!” “The waters have come up to my neck!” “Why do evildoers prosper while I struggle?” Jesus himself quoted one of those psalms from the cross. It was one where the psalmist was particularly despairing, pouring his heart, saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
I wanted you to see today that, even in these glorious early days of the Church, God’s people had to endure hardships. They had to deal with opponents who would dog their steps, who would contradict their message, or who would threaten to sidetrack them from that message. And in this case today, they also had to deal with those who would change their message into something that it was not.
I think that’s an important part of this story. These people from Lystra – these Lystra-nians, (How about “Lystra-enes”?!) they wanted to change the message into a pagan celebration. But even more, they wanted to take the message about a “personal God who came to earth,” and turn it into ritual. That’s more our version of this problem, isn’t it? We sometimes take the personal part, and make it ritual. And that’s where we lose the connection with God.
Think about something like the Lord’s Prayer. You know that you can certainly say the Lord’s Prayer with great devotion, and with a personal connection with God. But the danger is also that we might be simply “speaking words” without the meaning. The danger there is “ritualizing” the prayer and losing the purpose of prayer, and that is the connection with God!
I think that part of this was extremely frustrating for Paul! He knew the personal touch of God first hand. He now knew the joy of being in a living relationship with God, and he wanted to tell people all about that. And I have to wonder in this story if the ritual sacrifice the people were about to offer was more disturbing to him than being called a god by these people! I think he would say, “Don’t make me one of your gods!” “Don’t turn this into a ritual!” “I’m telling you that you can know God – personally!” “That’s what you should seek – that personal connection that God wants to have with you!”
And that message is our message, too. If you’re going to deal with the bumps in the road, the best way is through that personal relationship with God. It is the daily connection with him that we have the strength to face the challenges and setbacks of this life and to live life the way he wants for us. And God wants to live life to the fullest! And he wants to live that life with us.
But these things don’t happen all by themselves. We have to choose to follow Christ. We have to seek that relationship with God. We have to choose to see life in the perspective of God’s kingdom. I believe that’s what God wants. He wants us to search for him. He wants us to seek his face. He wants us to make those choices of faith that help strengthen our relationship and our connection with him.
Are there bumps in the road you’re on? God wants to travel that road with you. I invite you to invite him to join you.
Eternal God, help us to know your presence in all times of our lives. Help us to feel you walking beside us, no matter where the road of life takes us. And help us even to feel you guiding us along the way. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.