How do you keep going with telling others about Jesus when it feels like you're just banging your head against a brick wall? When people don't understand, or get the wrong end of the stick? Or when they seem to reinforce their own worldview with the bits and pieces of the gospel that seem to fit in somewhere? When the more they hear about Jesus the further they seem to be from accepting him?
We're back in Acts 14 tonight, trying to keep up with Luke's account of the spread of the Christian message across the Roman Empire, and particularly Barnabus and Paul's travels around what is now Syria, Cyprus and Turkey. They left Syrian Antioch for Cyprus, sailed north to Turkey and two weeks ago Rob helped us catch up with them in the inland town of Iconium. They're travelling around telling people that Jesus was God's long-awaited Messiah, that he had died to pay for their sin, had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven as king. Paul and Barnabus were called specifically to this task by the Holy Spirit while they were part of the church in Antioch. You can read about that in chapter 13. Their aim is that people turn to the one true God, through Jesus, who provided the only way to be right with God, and to commit their lives to his service, waiting for his return.
Two weeks ago, we saw that the way they approached their task in Iconium was something of a template for their ministry.
They went first to the local synagogue and began to preach the good news of new life through Jesus. They worked their way out from Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (or non-Jews) to the rest of the people. Preaching was the heart of their method for sharing the news, and 14.3 says that the Lord confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. The result of faithful preaching would be division. Some would oppose the message vehemently, even violently. But there would be others who would accept it and repent and believe. There would be lasting fruit. We catch up with Paul and Barnabus in Lystra in 14.8, after they fled from Iconium after learning of a specific threat to their lives.
We don't know much about Lystra, but it seems to have been a smallish town, located up in the hills not far from Iconium. It's somewhat isolated so doesn't have the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the larger ports visited by the apostles. There's no record of Paul and Barnabus going to a synagogue, and the Jews mentioned toward the end of the passage have come from elsewhere, which implies that there was no synagogue in the town, and perhaps there were very few Jews at all living there.
So let's look at the story. Find a blue bible, look up Acts 14 on page 780. There are just two points I want to make from this episode:
Many people won't see the truth past what they already believe, and,
God is responsible for fruit so just keep sowing faithfully.
Many people won't see the truth past what they already believe
5There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to ill-treat them and stone them. 6But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7where they continued to preach the good news.
8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. [NIV]
In v6-7 Paul and Barnabus leave Iconium in a hurry and head south to Lystra and the surrounding countryside, preaching the good news wherever they went.
In v8 we learn that one of the people listening to their message as they preached in Lystra was a crippled man. This man was completely lame. In fact the author, Luke, who was a doctor himself, goes a bit overboard with his description in v8. Luke says the man was 'crippled in his feet', 'lame from birth' and 'had never walked'. In other words, he couldn't walk, he'd never been able to walk and therefore he had never walked. He was as lame as lame gets.
In v9 Luke carefully starts by recording that the crippled man was listening to Paul speak. The man's faith was a result of hearing Paul's message. Paul looked at him and somehow saw that he had faith to be healed, or more literally, faith to be 'delivered'. So Paul commanded the crippled man to stand up. The man does more than that – he jumps to his feet and begins to walk. You can imagine the gasps of the onlookers. Those nearest the man step back to give him room while those further back are clamouring to see what's happening.
Just like the template for the apostolic ministry we saw at Iconium, the Lord confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. God confirmed the truth of the message by this demonstration. The healing was an outward sign of the inward work of the Holy Spirit to bring new life through the man's faith to be saved, faith in the risen Jesus, through the message preached by the apostles.
It's just like the healing Jesus gave to a crippled man in order to demonstrate that he had the authority to forgive the man's sins. How can everyone know that this new life is real, that forgiveness is real? Here is confirmation: "Stand up on your feet."
I don't know if you've ever watched a child who is just learning to walk. Often they'll start by crawling. Next they want to stand up so they crawl to sofas and tables… maybe even to the family pet, if it's big enough. They clamber up and teeter for a while before sitting down with a bump. After a few weeks they can edge along whatever they've got hold of. After that the next step is to cast off and fly solo.
Well here was a man who had never walked a step in his life. His leg muscles must have been nearly non-existent. He's never learned balance or the simple process of putting one foot in front of the other. Yet verse 10 says that the man jumped up immediately. No baby steps for this guy… he's straight to his feet and he's off walking. His speed and confidence are signs of his new faith in Jesus. The transformation from death to new life offered by the gospel is real and dramatic, just like this dramatic transformation from lame to walking.
However, the people who were listening to Paul's message and who saw the cripple walk again as a demonstration of the power of the gospel immediately attribute the miracle to their idols, their false gods. They call on the priest of Zeus, "Bring sacrifices!" It's almost as if they hadn't heard a single word about Jesus.
And some people, when you talk to them about Jesus, say something like, "If only God would give me a sign, then I'd believe." Well not on the evidence of the gospels or Acts, where many people see and relatively few believe.
In fact, we could ask why God allowed miracles at all given that the majority of those who witnessed them either disbelieved them or attributed them to other gods, or to demons or to mere men, robbing God of his glory.
And in fact there are plenty of signs. How about the sign that after two thousand years the most plausible explanation for Jesus' empty tomb is still that he rose from the dead? How about the sign that people all over the world are still being transformed by accepting the gospel, often at great personal cost?
The Lystrans' error seems to have come from a local myth circulating at the time. The superstition goes that Greek gods Zeus and Hermes visited a local town in human form. The townspeople neither recognised nor welcomed them so in their wrath they destroyed the town in a flood. So fear could have been one motive.
Ambition could also have played a part. Imagine what it would do for the town if the gods had visited them and were pleased with them. It would put Lystra on the map. They could become famous, well-regarded and rich. Perhaps these two gods would work more miracles for them.
Today, on Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey being welcomed rapturously by crowds praising God that the Son of David has come. And yet Jesus doesn't turn out to be the sort of Messiah they imagined. But rather than examine just what sort of Messiah Jesus is, by the end of the week the same crowd calls "Crucify him!". If Jesus isn't what I'm expecting, then I don't want to know.
Whether it's Jesus in front of people then in the flesh or Jesus in front of people now through the message of the gospel, there are many who misunderstand him and go on to reject him without ever listening to him, without considering what he said about himself, what his closest friends said about him, what the parts of the bible written hundreds of years before his birth say about him.
If you're not a follower of Jesus, please don't reject him rashly. The stakes are too high for that. Examine the claims and examine the evidence. And as you do that, try to consider the idea that you are not neutral towards Jesus, that you bring preconceptions and misconceptions to that examination of his life. Consider that part of you doesn't want Jesus to be who he says he is.
Many people won't see the truth past what they already believe.
God is responsible for fruit so just keep sowing faithfully
14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15"Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." 18Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20But after the disciples had gathered round him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. 21They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. [NIV]
The apostles were a little slow to catch on to what was happening, perhaps because they weren't familiar with the Lycaonian language.
But when they found out that they were being glorified as gods instead of the glory going to the true God and to the gospel, they tore their clothes to show disgust and anger and sorrow.
This was blasphemy. 'We are mere men, not gods. We have come here with news, news of the true God.'
The mini-sermon in v15-17 is very like Paul's speech to the Greeks in Athens in chapter 17. With little or no Jewish influence, there's no point in preaching Jesus from the Old Testament, as Paul has done and will do again on his travels. In fact, many of the beliefs of these people and the Greeks in Athens are directly at odds with basic Old Testament truths. So Paul has to re-package the gospel. He has to start a bit further back, with one true, living God who is the creator and sustainer.
There aren't many gods as your tradition would have it. No, there is one true God. You can imagine the response: How could we have known him? Well, he testifies at some levels to everyone, through the created world, through rain and crops and food and good things and fun and enjoyment. Paul makes the same point to the Romans in Romans 1:
…since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. [NIV]
In v18 even though 'Zeus and Hermes' have torn their clothes and are refusing sacrifices and honour, and even though 'Zeus and Hermes' are teaching them about another god, a living god, even then the people are slow to be put off their idol worship.
Paul goes on in Romans 1:
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. [NIV]
The people are just about dissuaded from the sacrifices and are now perhaps confused or embarrassed or angry. But they don't seem willing to see the miracle for the gospel-proof that it was.
To make matters worse, some Jews arrive who have pursued the apostles from Antioch and Iconium, v19-20. And even though they were so reluctantly dissuaded from worshipping Paul and Barnabus by Paul and Barnabus themselves, they are very quickly persuaded by some Jews from out of town to stone the man to whom they were ready to offer sacrifices as Hermes, messenger of the gods.
The miracle of v10 is soon dismissed because it didn't fit with their made-up religion and world-view. Instead the crowd now pelts Paul with stones until they think he is dead. It all seems such a disastrous response to the gospel message.
Yet in v20 we see that there are disciples in Lystra. There are those who have understood and accepted the message, despite everything. In chapter 16 we'll see that one of them is Timothy, who would become Paul's apprentice and successor. Paul himself is not dead, and he makes what seems to be a miraculous recovery so that the next day he and Barnabus set off on the 40-mile trek to Derbe.
In Derbe, v21, they carried on preaching the good news and won a large number of disciples in that city. God is responsible for fruit and he can and does and will save people.
So what about us? Well, the gospel message must not be changed. Forgiveness and new life can only come through faith in Jesus – his death and resurrection. To preach another gospel is to preach no gospel at all.
But like Paul, we should be ready to re-package the gospel to suit the people we're trying to reach. We need to know something of their beliefs, their worldview, so that we can address those beliefs as part of explaining the gospel.
So at the Curry Night last Tuesday, Dan touched on the recent suffering in Japan, God and science, human rights and Libya, trying to address a few common objections and invite people to think more deeply at Christianity Explored.
If we were going to design a Christianity Explored course for reaching Jews in Gateshead, we might want to design it around the first fifteen chapters of Exodus and/or the prophecies of Isaiah.
It will be interesting to see the census data, but ten years ago Gateshead was very much dominated by white British people. Reaching them requires us to challenge the secular message of the media and to explain more bible background than might have been the case thirty years ago. It's the same message, but with different approaches.
But it all starts with getting to know people, getting to know their culture, their thinking, their language even. What are the barriers that will stop them understanding and accepting the gospel? How can we lovingly help them to listen and understand and repent and believe? We need to build relationships, build community, demonstrate love and commitment and above all, pray for them and for ourselves and each other. And in doing all that work I think there are four things we need to expect. We must expect misunderstanding and be patient. We must expect offence but make sure it's just because of the gospel. We must expect negative results with strong reactions. And we must expect lasting fruit.
Many people won't see the truth past what they already believe, but God is responsible for fruit so just keep sowing faithfully.