The last year has felt like a whirlwind for us all. There have been constant government guideline changes and the kinds of interruptions to everyday life that most of us have never seen before. Now it feels like we are starting to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.
The world has been shifting. Due to the pandemic or due to societal changes, the world is not the same place as it was just a few years ago. So my mind has gone to the second half of Acts. Acts 13 and following chronicles when the followers of Jesus first stepped out to take the message of Jesus to a very different world.
Let’s take Acts 13-14 as a case study to consider. Here we read Luke’s account of the first missionary journey. The church at Antioch in Syria sent out Barnabas and Paul. These two travelled to Cyprus, then up to what we would call Turkey. We read of their ministry in places like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.
Perhaps we can note some basic principles that will be helpful to us as we step out into our new world with the message of Jesus today:
1. God is active in the spread of the message. In Acts 13:1-4, we see how God is the initiator who launched the mission of Barnabas and Saul. As we read further, we can recognize that God is involved in every aspect of their ministry. That same God was not surprised by the challenges of 2020. He is continuing to work out His purposes in 2021.
2. The enemy opposes the spread of the message. In Acts 13:8-11, we read about the active opposition of a false teacher called Elymas. This “son of the Devil” was trying to turn others away from the faith. Paul did not hold back in dealing with that opposition. Remember that this was a foreign culture, but the apostles knew that people everywhere need to hear the truth about Jesus. We will face opposition as we seek to speak of Jesus this year. Let’s pray for the courage and boldness we need to carry that message effectively.
3. People respond to the message in different ways. In Acts 13:42-52, we witness a typical response to Paul’s preaching. Some of the hearers were stirred and wanted to know more. But opposition arose from the local Jews who eventually drove the apostles out of town. We might expect the opposition to come from overtly evil people. However, often it is the religious and self-righteous who prove to be most resistant to the good news of Jesus. We should never be discouraged by a mixed reaction to the gospel.
4. Remember to begin at the very beginning. In Acts 14:8-20, we watch Barnabas and Paul as they came to Lystra. These were not Jews with a background understanding of the Old Testament. These were pagans with no Bible background at all. They soon gathered in a crowd with the local priest of Zeus, ready to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul (who they mistakenly thought were Zeus and Hermes in the flesh!). Barnabas and Paul could have seized the opportunity. After all, here was a crowd, including a strategic influencer, who all thought Paul and Barnabas were gods – they could have worked with that position of influence!
Paul could have launched into preaching about God’s greater sacrifice. Or he could have demonstrated the similarities between Zeus and the true God. With some careful editing, it is always possible to forge the connections between other deities and our God. Lystrans believed Zeus was the sovereign of the universe, master of heaven and earth. It sounds biblical. Zeus was concerned with justice and order; God too. Zeus showcased his power in extreme weather; there are Bible stories that come to mind.
But Paul and Barnabas did not entertain this approach at all. Why not? Because truth matters. And the truth of the matter was that the God they had come to represent was not like Zeus or any other god hanging around the area. The true God was so much better! So Paul launched into a brief message introducing the true God. Paul spoke boldly, calling them to turn from vain things. He also spoke invitingly, calling them to turn to God. And he spoke clearly, setting out the character of the true God: the living and generous creator God, patient and kind.
The God we represent is not the same as the other gods worshipped in our world. People worship the gods of other religions, or celebrities, or ideologies. We can always edit the details and form connections. Still, the foundational truth is that the true God is different, and He is better because He is so so good! Let’s be sure to start at the beginning, with the God question: which God is God? What is He like?
5. Be prepared to suffer because it is worth it. In Acts 14:19-23, we see Paul stoned, dragged out of the city and presumed dead. When the disciples gathered around him, though, he stood up. Amazingly, he then went back into the city! After travelling on to Derbe, Paul and Barnabas don’t continue down the road to their ultimate destination, their sending church in Syria. Instead, they turn around and go back to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch – the three cities involved in trying to kill Paul!
Why would they do something so inherently dangerous? Because it is worth it. It is worth it to help people know the true God instead of their false gods. And it is worth it because those small groups of new believers matter to that God. We may be offering encouragement and teaching to unimpressive little groups of young believers in Europe this year, but they matter to God!
There is plenty more we can learn from this section of Acts. Let’s find encouragement in these missionary journey accounts, and then let us press on in our ministries empowered by God!