RPM, Volume 17, Number 32, August 2 to August 8, 2015

To the End of the Earth: A Tale of Three Cities

Acts 14:1-20

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me if you would once again to The Acts of The Apostles… "The Acts of the Risen, Ascended Christ…The Acts of the Holy Spirit"… as we see the Lord Jesus marching across the geography of the Middle East and what is now regarded as Turkey…as we see Him fulfilling His promise to gather a people to Himself. And we come tonight…after being in Pisidian Antioch, we come now to three more cities that Paul and Barnabas and some others…a journey of around 150 miles or so from Pisidian Antioch…all the way to Derbe. He goes to Lystra and Iconium, and Derbe. And we're going to follow in the footsteps now of the Apostle Paul, again in Acts 14. Now before we read the passage, let's pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we bow in Your presence. We are a needy people. You give, and we spend it so quickly. We never seem to have enough. We always want more of Your word. We are hungry, and we are thirsty. We thank you for the provision of the Bible. We thank You for this holy book. We ask as we read it that we might be conscious that we are truly reading the very words of God. Come, Holy Spirit, and open it up to us. Help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus' sake. Amen.

This is God's holy word:

And it came about that in Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a great multitude 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 bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. But the multitude of the city was 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.

And at Lystra there was sitting a certain man, without 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 upon him, and had seen that he had faith to be made well, said with a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And he leapt up and began to walk. And when the multitudes 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. And 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 in order 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. And 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." And even saying these things, they with difficulty restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. But while the disciples stood around him, he arose and entered the city. And the next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe. And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." And 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. And they passed through Pisidia and came into Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia; and from there they sailed to Antioch, from which they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had accomplished. And 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.

Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His word.

This letter, this historical account that Luke is writing, was written of course to you and me, but it was first of all written to a man by the name of Theophilus. And it appears now, as we traverse through The Acts of The Apostles, that Luke seems to have at least two principle reasons for having written it.

He wants Theophilus to understand that what occurred in the spread of the gospel and in the formation of the church in Judea, in Samaria, in the ends of the earth, in places like Cyprus and Turkey, that it was all in fulfillment of a promise that the resurrected Jesus had given to the disciples: that they were to go and to make disciples, and that His church would expand from Jerusalem and outwards to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And Acts is saying 'Look how Jesus is fulfilling His promise.' And I think that Luke wants Theophilus and us to draw the conclusion that if He fulfills those promises, He fulfills every promise, right up until He comes again in power and in glory, because the invincible Christ is marching across the pages of history, bringing to pass and accomplishing His grand design: that Messiah Jesus will crush and conquer the kingdoms of Satan, as He had said in Caesarea Philippi, that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church.

But there is a second reason allied to that first reason, and that second reason is that the kingdom of God never advances but that it experiences trials and tribulations at every step, at every point along the way.

I don't know what the disciples thought when they first yielded to the invitation of Jesus that He gave to them, that they would become His disciples. I'm not sure what the apostles first thought when they set off from Antioch in Syria to Cyprus and then on to Turkey what that journey would be like, but one of the things that Paul has evidently learned as he reports to the brethren in Antioch (not the Antioch in Syria, but the Antioch in Pisidia, in Turkey)…he reports in verse 22 that it is "through many tribulations we enter the kingdom of God" that the Christian life is marked by successive waves of trials and difficulties. It's a principle of the Christian life. It's what it means to belong to Jesus, Paul seems to be saying. 'I've seen it, I've learned it.' And this is a tale of three cities.

And as Paul and Barnabas, and those whom Luke now refers to as apostles (in a broad sense, I think), as they go to these successive cities two words at each city seem to summarize what it is that's taking place. And in the first place, at Iconium, they are the words proclamation and poisoning. They have been driven out (at the end of chapter 13) of Pisidian Antioch, and now they move in an easterly direction towards the great city of Iconium, in the Phrygian region. It's about three and a half thousand feet or so on a plateau of a mountainous area of what we would call modern Turkey. It's in the province of Galatia. It's where Paul will address his epistle to the Galatians in not a great deal of time from now, I think. And a summary of what took place in the city of Iconium is given to us in verses 2 and 3: "Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles." Trouble comes in the city of Iconium.

He tells us, first of all, those to whom they preach. They go first of all to the synagogue. It was a natural place to go. It was a convenient place to go. It was a place where people gathered, and they gathered for worship, and they gathered to hear the word of God, they gathered to hear the Old Testament Scriptures. There would be an opportunity for somebody like Paul to be asked to say a word, and Paul would have the natural opportunity to take a verse of Scripture, a passage in the Old Testament, and expound upon it. It was a wonderful evangelistic opportunity at this period in redemptive history, and Paul makes every use of it. But of course there's a greater reason than that, too, because as Paul reminds us when he writes his letter to the Romans, in Romans 1:15 he writes "to the Jew first," he says, "and also to the Gentile"…because there was a sense of obligation to the Jews. It was to the Jews that God had first revealed His promise. It was to the Jews that God had revealed the promise of Messiah. And Paul was a Jew, and he feels a sense of obligation now to take the gospel to his fellow countrymen, and to use every opportunity that God avails him in providence to bring now the fulfillment of all that God has done in the person of Jesus Christ, and declare to his fellow countrymen and fellow Jews 'Behold the Messiah!'

And Luke tells us what they proclaimed. He talks about the words of grace in verse 3: "…Bearing witness to the word of His grace…." He preached grace in the synagogue. He came to the synagogue and proclaimed a gospel that had at the very heart of it the idea of grace: that we don't earn our salvation; that we don't merit our salvation; that we're not saved because of who we are or what we've done, or because of the privileges that have been bestowed upon us. It's the unmerited favor of God, free; a gift that God gives to sinners.

"By grace we are saved through faith, and that not of ourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast."?

And he tells us…Luke tells us the manner in which he preached it: "And he preached boldly…" (verse 3 again)…" And he "…spent a long there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord…."

He goes into the synagogue, and just like in any environment — synagogue, church, or anywhere else, for that matter — there are always all kinds of people. And there are those who are with him and there were evidently those who were against him, and he could sense that. He didn't want to go in there except as he would go as the spokesman and the plenipotentiary of God Himself. When he cries out for boldness, he depends upon the assistance of the Lord to preach the unsearchable riches of grace to his fellow Jews. And then the gates of hell can be seen. As he's preaching in the synagogue, as he's declaring the unsearchable riches of Christ, as he's proclaiming the gospel, the unbelieving Jews make an alliance—note this!—the unbelieving Jews make an alliance with the Gentiles! Now, Jews don't talk to Gentiles! They don't eat with Gentiles, they don't sit in the same places, they cross the road in order that they might not have anything to do with Gentiles. But isn't it true that the forces of darkness will ally together in an unholy union against Jesus and the gospel? People who don't have time for each other, people who never speak to each other will bind together in an unholy union. Didn't you see that in the ministry of Jesus? Pharisees and Sadducees…they had nothing in common. Conservatives and liberals have nothing in common. But they bound together in an unholy alliance of opposition against the gospel. It's the gates of hell, and they threaten Paul with stones, and Paul and Barnabas hear of it and they flee the city.

And off they go, fifty-five miles now to the east in the direction of Lystra, and Derbe a few miles further to the east, outside of the jurisdiction of Phrygia. And they come to this city of Lystra and it's a very different city, a very different climate, very different audience. There doesn't seem to be a synagogue in Lystra. It's hard to put together the historical sequence here, because there are disciples in Lystra who come to Paul's aid at the end. This may mean that he's in Lystra for a period of time.

Lystra was a remarkable place because there was a story that had been written, a very famous story. Some of you, like myself, studied it in school, in Greek - Ovid's Metamorphosis, an astonishing tale of the Greek pantheon set in this very district of Lystra. And two gods, Jupiter and Mercury, Zeus and Hermes, and they come down in the form of mortal men and they travel in the region of Lystra and they go to this home and that home and another home, and no one will let them in. A thousand homes, and no one will let them in. Eventually they come to the home of an old elderly couple, and they're welcomed. And they converse. They change this home into a temple, and they destroy all of the other homes that wouldn't let them in. And this couple are made servants in the service of this temple, and they ask for one request: that they might die together so that neither would have to look upon the other's grave. And they are granted that request.

This is a pagan city! This is a city that worshiped a pagan pantheon of gods. There's no point of contact here. They have no Bible. They didn't know the stories of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the prophets. There was no point in quoting great chunks of Isaiah or parts of the Psalms, as Paul had done elsewhere in the synagogue because they were a people who knew their Bibles. It's an entirely different context now, and he performs first of all a miracle. And there's a story…(as you read this story, I wonder did you say to yourself — and I knew it was coming, and I still find myself saying 'I've read this before somewhere')…a lame man who has been lame from birth... and Paul looks intently at him and says to him to arise, and he leaps up and begins to walk. (I've read that story somewhere before! Yes, in Acts 3…Peter outside the temple. It's almost identical…the same phrases. Lots of features about the story that are almost identical.) Well, you know what liberals make of this story: 'You know, Luke didn't have any imagination, so he just pinched this story from earlier and stuck it in here.' You know…?

But what is Luke doing? He's doing something very important. What stood at the entrance to the city of Lystra? A temple. A temple to the heathen pantheon of Greek gods of Zeus and Hermes, of Jupiter and Mercury and the rest of them. And just as Peter had stood outside the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and declared the power of Jesus Christ to restore and heal, so Paul is doing the same now in Gentile territory and outside a pagan temple. And Luke is saying 'Do you get it? Do you understand this gospel isn't just powerful in the city of Jerusalem? It's not just powerful in the context of the Jews. It's the same gospel with the same power in the context of pagans, outside of their pagan temple.'

And what did he preach? Well, it's interesting what he preached, and it's interesting what he didn't preach, because if you look at the content of what he preached in verses 15, 16, and 17 (and we're only given, I think, a little summary of what he preached because Luke has given you little indicators that he was preaching the gospel and that he was preaching the word of grace), he's not preaching what he preached in Pisidian Antioch. He's not preaching the way he had preached in the synagogue in Cyprus. He's not quoting the Old Testament. He's not quoting Psalm 2 or Psalm 16. He's not quoting from the Servant Songs of Isaiah because these people didn't know the Bible. They didn't have a Bible. So he begins where they are. He establishes a point of contact with them, and he begins by telling them about the Creator, the only God there is, the God who made the heavens and the earth, and the God who provides, the God who sends the sunshine and the rain. Because, you see, there isn't a different God in Lystra from the God that exists in Jerusalem, or in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Pickens, because there is only one God. And that's where he begins. He establishes a point of contact, because, as Paul will say when he writes to the Romans, the natural man — the unbeliever, the man who says 'I don't believe in God' — he believes in God; he just doesn't acknowledge it. He suppresses it. He holds it down in unrighteousness. But Calvin says in The Institutes there are times in the consciousness of the natural man when, as it were, he is dragged before the Divine Tribunal and forced to acknowledge there is a God before whom I must one day give an account.

He hasn't come yet to the gospel. He hasn't come yet to the story about Jesus. He's establishing a platform. He's talking to them about the God who created the world, and he's talking to them about accountability. He's introducing an idea and the concept of sin. But it's enough, and the very truth that Paul speaks of in Romans 1, that even the natural man knows this God and he suppresses it, and he lives in hostility towards it, and that hostility rises up now in antagonism.

And men come, and they come from as far away as Antioch and Iconium because the city has responded to this message as pagans respond to a message; and the priests of the temple brought out this bull — like the rodeo in town yesterday — and it's dressed in garlands, and it's being paraded through the streets (ready for sacrifice, you understand), and Paul and Barnabas are tearing their clothes as Jews do when they see blasphemy about to take place. They say, "Stop! Stop! We're just men like you." But the gates of hell are there again, and the rumblings and machinations of Satan can be heard rumbling in the streets, and men…Jews…have come all the way from a hundred miles away, from Antioch in Pisidia, to stir up this city. And this time they get what they want, and they lift up stones and they hurl them in the direction of the Apostle Paul, and he's dragged outside of the city and he's left outside of the city as though he were dead. It's extraordinary. ?

Now let me ask you a number of questions quickly.

Is this passage first of all suggesting — is Paul suggesting — that all you need to be saved is to believe in a God who creates and a God who provides? Is Paul suggesting that? Because apparently he doesn't preach the gospel. He doesn't mention Jesus. He doesn't mention Calvary. He doesn't mention the resurrection. He doesn't quote from the Old Testament Scriptures. Is Paul saying then that you can be saved even as a pagan, even if you've never heard of Jesus? That you can be what is called 'an anonymous Christian'? No! No. No. No. No. No.

There is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved, and it's the name of Jesus Christ. "I am the way and the truth and the life, and no man comes unto the Father but by Me," Jesus said. No, my friends. What we have here is Paul's beginning of evangelism. We don't know where Paul would have gone, had he been given the opportunity. He's beginning at the beginning with people who don't even understand the very concept of God, and before he can even reach the gospel and Jesus Christ, they have hauled him outside of the city.

You see, there are several lessons here all at once…and I only have time for one of them. We'll pick it up next week.

The gospel never advances…listen to this, my friend, in our sense of comfort and entitlement and the blessings that we think that we deserve because we belong to Jesus Christ…the gospel never advances but that it will experience the onslaught of the gates of hell. Jesus builds His church within enemy occupied territory. And whenever you talk about Jesus, whenever you lift up a prayer request, wherever you honor the sweet name of your Lord, be prepared for the hostility and venom and spite and utter hatred of the kingdom of darkness.

You see, what is being seen here in the story is something that the folks back in Antioch, the church that sent them, will see in Paul. You remember when Paul writes his very first letter to the Galatians, to this district, remember what he says at the end of the letter? "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." (Now don't get all mystical, now! No, no, no, no, no!) Don't you think these stones that have hit Paul in his temple and on his nose and in his ear…that when he goes back to the church in Antioch they perceive that he had been through a war? No wonder they called him 'hook nosed', because his nose was probably broken. He will bear 39 lashes five times in his back; when he peels off his shirt you can see the marks of the Lord Jesus on him, because it is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God.

My friend, you say tonight 'But I don't have any trouble. I don't have any trial. I don't experience any opposition. I don't experience any difficulty.' And is it, my friend…is it because you never speak about Jesus? Because you don't live out and out for Jesus Christ? And is that what we are to hear in this passage tonight? Because Jesus says 'I build My church in enemy occupied territory.' And there are men and women here tonight who are serving the Lord Jesus Christ who know exactly what Paul is saying because they bear in their own flesh the consequences of what it means to follow Jesus. As Paul will write to the Corinthians, he will say to them, "Death is at work in us, in order that life may be at work in you."

Well, there's more, but my clock has gone away from me. Let's pick this up again next week, which will be on the eve of Missions Week, and it will be very appropriate, I think, to pick some of these principles up and apply them to the work of missions.

Let's pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You tonight for this passage of Scripture. It causes us to be ashamed a little that we know so little of these trials and difficulties, because we too often live out our Christian lives expecting it to be one of ease and luxury; and we want with all of our hearts tonight to know what it means to live out and out for Christ. Give us courage to pray that. Bless us, we pray; pour out Your Spirit on us; mold us, shape us. And all for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace and mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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