Last time we were looking at the second half of chapter 13. Paul and Barnabas had travelled to Pisidian Antioch. They went into the synagogue on the Sabbath Day and, after the reading of God’s word, they were invited to speak to the people. Paul summarised the history of God’s people up to the time of David. And he then went on to tell the people in the synagogue that, from David’s descendants, there has come the Saviour, Jesus Christ. And now, everyone who believes in him is justified, or declared right with God for ever, which is something that could never have happened through trying to keep the law of Moses.
There was so much interest in what he was saying, that Paul was invited to come back the following week to say more about the Lord Jesus. And the following week, the whole city turned up at the synagogue to hear these things. But, seeing the crowds, many of the Jews were jealous and stirred up trouble for Paul and Barnabas. But others — those appointed by God for eternal life — believed.
This is beginning to be the normal pattern. The Apostles preach the message of Jesus Christ, who died for sinners but rose again. Some who hear refuse to believe. In fact, many oppose the message and the Apostles. But others believe. And those who believe believe because God enabled them to believe.
Verses 1 to 7
Chapter 13 ended with Luke telling us that Paul and Barnabas were forced to leave the region around Antioch. And so they headed for Iconium which was about 90 miles from Pisidian Antioch. When they arrived there, Luke tells us at the beginning of chapter 14, they did what they normally did: They went — as usual — into the Jewish synagogue. And once again they were allowed to speak to the people. And Luke tells us that they spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. Now, as we’ve seen before, not only the Jews, but also God-fearing Gentile worshipped at the synagogue. That explains why there were Greeks present in the congregation. And now, many of the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks believed Paul’s message about Jesus Christ.
And notice that Luke once again emphasises the importance of preaching. He’s been doing this throughout the book of Acts. And he’s been doing it so much, it’s as if he anticipated that one day Christians would grow tired of preaching, or they would begin to doubt the effectiveness of preaching, and they would be tempted to give up preaching in favour of other methods for reaching the lost. And so, he takes every opportunity to emphasise the importance of preaching for evangelism. Wherever they went, the Apostles preached. They proclaimed the word of God. They spoke God’s work boldly. And often — but not always — many people believed.
But not everyone believed their message. So, look at verse 2. Some Jews refused to believe. They would not accept what the Apostles were saying. And those unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles in the city and poisoned their minds against the believers. Notice that Luke refers to the believers as ‘brothers’ or ‘brothers and sisters’. Through faith in Christ, we’re adopted into God’s family. God becomes our Father. Jesus Christ becomes our Elder Brother. And former strangers, former enemies even, become brothers and sisters in Christ. But in Iconium, these Christians brothers and sisters immediately faced opposition from the unbelieving Jews and the other Gentiles in the city. Strangely, Jews were normally forbidden to associate with Gentiles. But so great is their opposition to Christianity, that these two groups are prepared to set aside their differences and join forces against the Christians.
The beginning of verse 3 is puzzling. It says:
So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there.
In other words:
Because the Jews poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the believers, Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there.
What’s the connection between the opposition they faced and their willingness to spend time there? What’s the connection? Well, perhaps it’s because the new believers needed support to stand firm against the opposition they were facing. So, what the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles were saying about the Christian faith needed to be refuted. And the Apostles could help with that. And the new believers needed to be strengthened. And the Apostles could help with that. You see, the way leading to eternal life is narrow and it’s very easy for the Devil to push us off it if we’re not careful to stand firm against all of his wicked schemes. And so, Paul and Barnabas remained where they were for a considerable time to give their support to these new believers, facing opposition from the people of the city.
And what did the Apostles do to support them? It should come as no surprise to us. They spoke boldly for the Lord, verse 3. Or, verse 4, they proclaimed the message of God’s grace. In other words, they continued to preach and to teach God’s word because God’s word is powerful and effective, isn’t it? It’s the sword of the Spirit and with God’s word we’re able to fight against unbelief and refute those who teach lies; and we’re able to encourage and support one another with the promises of God.
I’m reminded of an old Scottish minister, William Still, who died some years ago. When he was a young minister, he discovered the joy of preaching systematically through God’s word, Sunday by Sunday, in his church in Aberdeen. But not only did he enjoy it, but the congregation developed a taste for it as well. And more than that: the systematic preaching of God’s word began to make a difference in their daily lives so that William Still would say that the number of people he needed to counsel individually and to see about problems in their lives and how to cope with them, went down over the years. And it went down over the years because the people were finding that they were getting all the comfort and consolation and encouragement and support and direction and guidance from his pulpit ministry. From the preaching of God’s word every Sunday, morning and night, they were getting all they needed to live the Christian life and to remain faithful to the Lord in all circumstances. In other words, as Mr Still spoke the word of God boldly each week, the people received all they needed to stand firm. And in a similar way, Paul and Barnabas remained in Iconium for a considerable period of time in order to encourage and support these new Christians.
Something else happened in Iconium. Look at the rest of verse 3. Not only did Paul and Barnabas speak boldly for the Lord, but the Lord confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. And we’ve seen this before in the book of Acts: From time to time (but not on every occasion), the Lord enabled the Apostles and Evangelists (and not every believer) to perform miraculous signs. And these signs were given to confirm what was being preached. That is, the signs were not the main thing. The preaching of God’s word was the main thing. Now, you hear about these people today who claim to be able to perform miracles. And crowds gather to see them. Or they appear on TV and cause a sensation. But that’s all they’re known for: the things they claim they can do. But in the book of Acts, the miracles were not the main thing. They were only the supporting act, if you like, for the main thing which was the preaching of God’s word.
But look at verse 4 which is so interesting. Luke tells us that the people of the city were divided. Some sided with the unbelieving Jews. Others sided with the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas. Now, strictly speaking, Barnabas was not an Apostle, but I suppose he’s called an Apostle here because of his association with Paul. But that’s not what makes this verse interesting. It’s interesting because it shows us that neither powerful preaching nor signs and wonders are sufficient by themselves to convert sinners to faith in Christ. Here in this city, you had no less a preacher than the Apostle Paul. And you had miraculous signs to confirm what he was saying and to demonstrate to doubters and sceptics that these men were really sent from God. But still so many of the people did not believe. Why not? It’s because before sinners can be converted, the Holy Spirit must first open their hearts to pay attention to the message. The Holy Spirit must come and regenerate sinners. In other words, he must give them the new birth so that they are able to repent and to believe the good news. Before sinners are converted, they must not only hear the voice of the outward preacher, standing in his pulpit, but they must hear the voice of the inward preacher, the Holy Spirit, speaking in their hearts. And in whom does the Spirit work? Well, remember what we read in chapter 13? Only those who have been appointed by God for eternal life believe. Or remember what we read in John 6? Only those whom God the Father has given to his Son will come to him and believe in him. In all our evangelistic endeavours, we must preach God’s word. That’s our responsibility. To set forth the word of God plainly. But we have to rely completely on the Lord to make the reading and preaching of his word effective.
On this occasion, things get worse for the Apostles. The Jews and Gentiles — again it’s unusual to see them working together — the Jews and Gentiles plotted together to ill-treat and stone the Apostles. But the Apostles found out about it and fled to Lystra, 18 miles away, and to Derbe, another 55 miles away, and to the surrounding district.
And what did they do? They continued to preach the good news. And from this we see their attitude to preaching. They didn’t see it as an option, just one of many methods useful for evangelism. They didn’t see it as helpful, but not essential. If that was there attitude to preaching, I’m sure they would have tried something else in Lystra and Derbe. They would have said to one another: You know what? I think we should give up this preaching. Many who hear us won’t listen or believe. And often it just stirs up trouble for us. Let’s try something else.
But they don’t do that. Despite the fact that many who heard them refused to believe, and despite the opposition they often faced, they continued to preach the good news.
And so, as we have opportunity, we should try to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ who died for sinners and rose again. And we should invite our unbelieving friends and neighbours and the members of our family to come to church to hear the preaching of God’s word. And we should pray to God, asking him to convince and convert them to faith in Christ.