In recent weeks, we’ve been following Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. If you glance back to the beginning of chapter 13 you’ll see that the Holy Spirit instructed the church in Antioch to set apart Paul and Barnabas for the work to which he, the Holy Spirit, had called them. So, the members of the church fasted and prayed and placed their hands on the two men in order to set them apart and to commission them for the work. And off they went.
And first they travelled to Cyprus. And do you remember what happened there? They encountered a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet who tried to oppose them. He didn’t want the Roman governor on the island to believe the good news. Nevertheless, he wasn’t able to succeed. Instead, he was struck blind in an act of judgment, and the governer came to believe in the Lord Jesus because he was amazed by their preaching.
And that became the pattern for the rest of the missionary journey. Some refuse to believe the good news and those who refuse to believe opposed the preaching of the gospel. But then, despite the unbelief and opposition of some, others do believe. And, of course, all who call on the name of the Lord are saved.
So, from Cyprus they moved on and eventually arrived in a place called Pisidian Antioch. There Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath Day. And he taught them about Jesus Christ who died and rose again. The people in the congregation invited Paul and Barnabas to come back the following week to tell them more. Some even followed them as they left the synagogue, because they couldn’t wait another week and wanted to know more straightaway. Well, the following week, the whole city turned up at the synagogue to hear them. However, many of the Jews became jealous and opposed them. But many others — all those appointed by God for eternal life — believed. And chapter 13 ended with Luke telling us that even though the word of God spread throughout the whole region, the Jews stirred up trouble for Paul and Barnabas and they were made to leave the area.
They travelled to Iconium and, as usual, they went to the synagogue to preach. A great number of Jews and God-fearing Gentiles believed. But others refused to believe and they wanted to stone Paul and Barnabas. So, once again they were forced to leave.
Then they travelled to Lystra. And in that city, the pagans thought they were gods. They called Barnabas Zeus, the king of the gods. And they called Paul Hermes, the messenger of the gods. And they wanted to offer sacrifices to them. And so Paul spoke to them about the one, true and living God and urged them to turn away from their false gods and to turn to the living God. But Jews came from Iconium and once again stirred up trouble for them. They stoned Paul, and thinking he was dead, they dumped his body outside the city. But, of course, he wasn’t dead. He got up, and the next day he left Lystra and travelled to Derbe, leaving behind him some who had come to believe in the Lord Jesus in that city.
So, that’s the pattern. They preached the good news of Jesus Christ. Some refused to believe and they did what they could to stop the preaching of God’s word. But others believe and little churches were established. The Devil was doing what he could to stop the spread of the gospel and the planting of churches. But Jesus Christ, from his throne in heaven, was building his church through the reading and preaching of his word.
And so, today, we come to verses 21 to 28 of Acts 14. And first of all, in verse 21, we see just how unstoppable Paul and Barnabas were. Despite all the opposition they faced, all the suffering, all the hatred directed towards them, they would not give up, but they continued to persevere and to keep going, taking every opportunity to preach the good news and to make Christ known to all. And so we read in verse 21 that they preached the good news in Derbe. Think of the trouble in Lystra and how Paul suffered so much — stoned so badly, his attackers left him for dead. And yet, instead of giving up and going home, Paul and Barnabas just carried on and they continued to preach the good news.
Why did Paul not give up? I suppose he remembered that he had been given this work by the Holy Spirit. And he refers to this in 2 Corinthians 4. In a chapter where he goes on to write about being hard pressed on every side, being perplexed, being persecuted, being struck down even, he also wrote about how he had been given this ministry by the mercy of God. And because he had been given this work to do by the mercy of God, he refused to lose heart and give in. And he was determined to set forth the word of God plainly. God the Holy Spirit had called him to this work and he would not give up.
Furthermore, we have what he wrote in the first chapter of Romans where he wrote about his belief in the power of the gospel for salvation for those who believe. And since the gospel is powerful, Paul longed to preach it wherever he went. So, despite the opposition and persecution and all the trouble he faced, Paul continued to preach God’s word. God the Holy Spirit had called him to it. And the message he preached was powerful. Therefore he would not give up. So, in Acts 14:21, he continued to preach the good news. And what was the outcome? He won a large number of disciples.
The word ‘disciple’ is significant, isn’t it? It brings to mind the words of the Lord Jesus in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel. He commissioned his Apostles — representing his church — to go and make disciples, baptising them and teaching them everything. A disciple is not just a convert. This was always one of the criticism of big evangelistic crusades where people were urged to come forward and to say a prayer or sign a card or to do something to indicate they had accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But often that’s as far as things went. They prayed the prayer. They signed a card. But then they went home, and carried on as before. They may have made a profession of faith, but they didn’t become disciples.
You see, converts need to be added to the church and in the church they are baptised if they haven’t been baptised before, and then they are taught, instructed about God and about his will. A disciple is a learner, a pupil, a student who learns from the Master. And in the case of Christian disciples, the Master is the Lord Jesus and in his church he has given us teachers to teach us his word.
So, in verse 21 we’re told that Paul preached the good news. And by his preaching he won a large number of disciples, people who not only made a profession of faith, but who continued in the faith, growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ every day.
Verses 21b to 25
The passage which runs from the second half of verse 21 to verse 25 is really very interesting because it shows us Paul and Barnabas’s commitment to these new churches. And it shows us how they cared for the churches.
First of all, we see their commitment. Luke tells us that they decided to travel back to Lystra and Iconium and Pisidian Antioch in order to strengthen the disciples in those places and to encourage them. Now, what happened when they were last in those cities? In Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead. In Iconium the was a plot to ill-treat them and to stone them. In Pisidian Antioch they were forced to leave the area. But forgetting their personal safety, Paul and Barnabas decided to return to these cities in order to encourage the believers. They wanted to teach them more about the faith and to help them to stand up to opposition. After all, if Paul and Barnabas faced opposition in these cities, then presumably the new believers would face opposition too. And so, they needed to be encouraged to press on in the faith. So, Paul and Barnabas returned to teach and encourage them.
But notice, secondly, how they cared for these churches. And Luke tells us they did several things. First of all, they strengthened them. In fact, a better translation is that they strengthened the souls of the disciples because it wasn’t physical strength they needed. Paul and Barnabas didn’t go to get them to lift weights to build up their muscles. They needed their faith to be strengthened so that they would cling to Christ with a firmer grip. So, they strengthened their souls.
Secondly, they encouraged the disciples to remain true to the faith. Again, a better translation is that they encouraged them to continue in the faith. When I was young, I met all these people who had dramatic conversion stories. And for a while they were full of zeal for the Lord. But, sadly, so many of the people I knew growing up did not persevere in the faith. They did not continue in it. Think of the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed. So many people are like the seed sown on the rocky ground. They receive the word with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. And so, dramatic conversion stories have never really impressed me. What impresses me are the times when I hear of believers who have continued in the faith for year after year, decade after decade, and who have continued to remain faithful to the Lord despite all kinds of troubles and trials in their life. I was reading Matthew 24 this morning and there the Lord says:
the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Faithfulness over many, many years is what’s necessary. Faithfulness to the end. And so, Paul and Barnabas went to these churches to encourage the new believers to keep going, right to the end.
Thirdly, Paul and Barnabas warned them. They were straight with them and clear:
We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.
The Christian life is a battle. We must fight with all our might against our own sinful desires which wage war within us. And we must stand firm against all the temptations of the Devil as he tries to hinder us from continuing along the narrow way that leads to life. He attacks us from within — putting doubts and fears in our mind. He attacks us from without — by outright persecution to the temptation to fit in with those around us. The Christian life is a battle. Far too often, we think it’s a party. We think it’s easy. But no. We road to heaven takes us through many trials and hardships and so what we need is for someone to teach us the word of God because through the word of God, the Lord strengthens us and encourages us and he enables us to stand firm against all the hardships that come our way.
And you see, that’s what Paul and Barnabas were going. They were teaching the people. The word for ‘encourage’ can also be translated ‘exhort’. Preaching and teaching involves exhortation. And Paul and Barnabas encouraged the disciples to continue in the faith. And ‘the faith’ is almost a technical term for the body of beliefs we must hold on to. It refers to the content of the Apostolic preaching. Continue in the faith means continue in what you have been taught about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who entered the world as a man and who suffered and died for sinners before rising again and ascending to heaven from where he will come again. Some of us will be familiar with the Apostles’ Creed. And that’s a summary of ‘the faith’ — the things Christians have always believed and the things we all need to know in order to have a credible profession of faith.
So Paul and Barnabas taught them. But that’s not all. Look at verse 23. And this is the fourth thing the did for them. They also appointed elders for them in each church. When you see the elders sitting at the front of the church on Sunday morning, give thanks to God for them because he has given us elders to watch over us as a shepherd watches over his sheep. They’re to watch over us and to keep us from wandering away from the safety of the sheepfold which is the church of Jesus Christ. So, give thanks to God for them. And pray for them, asking that God will guide them and help them to be faithful in overseeing you.
And then, verse 24. And this is the fifth thing. Paul and Barnabas committed them to the Lord. The Lord is faithful. He is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear. Paul and Barnabas could not remain with them for ever. But these new churches had the Apostolic teaching about the Lord Jesus as the foundation for their faith. They had elders to oversee them. And they could rely on the Lord to help them. And everything they had to help them keep going, everything they had, we have. We have the word of God about the Lord Jesus and every Sunday our faith in Christ is strengthened through the reading and preaching of his word. We have elders to oversee us. And the Lord remains the same. He was faithful to his people in the past, and he is faithful to us today. So we can count on him to help us. And parents: Sometimes you worry about your children and what will happen to them. But we bring them to church to hear God’s word by which our faith is created and sustained. And we have elders to oversee them. And when the elder calls, bring your children in to see him and to talk to him about the faith. And then know with certainty that the Lord will watch over his people. The Lord is faithful. He will surely do it.
Three brief things to finish. First, since the church had sent them out, Paul and Barnabas reported back to the church in Antioch. The church is so important in the book of Acts.
Second, Paul and Barnabas made clear that anything they accomplished, they accomplished because God was at work. God works through the reading and preaching of his word.
Thirdly and finally, God opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. It’s an unusual expression, but it reminds us that we are reconciled to God through faith in Christ. And faith is not some good work of ours which we can boast about. Faith is a gift from God and through faith we receive from Christ the salvation he won for us on the cross. And so, as we turn to the Lord’s Table on Sunday, we come to it not because of any goodness in us gives us the right to come, but we come because we’re sinners and Christ is the Saviour and we need mercy and help from him and we receive it from him through faith.