‘The same thing happened in Iconium. Paul and Barnabas went to the Jewish synagogue and preached with such power that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. Some of the Jews, however, spurned God’s message and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles [non-Jews] against Paul and Barnabas. But the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. And the Lord proved their message was true by giving them power to do miraculous signs and wonders. But the people of the town were divided in their opinion about them. Some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. Then a mob of Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, decided to attack and stone them. When the apostles learned of it, they fled to the region of Lycaonia — to the towns of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding area. And there they preached the Good News.’ – Acts 14:1-7
The first time I studied this passage, my conclusion was that Paul had a really hard time, but he had a lot of faith, look what he accomplished. Be like Paul, have faith.
But honestly I think that’s the wrong way to look at this passage. A better approach might be to think: what’s the story that’s going on here?
Now at the start of this passage, it says ‘the same thing happened in Iconium.’ Paul and Barnabas went to a place in Turkey called Iconium, and they went there to tell people about Jesus. And as you saw from the passage, it didn’t really end very well for them. Some people liked it, but a lot of people didn’t like it. In fact they disliked it so much, they tried to kill Paul and Barnabas. They had to run away.
But you know what? This was already the second time it had happened. Before Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium, they were in another place in Turkey called Pisidia. The people there disliked hearing about Jesus too, and Paul and Barnabas had to run for their lives (that’s what the passage means when it says ‘the same thing happened in Iconium’).
Now this all sounds pretty discouraging. But did you notice how this passage ends? Paul and Barnabas ran away to Lycaonia, and they told people there about Jesus too. Why did they keep doing this thing that got them into trouble all the time?
It’s because Paul knew what story was going on. God had told Paul to go and tell people about Jesus, because this is a big way that God sets the world right. But God didn’t just send Paul off with nothing, he gave him proof: in this passage, God worked miracles through Paul to show that the message about Jesus was real. And before all this Jesus had appeared to Paul too, to show Paul that Jesus is alive, he’s real, he’s someone worth telling people about.
I think that proof is what kept Paul going. Even though it was just the hardest thing to do, even though there was discouragement, even though people tried to kill him, he still kept doing it. Because he knew there is a story going on, and he knew it’s real, because he knew Jesus is alive.
What difference does that make for us? Here’s the thing: you’re going to run into problems when you try to do what’s right, just like Paul. Maybe in school, and definitely later on in life too. Maybe you’ll come under pressure to cut corners when you’re doing homework or studying. Or maybe later on in life you’ll come under pressure to do unethical things, to cheat at work. Many of you may end up in companies where cheating at work is the only way to survive.
A lot of people have this belief that if you follow Jesus, then he’ll bless you and make things easy. But actually that’s often not the case. Look at what happened to Paul in this story. And think about Jesus too – he was doing God’s work, and he was tortured and murdered!
But it’s times like these when you remember: whose story is it? If it were Paul’s story, then the whole thing would’ve been a failure: he was beaten up a million times because he told people about Jesus, and in the end he got his head chopped off. If we look at Jesus’ story as the story of a man, then that was a failure too: he preached for about three years, then he was tortured, and he died naked and bleeding.
But it’s not our story; God is writing the story even as we run into bad times. Paul and Jesus were murdered, yes – but after Paul’s death, the Gospel spread all across the known world; after Jesus died, we were forever put right with God (and yes, God brought him back to life too!). God is writing the story, and he’s setting things right even as we speak, even if it really, really doesn’t look like it. I want to be part of that story of setting things right.
Who is writing the story? When things get bad, just remember that disaster did not stop Jesus from doing what had to be done – because he knew his Father was writing the story. Disaster did not stop Paul, because he knew who was writing the story – and he knew he would see the storyteller one day. Jesus is alive, and that fact gave Paul the guts he needed to do all this, to keep telling people that Jesus is real and he’s alive, even if it meant getting beaten up again and again.
So the take-home is not be more like Paul because he’s such a great guy. And it’s definitely not the fact that following Jesus means smooth sailing. But following Jesus means letting this truth change you: Jesus is alive, he’s writing your story. Nothing is going to stop him. Your story might get broken, it might get twisted, it might turn ugly – but Jesus is alive. He’s setting things right. Death couldn’t stop Jesus from taking us home, opposition couldn’t stop Paul from building the Church. God’s going to keep writing that story, because Jesus is alive. He’s alive for me, he’s alive for you. And that truth gives us the courage to do what’s right.