Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. ~ Acts 14:21b-22
As Paul and Barnabas’ visit to Lystra concluded, we are told how some Jews from Antioch and Iconium came and won the crowd over against Paul. They stoned Paul and, thinking him dead, dragged him out of the city. Interestingly, “after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.” (14:20) God still had work for Paul to do.
The visit to Derbe is mentioned only in verse 21. Then Paul and Barnabas backtrack through the cities they have visited, including Lystra, Iconium and Antioch where Paul had been stoned (Lystra) and where Paul and Barnabas had been persecuted. The purpose of the return visits was to “strengthen the disciples and encourage them to remain true to the faith” (v22). They appointed elders for the churches and then returned to Antioch where they “reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” (v 27)
The church is about winning people to Christ; but it is primarily about strengthening, nurturing, and encouraging those who already believe. God works through the church to equip us believers for Kingdom work; to go out into the world as the Holy Spirit would guide us and allow God to work through us to win the lost to Christ. The church is not premised on “If we build it the unsaved will come,” paraphrasing a line from the movie Field of Dreams. Rather, the church is premised on God’s desire that modern-day apostles go forth from the church to seek and save the lost according to His will.
We modern-day apostles can learn much from Paul and Barnabas. Their message hit home with people; it hit home so strongly that many persecuted them for their determination to stand firmly upon God’s Word. Faced with such severe persecution, they did not give up; they pressed on. This was not of their own accord, but of the Holy Spirit. Paul later wrote these words in his letter to the Romans:
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. ~ Romans 4:3-5
When we speak God’s Truth and face persecution because of it, we must rejoice. God is using us. What an honor and privilege that is!
Ponder this: I must stand firm on God’s Word. When am I most tempted to weaken?
My prayer for today: Heavenly Father, help me to press on in the face of persecution according to Your good and perfect will. Let me be Your minister of the Gospel and let me be a productive and useful member of Your church. In Jesus’ name – AMEN.