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"Harvest Time in Iconium!"

MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 23, 2011 FROM ACTS 14:1 -7

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          This week we return to our series of messages from the book of Acts.  We are now into the second half of the book which is dominated by the missionary exploits of the apostle Paul.  We saw a few weeks ago that Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the church at Antioch and went first to preach the gospel on the island of Cyprus before arriving at Pisidian Antioch for more ministry.  This morning, we want to look into Luke’s account of the third stop on Paul’s first missionary journey—a city called Iconium, which is located about 100 miles south from where they were.  [MAP 44-07] Iconium was on the main travel route and was a center of commerce in the region that is now part of central Turkey.  Let’s read of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Iconium as we turn to Luke’s account beginning with chapter 14, verse one.  Luke writes, “1 Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. 5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel.

          Paul and Barnabas’ ministry at Iconium divides into four fairly equal sections.  First, we see the unusual responsiveness of the people in this city, second, the unrelenting persecution that followed the preached word—third, the uncommon perseverance of the apostles and fourth and finally, their unapologetic flight to their next destination.  First, we notice the unusual responsiveness of the people of Iconium.  Verse one says they spoke in the Jewish synagogue, not just “the synagogue.”  He makes this distinction because by this time—perhaps 15 years after the resurrection of Christ, the church was no longer considered just another sect of Judaism, it was now recognized as a different, distinct faith and so Luke here writes of a “Jewish synagogue.” 

Luke says that Paul and Barnabas “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greek believed.”  The words in the original for the number of new believers indicate many, many people and they can also be translated as “a great multitude.”  A great multitude of people are converted in Iconium.  This is the only time in Acts Luke uses this word and its only one of three usages in the New Testament.  That’s remarkable when you consider how many times Luke records apostles preaching to crowds.  This is perhaps the most impressive harvest of souls experienced by the apostle Paul in Acts.  Any evangelist will tell you that, for whatever reason, some harvest fields are riper than others and in Iconium; the Holy Spirit had clearly gone before Paul and Barnabas.  Many of the Jews and Greeks had been prepared to hear the gospel.  It’s appropriate to wonder, “Why does Luke, who is so fond of speaking of converts who repent, here speak of them as those who “believed?”  The answer is not--because these people didn’t repent.  Luke has by this time established that when people savingly believe the gospel, they repent of their sins.  That connection is firmly established.  Repentance is the Biblical expression of saving faith.  Faith without repentance and the works that flow from it--is dead faith—that’s mirrors James’ discussion of faith.  By this time, Luke has combined faith and repentance so consistently that he gives the reader credit to know that believing the gospel is expressed by repenting of your sin.

          The big issue is--this was an unusual responsiveness to the gospel displayed by the Jews and Greeks of Iconium.  This made a significant dent in Satan’s kingdom--as so many lost people are delivered from spiritual darkness into the light of Christ. A large number of both Jews and Greeks come to faith.  However, as is so often the case in Acts and in church history, the Holy Spirit is only a few steps ahead of the Adversary and Luke records his influence in verse two.  But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.”  Not all the Jews in the synagogue believe and those who don’t aggressively oppose Paul and Barnabas.  These Jews weren’t simply irritated by the message or the huge response it received—they were seething over this and we know this because of what Luke includes in the second section of the text. That is---the unrelenting persecution that followed the word.  These Jews actually went to the Gentiles—these (in their mind) unclean, hell-bound “dogs” and worked to incite them against these apostles and to join with them against Paul and Barnabas. It reminds us of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem who looked to a Gentile named Pilate to help them execute Jesus. 

          Luke doesn’t tell us anything specific about the opposition this unlikely team caused, other than the slander they leveled against Paul and Barnabas.  One reason for Luke’s silence is because he doesn’t have to tell us—opposition from the enemy generally looks about the same when he is opposing a genuine movement of the Spirit. One sign of enemy attack against a movement of God, as seen here in Iconium and virtually every case, the opposition initially comes from within.  It comes from people who claim to be God’s people.  This pattern is seen with nearly perfect consistency in Scripture.  Moses got no opposition from the surrounding Canaanites as they wandered in the wilderness.  No, it was from his fellow Jews.  Moses had men like Korah, who in Numbers 16 rebelled against him before being swallowed up by the earth.  When he wasn’t slaughtering the Philistines, David got along pretty well with them—albeit under false pretenses.  His most serious opposition came from within Judaism.  First it was King Saul who repeatedly tried to kill him and later it was his own son, Absalom.  Likewise, the prophets weren’t stoned by the pagan nations around Israel—even though they sometimes railed against them.  They were stoned and sawn in two and otherwise persecuted by their fellow Jews and an inordinate number of them were killed in the religious capital, Jerusalem.  That’s why, in anticipation of his own death Jesus says in Luke 13:33, “33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’”

          In the case of Jesus, Rome left him alone for the most part.  It was his own people--the Jewish leadership—Pharisees and the Sadducees who opposed him most vehemently.  Opposition to a clear movement of God almost always comes from within—at least initially.  When the Reformers rediscovered the gospel, it was the church who opposed them, not the world.  When the evangelists of the Great Awakening in England and America chose to adopt the then new practice of preaching in the open air, it was the established church that opposed them, sometimes violently in spite of the fact that God was using that ministry to save thousands of people.  Luke doesn’t tell us why these Jews were so zealous in their opposition that they were willing to enlist Gentiles in their fight.  One reason we know from First Corinthians 1:18, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…”  People don’t like to be told they are sinners.  They don’t like to be told there is only one hope for them and it’s a bloodied sacrifice named Jesus who died a criminal’s death 2000 years ago.

          We know from other instances in the Bible when God was powerfully moving--there are several other factors that motivated the opposition.  First, it’s because God was doing something that caused the opposition to feel threatened in some way.  With King Saul, he feared for his throne with David.  Absalom wanted to be King and his Father threatened his ambitions.  With Moses, the Jews’ unbelief in the wilderness caused them to feel their lives and comfort were threatened. The Pharisees believed Jesus threatened their authority and position in society, both of which were idols for them.  These Jews in Iconium probably also felt threatened.  Perhaps they looked at all these Gentiles who were coming to faith in “their” God of Abraham and they felt their unique status as the chosen people was threatened.  Maybe they felt Paul—with all these converts would come in and shake up the way they were running the synagogue.  We don’t know specifically, but virtually every other example of enemy opposition in Scripture tells us that those who opposed God felt threatened by his activity.  Second, and related to the first is--the opposition is frequently sanctimonious.  That is—it hides behind a veil of false spirituality---it has a false piety to it.

          Saul wanted to be seen in the company of the saintly Samuel in order to gain credibility.  Absalom promised the Jews that he would be far more just and fair than his father David.  In Numbers 12, Moses was opposed by his own siblings, Aaron and Miriam because he had married …a Cushite woman.  We aren’t sure what was allegedly wrong with that, but it clearly offended his siblings' sanctimonious spiritual sensibilities.  They also justified their attack on Moses on the grounds that God had not only spoken through Moses but also through them—they too had a connection to God.  The worst offenders in the sanctimonious department were the Pharisees, who loved to wear their long robes and pray lengthy public prayers and be seen as men of God.  They initially tried to ground their attacks against Jesus in Scripture.  Sanctimonious people frequently misuse Scripture to oppose a clear movement of God.  They stopped using Scripture against Jesus when it became clear that he could tie them into little knots through his mastery of the Old Testament.  In John 16, Jesus warns his apostles of the sanctimony of those who will oppose them in their ministries.  He says in verse two, “2 They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. [That’s sanctimony] 

Another quality of these Jews that we see in the text and is consistent with other patterns of spiritual opposition found in the Bible is—they were tenacious.  They weren’t about to walk away from this fight.  They were willing to call in the Gentile “dogs” to bolster their strength and they actively poisoned their minds against Paul and Barnabas.  Today, we would say they “trashed them” with lies and slander.  Later, as we will see, they aren’t willing to halt their opposition at anything less than the murder of Paul and Barnabas.  They weren’t content to just run them out of town, they wanted them dead.   It’s not difficult to see why the tenacity of the opposition here in Iconium is so much greater than Paul and Barnabas had experienced previously.  It’s because the harvest is so much greater.  Satan, who is behind these flesh and blood attacks, took a big hit in Iconium, so he hits back…hard.  Perhaps in Satan is reminded of just what a powerful tool Paul is in the hand of God and he wants to cut him off at the knees.

          A final quality of those who oppose what God is doing is spiritual blindness.  This is perhaps at the core of spiritual opposition.  In the midst of a genuine movement of God, those people who oppose it either deliberately choose not to see, or are simply blind to the plain facts.  It was clear that Moses, David and the prophets were God’s men doing God’s work for anyone who really wanted to know.  God attended the ministry of Jesus with signs and wonders as no one had ever done before to witness to the fact that he was indeed the promised Messiah.  Many believed in him simply on account of the miracles.  You had to be spiritually blind not to see his Messianic credentials.  This is also true here in Iconium.  It says of Paul and Barnabas that “[The] Lord… bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.  It seems never to have occurred to these unbelieving Jews to spend a few moments reflecting on these signs and wonders.  You know, we’ve never seen those in this synagogue before…ever…and the fruit of it seems to be good—people being healed and delivered…I wonder if this is from God?” You don’t have to be a spiritual savant to figure that one out. The truth is, they were either blind or chose not to see the clear fingerprints of God on Paul and Barnabas.  Paul says in Second Corinthians 4:4, “…the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.   

          In a third section of this text, Luke details the uncommon perseverance of the apostles.  The ironic turn in this narrative is in verse three.  Luke has just described the opposition of both the Jews and the Gentiles and you expect to read next, “So Paul and Barnabas were forced to flee Iconium.”  Instead, in response to this assault by both the Jews and Gentiles, Luke records, “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.”   The way Luke words this, he’s not saying, “In spite of the opposition, they remained and spoke boldly.  No, the wording implies, “BECAUSE they were so strongly opposed, they remained a long time, speaking boldly…”  Here we see the grace of God in Paul as Luke portrays him, NOT as someone who shrinks from a fight, but instead--when he is able, he boldly counterattacks.  Paul says, “There is strong opposition—we will have to stay here a long time.” The grace of God gives great courage to Paul.  It reminds me of First Thessalonians 2:2 where Paul says, “2 But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.”  Paul was not deterred by the opposition in part because he expected it.  He, like the other apostles had been warned that opposition would come.  Jesus said in John 15:20, “20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…”   If the world persecuted Jesus, it only follows that they will persecute those who clearly represent him.

          They not only remained in the face of persecution, they preached “boldly for the Lord.”  They were clearly not intimidated by the opposition.  They answered tenacious opposition with bold preaching.  This is not unlike the ministry of the foremost preacher of the Great Awakening, George Whitfield.  At one point in 1742, he wanted to preach right in the belly of the beast of England, so he went to a town called Moorfields at the time of one of their raucous, bawdy outdoor festivals.  The most vile sinners in the city showed up and in the midst of all their godless revelry and lewdness, Whitfield set up his portable pulpit.  In a letter to a friend about this ministry in the midst of much opposition he writes about his preaching one day at noon, “My pulpit was fixed on the opposite side [of them] and…Judging that, like St. Paul I should now be called …to fight the beasts at Ephesus, I preached…You may guess that there was some noise among the craftsmen, and that I was honored with having a few stones, dirt, rotten eggs and pieces of dead cats thrown at me…My soul was indeed among the lions; but the greatest part of my congregation …seemed for a while to be turned into lambs.  This encouraged me…that I would preach again at six o’clock.[1] 

Sometimes God calls us to minister in the midst of great opposition.  We know it was clearly God’s plan for Paul and Barnabas to preach in the midst of this opposition because he powerfully confirms and blesses their ministry.  Verse three says, “granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.  In the midst of the opposition, God is healing people and throwing demons out of people and who knows what other supernatural ministry is being done through Paul and Barnabas?  The spiritual opposition does not keep God from doing his thing.  Today, we are conditioned to think if something we are doing is really difficult, it must not be from God.  That may be the case in some instances, but it’s often far more Biblical to assume that the presence of opposition means you are doing something right.  This does not justify insensitive, fleshly ministry that unnecessarily offends people, but often the presence of opposition means that God is at work.  That’s probably why Paul determined to stay a long time…BECAUSE the opposition was so tenacious.

          A fourth and final section of the text describes Paul and Barnabas in their unapologetic flight.  After Luke tells us the city was divided over this ministry in verse four, he says in verses five and six, “5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country,”  Paul and Barnabas are willing to endure high levels of opposition, but when their lives are threatened, they flee.  The reason is not because they weren’t willing to die, but because they knew God had also called them to minister in other places. A large number of converts had been won in Iconium—a good sized church had been planted.  Paul and Barnabas had done their job.  Once their lives were threatened, it would have been a display of foolishness to stick around, not courage.   

Sometimes, it’s God’s will to walk away from persecution but often its his will to stay and dig your heals in.  If you are in a job where you are being harassed for your faith, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are to leave the job.  You aren’t free to leave the job until you receive some indication from the Lord that his purpose for having you there is finished.  This is because what is of utmost importance is not your comfort, but completing your mission there.  No good soldier would say anything different.  And if you are serious about finding his whether he is finished with you in that place, he will make that clear to you.  Incidentally, if you are being persecuted in some context, don’t ask a lukewarm, North American believer what to do because he’ll tell you to get out of there every time.  Ask someone who is deep enough in the Lord to be able to recognize that being in a very hard place may be God’s will for you. 

Paul says in Second Corinthians 4:17, “17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.  Don’t miss Paul’s flow of thought.  The afflictions of this life—no matter how hard they may be, are momentary and light in light of eternity and they play a valuable role in preparing us for heaven and the incomparable glories found there.  The way they do that is--they force us to look with faith to God and the eternal realm—God’s glory and the consummation of his plan for us and this world.  That’s where our hope is and as we look ahead to those things, we are being prepared for heaven.  Why do you think so many of the negro spirituals are about heaven?  It’s because the slaves didn’t have anything here in this “transient, seen” world. Their hope was in heaven. Afflictions and opposition from the enemy are not evil intrusions in our lives, they are necessary interventions intended by God to prepare the believer for heaven.

As we close, let’s tighten our focus on one of the implications of this text.  That is-- if you are in a fruit-bearing ministry, especially evangelism, expect to be hit hard by the evil one and his human accomplices.  The truth implied in much of Scripture is that if there is no opposition—if there is no spiritual attack, you are doing very little in your life or ministry to storm the gates of hell.  We must see spiritual opposition as inevitable.  That is very important because if we aren’t expecting it, we will get discouraged as we wonder things like, “Why is this so hard?  Why have three of my major appliances broken down in the same week?  Why have the temptations in my life been so much stronger than usual?”  The discouragement that comes from asking God why your life is so difficult when you are in living and ministering for Christ is lessened if we just expect spiritual opposition.  We must be clear—not every calamity is an attack of the devil and it’s possible to find opposition, not because you are faithful to Christ, but because the way you live and minister is so insensitive and unbiblical.  We mustn’t confuse spiritual attack with people being repulsed by our lovelessness.

We must remember that this is not only true on an individual level.  If a church is beginning to move out for God and actively engaging the enemy, purging Satan’s kingdom of souls, opposition will come.  If the ministry is from God, the opposition will come from within, it will come because someone’s idol is being threatened, it will try to justify itself on spiritual or Biblical grounds, it will be tenacious and it will be rooted in spiritual blindness.  In the midst of any opposition—whether individual or church—we must look to Christ for our strength and in the midst of the crucible know that God is using it to prepare us for heaven.  May God give us grace as individuals and as a church to live and minister faithfully and fearlessly in the midst of spiritual opposition.


[1] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitfield, Vol 2. Banner of Truth, 1980, p. 116

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