The Many Tribulations of Life
Summary: Serving the Lord involves both joy and suffering because the Kingdom of God is opposed as it expands in the world, and in us.
Right now most of us are rubbing up against the boundaries and limits of our own control and we don’t like it. We don’t like the loss of freedom. We don’t like the restrictions. We don’t like the isolation. This is not the life we would choose if given a choice. We are enduring, what the Scriptures call tribulation – affliction, trouble, anguish. And it’s not new to our generation. It has taken a new form, we all know this is a novel, or new, coronavirus. But tribulation has always been a part of human, and especially Christian, life.
One of the things we have seen throughout the book of Acts is a cycle of external resistance and internal conflict as the church expands. And, as we have said so many times, this all happened while the good and righteous people of the church were doing what God called them to do. The point is: knowing God, loving God, serving, following, worshipping God didn’t always make their life easier than their neighbors, sometimes it actually made their lives harder.
And yes, sometimes they saw God show up in amazing ways, sometimes they saw spectacular answers to prayer, sometimes the Spirit of God came upon them in miraculous ways, but they were also arrested, imprisoned, executed, driven out of town. They went through the same famines as the rest of their community, they had the same problems with the government, and more. And that says nothing of their own internal and personal issues.
Just because they said yes to Jesus doesn’t mean their anger problem was suddenly gone. It doesn’t mean they all suddenly stopped struggling with depression or doubt. It doesn’t mean their kids were suddenly well behaved or their marriage was instantly healed, or that their parents suddenly left them alone and gave them what they want.
Knowing God and finding forgiveness of sin absolutely made a difference – we read about the joy and rejoicing that happened for many, for the complete change in life that it brought for some – but it didn’t save you from all tribulation.
We’ll see that this morning as we look at the second half of Paul and Barnabas’ missionary journey – we’ll the tribulation they experienced and we’ll see them warn the newly established churches: you must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God. It might not be the truth you want to hear, but it is the truth. Life is hard, but God is good. We often want Him to save us from our difficulties, and instead He comes down and walks through them with us.
You remember, Paul and Barnabas were called by God, confirmed by their church, and empowered with the Holy Spirit to go out and spread the gospel. God was with them, even in hard times. Friends – the same thing is true for us. God is with you in the tribulation. God is with you as you stay home. God is with you when you pull on a mask and head out in public. When you have to stay six feet away from other people the Holy Spirit is in you, fellowshipping with you, and even coming up on you – giving you the strength you need.
That’s the message this morning: life is full of tribulations, but God is good, and He is there, so keep pressing on, do the things He has called you to do. It will hurt at times, it will be costly at times, but He is with you and will honor you and you will see things that could only happen through His strength.
So, let’s turn our attention back to Paul and Barnabas and see what we can learn about God and ourselves from them.
When we left things off last week they were in Antioch, now they’ve traveled roughly 90 miles, about a week’s journey on foot to the city of Iconium.
It’s an ancient city, inhabited as early as 3000BC, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Iconium was a center of agriculture and commerce in the province of Galatia, which you’ve heard of because you know Paul later wrote the book of Galatians, a letter to the churches of this region.
Today, Iconium is known as Konya. It’s the 7th largest city in Turkey with a population of over 2M and it’s a popular tourist destination. I share all of that to remind you that even though these names and places aren’t familiar to you – they’re still real. The population of Fairfax County is 1.1M people. So, the city of Konya has twice as many people as our county, and most of us have never heard of it, but it’s a real place, and though it was no where near that size 2000 years ago, it was still an important city when DC was just a swampy basin on the Potomac.
Acts 14:1 Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren. 3 Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.
4 But the multitude of the city was divided: part sided with the Jews, and part with the apostles. 5 And when a violent attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them, 6 they became aware of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding region. 7 And they were preaching the gospel there.
Tribulation takes the form of opposition in Iconium. As the apostles attempt to tell people about Christ, others come along and poison the minds of their listeners.
All of which helps us see that life is really driven by the mind – you do what you do because you think what you think.
Paul and Barnabas share the gospel and it’s attractive to some people, actually, a great multitude. But others resist, and try to talk people out of the good news – poisoning their minds. This is something we have seen several times in the book of Acts – people trying to keep other people from the Gospel.
Friends, this is nothing new. It happened in the very first pages of Scripture – God spoke to Adam and Eve, clearly communicated with them, and then the serpent came along and challenged everything – asking, “has God really said?” And challenging what God said would happen if they ate from the tree.
I want you to know, it is entirely possible that there are people in your life today – physically or virtually, trying to talk you out of, or away from, the very thing that God is calling you to. And you have to decide – to whom will I listen?
Today there are all kinds of gospels out there, all kinds of “perspectives” on God, Jesus, and Christianity. You have to watch which wells you are drinking from and make sure you’re not being poisoned.
You have to be careful, be discerning, about where you get your information, especially on spiritual subjects. There are many people entrusting their eternal existence to the kind of advice they get from Oprah and the eclectic form of spirituality she has cobbled together by taking little bits from here and there interviewing a Baptist pastor one day and quoting a Buddhist monk another. I’m sure she’s a very nice person, but the spiritual salad she’s offering is poison.
I’m here to advocate for the Word of God in your life – that if you want to know about God, you should turn to the Scriptures which He has given us, and not just the opinions of men or women.
This is why we put so much emphasis on the Bible here at City Gates – in men’s ministry, women’s ministry, in youth group and children’s ministry – we’re always trying to get back to Scripture and ask – what has God said, what does He want us to know? Because, all week long we’re surrounded by other voices, and whether they mean to or not, whether it’s their intentional goal or not, some of them are poisoning the pure water that God is offering you.
You have your own copy of Scripture. You have the ability to pray directly to God. Make the most of those privileges and nourish your soul instead of poisoning it with the voices of this world. And as you do, you’ll notice something – God gives the ability to recognize and confront the poison when it comes.
Which is what we see Paul and Barnabas doing here in Iconium. They preach the gospel, others resist and try to sabotage their efforts, but they stand their ground, rebutting and refuting the arguments and lies of their enemies, which is important for you to know.
Listen – Christian belief, Christian doctrine can withstand inquiry, challenge, and questioning. There is no need to be afraid of being challenged on your beliefs. You might be asked something you can’t answer, or challenged with something you’ve never considered before, but that doesn’t mean there’s not an answer.
It doesn’t mean other people haven’t spent a long time thinking about the question or issue that you were just hit with. It’s OK to question the faith. God can take it. Paul and Barnabas were able to speak boldly and bear witness even as they were being challenged – they didn’t run away and hide when people questioned what they taught about God.
Unfortunately, when their opponents realized they couldn’t win this war intellectually, they lashed out physically and developed a plot to kill the disciples.
At that point, Paul and Barnabas moved on to the next city:
Acts 14:8 And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9 This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked. 11 Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.
Lystra is 20 miles south of Iconium. It was home to a Roman military post, and those of you who know your Bibles, know that this is the home of Timothy, who will become something of a protégé for Paul joining him in ministry.
According to local legend the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, or Jupiter and Mercury, if we use their Roman names, once visited this region disguised as men seeking hospitality but they were rejected and ignored by everyone except a poor man and his wife. As a result they sent a devastating flood to the area that wiped everyone and everything but rewarded the poor couple with a nice new home.
The town folk aren’t going to let it happen again, so the priest brings out some bulls to sacrifice.
Acts 14:14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, 16 who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” 18 And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.
Paul and Barnabas want to be super clear – there is nothing special about them as men. All the praise, honor, and attention goes to Jesus, they are just ambassadors, envoys, messengers.
And then they start to explain their message – why did they come all this way? It was to tell people what God has done for them.
But notice their approach. In Antioch, at the synagogue, Paul explained Jesus by reviewing Jewish history, focusing on what God had done up to this point and how Jesus fit in.
Here he’s speaking to people who don’t know the God of the Bible, so He starts with God as Creator. In technical terms we call this natural theology. It’s the idea that the entire world, what we call nature – tells us there is a god. This didn’t all just come from nothing and so, people have always sought ways to explain it and figure it out.
The people Paul is talking to tried to explain the world by referring to a pantheon of Greek gods including Zeus and Hermes. But now Paul is encouraging them to turn away from useless things like sacrificing a bull to those gods, because it’s not necessary. God has provided a sacrifice for Himself – Jesus.
But notice this: Paul points people to God through Creation, through the natural world.
Sometimes it can feel like there’s a war between science and religion, but there’s no need for that. Paul says, “Go, look at the stars, look around at the earth, dive down into the seas and explore them – study the animals, investigate particles, waves, electrons and quarks; discover elements and compounds, discover laws and properties, and various uses for them – and let it all point you to God.”
There is no conflict between observational science and the Christian faith. There’s nothing about Christianity that conflicts with the belief that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or that the speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second. There’s nothing about the Christian faith that denies, in any way, the gestation period of a human baby is nine months, but a horse carries it’s baby for 11-12 months and a dog or cat only takes 2. This is all observational science – we see the world the way it is and marvel at it.
The conflict only comes in when you insist upon marrying secularism to science. That is, to insist that there is no supernatural reason for all these things, there is no unseen cause behind it all, insisting that it just banged into existence out of nothing.
To the contrary, God has left His fingerprints all over the universe and wants us to find them and discover Him as a result.
Don’t let questions about the age of the universe or how it all came to be distract you from the fact that it is! Good Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians have all sorts of internal debates about those things. Don’t get bogged down there – understand the different theories, be informed and educated, but don’t get wrapped around the axle on them – look around at the world you see and let it speak to you about God – that’s what He made it to do!
Of course, you’re not going to figure everything out on your own by just looking, you also have to listen – that’s why He gave us His Word. You need both, Scripture and science. Observe the world with a scientific and a theological eye and you’ll discover there is a God who, Paul says in verse 17, does
good, [and gives] us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”
Look: God desires good for you, and that is why He is constantly calling you to come closer and closer to Him and has made a way for you to do that through Jesus.
Paul is explaining all of this to the people in Lystra and once again there is opposition, tribulation, difficulty in doing the good things that God is calling him to do.
Acts 14:19 Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. 20 However, when the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and went into the city. And the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe.
Once Paul and Barnabas deny being any sort of deity, the Jews are able to turn the hearts and minds of the people against them. They probably said Paul and Barnabas were doing these things through the power of demons and witchcraft – that they were dangerous and needed to be stopped.
So Paul goes from god to fraud. He was stoned – probably not to death, but enough that he was left for dead. And then, check this out – he gets up and walks away, under his own power! The next day he sets out on a 60-mile journey to Derbe.
Now, the fact that he got up from all of that feels like a minor miracle, right? It must have been rough. But the fact that he kept on with the mission feels nearly impossible. I mean, stop and think about that – what did Paul know about Jesus that instead of saying, “alright, that’s enough, we gave it a good shot, we can call that a success, but maybe it’s time to head on home” – instead of saying that, he gets up and keeps going!
Now, I have to ask: is that the kind of faith you have? Is that the kind of faith I have? Do I know the same Jesus? Because, He’s the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
Paul faced tribulation, difficulty, suffered real physical harm while doing what God called him to do, and he kept on going!
Friends, I don’t think this is the Christianity most people talk about. But it’s here, in the Bible. And it could be here, in our lives too. As we have been saying, life is hard, but God is good. He knows what we’re going through, and He is with us, strengthening us and empowering us – never leaving us or forsaking us.
So, with God as His strength, Paul moves on to the next city.
Acts 14:21 And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
They stayed at Derbe probably longer than anywhere else on the trip and it is interesting that this is the only place where we don’t notice them facing a lot of opposition. Instead, we see that they made “many disciples” and then they headed right back into the problem spots they had recently left and encouraged the new brothers and sisters in the Lord that they must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
Stay away from the false Gospel that says that if you love Jesus enough you won’t have to live like He did. Jesus suffered, He was tired, He was hungry, He was rejected by people and betrayed. But some people will tell you that if you keep the right list of laws and rules for your life and have enough “faith” you won’t have to do any suffering yourself.
Friends, that’s a lie, it’s the poisoning of the mind instead of the teaching of the Bible.
Jesus taught that difficulties would come, and He would get us through them, often by using other people in the church to teach us, warn us, and walk with us – exactly what we see Paul doing here as he establishes and encourages the new churches as well as the one that originally sent them out.
Acts 14:23 So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. 24 And after they had passed through Pisidia, they came to Pamphylia. 25 Now when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. 26 From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed.
27 Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 So they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
Friends, this is what happens when you follow God. Tribulations still come. Life is still hard. You don’t suddenly get a pass that lets you escape the hard stuff, you get a Friend who walks with you through it.
And that Friend, Jesus, often uses His people to share this good news with others. So, look for the good in your life. Look for the places where God is speaking, where God is showing up. It’s easy to see the hard stuff, it’s easy to see the difficulty. But where is the good? Where is God?
And, where does He want to send you to be His ambassador? How can you make your home, your neighborhood, the store, or your workplace different because you’re there and you know Jesus? How can He work through you to be a blessing to others, even if you’re opposed?
And, where is the poison in your life? Where is the poison coming into your house? What affect are other voices having in your life or the lives of the people you love? How much time are you spending with voices that do not speak the truth and actually lead your heart and mind away from Truth with a capital T? How can you confront it and resist it?
I wish it wasn’t true, but life isn’t always a playground – it’s hard. You must fight for yourself, for your spouse, for your children, for your friends, you must strengthen them, encourage them, and warn them. You must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.
And in order to do all of that, you must stay plugged in directly to Jesus and the Bible. Allow Him to instruct you, direct you and strengthen you. Allow Him to encourage you and breathe life into your soul.
Then, pray for one another, send texts, send emails, call someone, go drop off a little blessing bomb on someone’s doorstep – find some way to strengthen, encourage, and warn each other – yes, we face tribulations, but we face them together, with God.
We need Jesus, we need the Word, and we need each other – thank God He has provided everything for us.