Boldness in the Face of Persecution – Acts 14:1-28

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

March 12, 2006

Boldness in the Face of Persecution

Acts 14:1-28


How do you respond when you are trying to do the right thing, but others mock you for it? What do you do if they escalate and the verbal abuse turns into physical abuse? This morning we will see the example of Paul & Barnabas when they endured severe persecution while taking the gospel into the areas of Lycaonia & Pisidia which are in what is now central Turkey. Such severe persecution against Christians is not as common in our own nation it is in other countries. However, even here, unbelievers can and often do respond negatively to those who proclaim the gospel. There is much for us to learn from the example of Paul and Barnabas.

Recall from last week that Paul & Barnabas had been set apart by the Holy Spirit and then sent by the church in Antioch on a missionary journey to the Island of Cyrpus and then into what is now central Turkey. After arriving on the island of Cyprus and ministering in the city of Salamis, they traveled through the island until they reached Paphos on the western shore. This is where they encounter their first opposition in the form of Elymas the magician who sought to turn the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, away from the faith he was hearing about from Paul. Paul finally rebuked this false prophet by exposing his evil character and then physically blinding him. The proconsul then did believe the gospel and history records that his children and grandchildren became followers of Christ.

Paul & Barnabas then sailed to Perga and then traveled about 100 miles NNE to Pisidian Antioch where there was a generally positive initial response to Paul’s presentation of the gospel in the synagogue to the Jews and Gentile proselytes.  The following week many of the Jews reacted negatively to the gospel being proclaimed to Gentiles who were not proselytes to Judaism. Due to their rejection of the gospel, Paul then turned his attention to the Gentiles who responded with great rejoicing and then spread the word of the Lord throughout the region. This incited the jealousy of the Jews even more so that they eventually were able to persuade the city officials both directly and through their wives to have Paul and Barnabas kicked out of their city. Paul and Barnabas shake the dust off their feet and then go on to Iconium filled with joy and the Holy Spirit as they continued their mission. We pick up the continuing story in 14:1.

Ministry in Iconium (14:1-7)

Acts 14:1 (NASB) And it came about that in Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. 2 But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles, and embittered them against the brethren. 3 Therefore they spent a long time [there] speaking boldly [with reliance] upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. 4 But the multitude of the city was divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. 5 And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, 6 they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel.

When they arrive in Iconium, they follow the same practice as in the previous cities by preaching in the Synagogue first. The initial response here was even better than it had been in Pisidian Antioch for many Jews and Greeks believed the gospel. However, the opposition soon organized.

Our text says that the source of this opposition was from the Jews who “disbelieved” which is from apeiqew / apeitheô which also carries the sense of “disobeyed.” It is the idea that their disbelief was demonstrated by their actions. They also “stirred up” opposition. This is from kakow / kakoô which means to “embitter” or “to poison.” They were doing their best to turn people against Paul & Barnabas, but they just became more bold in proclaiming the gospel. The Lord also granted for them to do many signs and wonders in that city. Paul & Barnabas continued to minister in Iconium until the opposition tried to form a mob to stone them. They then left for Lystra which is about 20 miles SSE in the region of Lycaonia, and then from there they went on to the city of Derbe which is another 27 miles (60 km) to the SW.

Their actions and reactions in this city show that there must always be a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit in guiding us to the best course of action in a given situation. Neither Paul nor Barnabas would let simple opposition dissuade them from the ministry that God had appointed them to carry out. Opposition at that level actually made them more bold in proclaiming the gospel. Such should also be true of us. Remember that Jesus warned that those who followed him would be slandered, so it should not surprise us when those who oppose us seek to get their way by lying about us and our message. That is never a reason to fear or run away. It is a time to be even more bold in proclaiming the truth.

However, as physical violence becomes part of the persecution, the actions of the apostles will vary. We already saw that back in Acts 12 when Peter fled Jerusalem when the angel released him from prison whereas in Acts 5 when the same thing happened he went right back to the Temple to preach according to the Lord’s command. Here in Acts 14 there is no specific command for Paul & Barnabas to stay, so they went on to the next city. That would be a principle for us to follow. Unless the Lord gives you specific direction, you are not required to stay in a place to suffer physical persecution. Perhaps there may be other reasons to stay, but you do have the freedom to go to another place.

A couple of quick footnotes for those interested in minor details. Note that verse 4 references both Paul & Barnabas as “apostles.” This would be a general usage of the term meaning an authorized messenger or representative. Paul and Barnabas were both sent and authorized by the church in Antioch. [Or others suggest it could also be used in the sense of an apostolic party, with Paul being the apostle].

This passage also shows the great accuracy of Luke in his recounting of what happened. Liberal scholars used to scoff at Luke’s accuracy in this passage (and therefore the scriptural authority of his writings) until William Ramsay’s careful study of the mater revealed that Iconium was a part of the Lycaonian region from A.D. 37-72. Before and after those dates it was a part of the region of Phrygia. This explains why the civic leaders in Pisidian Antioch were not able to force Paul & Barnabas to go even farther than Iconium, for at that time it was out of the jurisdiction of those in Phrygia.

Ministry in Lystra (14:8-20a)

Healing & Response (8-18)

Verses 8-18 records the initial response to their ministry in Lystra. 8 And at Lystra there was sitting a certain man, without strength in his feet, lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9 This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze upon him, and had seen that he had faith to be made well, 10 said with a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he leaped up and [began] to walk. 11 And when the multitudes saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” 12 And they [began] calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose [temple] was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. 16 “And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; 17 and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. ” 18 And [even] saying these things, they with difficulty restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.”

These verses record two of the three events that Luke cites in Paul’s ministry in Lystra. The first was the healing of the lame man who had never walked. This was similar to Peter healing the lame man in Acts 3. It was instantaneous and complete. The second event was the pagan response to this healing. They respond with great rejoicing, but since they were pagans, they also concluded that Paul and Barnabas must be gods in human form.

Zeus (also known as Jupiter) is the supreme god in the Greek pantheon and Hermes (also known as Mercury) was the messenger god. Since Paul was the major spokesman, they conclude that he is Hermes which meant that Barnabas must have been Zeus. Now while it may seem reasonable for a pagan to conclude that people that can perform such miracles must be gods of some sort, there is a particular reason that they think they are these two particular gods.

The Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – AD 17) recorded an ancient myth that Zeus and Hermes had visited the Phrygia region disguised as mortals. In this myth, Zeus and Hermes were turned away by the people at the border except for one old couple named Philemon and Baucis. Sometime later a flood killed everyone there except that couple. Their cottage was turned into a magnificent temple in which they served as priest and priestess until their deaths, after which they were turned into stately trees.

The memory of this myth would have been great motivation for them not to repeat such an offense again, so the priest of Zeus makes arrangements to make a sacrifice to Barnabas and Paul whom they believe are Zeus and Hermes. Because the Lycaonian language was unknown to Paul & Barnabas they did not understand what was going on until it was just about to happen. They then were only able to stop the sacrifices with much effort explaining that they were also mere men. They pointed them once again to the true God using the common arguments of God’s actions in nature that they would have understood.

One of the reasons that missions work is often so difficult is that there are so many problems related to language & culture that cause confusion & misunderstanding. We understand this because we live in a very multicultural society and most if not all of us have stumbled into some of the problems created by language barriers and cultural differences. These problems can be greatly aggravated when the missionary tries to transfer his culture to the people he is working with instead of keeping the focus on just presenting the gospel and calling the converts to follow Christ. Paul was careful about this and kept his focus on presenting the hope of eternal life through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He was very careful not to call Gentiles into following the cultural practices he learned as a Pharisee. Instead, Paul would set aside his cultural practices when among the Gentiles and live as they did as long as it did not violate or compromise the commands of God (1 Cor. 9:19-23). This is one of the reasons that the disbelieving and even some believing Jews opposed Paul so strongly. To treat Gentiles and the non-moral aspects of their culture as equal before God removed the superiority of the Jews and their culture. We must follow Paul’s example and be careful that we are focused on calling people to become followers of the Lord Jesus Christ and not followers of our own culture.

The third event Luke records about their ministry in Iconium is recorded in verses 19 & 20.

Opposition & Stoning (19-20a)

19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. 20 But while the disciples stood around him, he arose and entered the city.

Luke is careful to note that it is the unbelieving Jews that are the instigators of this incident. Their hatred for Paul was so great that those from Iconium had traveled 20 miles (32 Km) and those from Antioch had traveled over 100 miles (160 km) for the purpose of opposing Paul & Barnabas. Luke does not give the specifics of how they did it, but they “won over the multitudes.” From their pervious actions in Antioch and Iconium it would have certainly included lying and false accusations. This resulted in them stoning Paul and dragging him outside of the city and leaving him for dead. Such is the fickle nature of people and especially large crowds. The same people that were calling him a god now try to stone him to death. But after awhile, Paul got back up and went back to the city.

Note that Luke does not say that Paul was dead, but only that Paul was left for dead. Remember that Luke has shown himself to be very careful in the details of what he writes, so it is probable that he was only unconscious. Those who had stoned him supposed that he was dead. “Supposed” is nomizw / nomizô which is usually used in the sense of supposing something that is not true. It is used that way in Acts 7:25; 8:20; and 16:27.

Some have equated this event with Paul’s statements in 2 Cor. 12:2-5 in which Paul recounts being caught up to the third heaven (the dwelling place of God) 14 years earlier. However, the two events do not coordinate with each other. 2 Corinthians was written about AD 56, so the event described there would have occurred about AD 42. However, Paul being in Lystra in Acts 14 occurred about AD 47 or 48. But even if the time line could somehow be adjusted, Paul says in 2 Cor. 12 that he did not know if he was in or out of the body, that is, alive or dead.

After Paul gets up, he is bold in returning to the city. He knew he could trust God. But then you also have to wonder what would have been the reaction of those who had stoned him and thought that they had killed him? I can only imagine that they must have become quite scared themselves. They had seen Paul heal a man who had been lame from birth and had thought he was a god. Now they stone him and think he is dead, but he gets up and comes walking back into the city. Even though Paul had said he was not a god, they still must have wondered about it, or at least wondered what kind of God Paul was serving.

Ministry in Derbe & (14:20b – 21a)

The story picks up again at the end of verse 20. And the next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,

Paul and those with him spend the night in Lystra, and the next day they go to Derbe, so they were not fleeing. Their response here is different from the one they had in Iconium. This again shows their sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit and not being either rashly bold or fleeing in fear.

When they arrive in Derbe they preach the gospel and there is a large positive response with many people becoming disciples. Perhaps it is at this time that young Timothy and his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, become Christians. When Paul returns to Derbe on his second missionary trip Timothy will join him (cf. Acts 16:1; 2 Tim. 1:5).

Return Trip (14:21a-26)

After they concluded their ministry in Derbe, verse 21 continues, “they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and [saying,] “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. 24 And they passed through Pisidia and came into Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia; 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, from which they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had accomplished.

They return back through the same cities strengthening and encouraging the believers. That is a very bold thing to do considering the persecution they had previously experienced in those cities. Perhaps the opposition was cowered and inhibited from further persecution by the fact that they had tried to kill Paul, but proved to be unsuccessful. Even so, Paul & Barnabas have taken what they have experienced to heart and warned the believers in each city that they needed to be prepared for tribulation. It would be no different for these Gentile believers than it was for the Jewish believers in Judea. Persecution is part of the Christian life, for all who strive to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). Paul & Barnabas want to build up these believers who are still so young in the faith for the things they will face in the future.

One of the effects of persecution is that it tends to keep believers focused and pure. When you are in the middle of tribulation the focus of life comes back to the most important issues instead of the peripheral ones that usually take up so much of our time, energy and even finances. Issues such as your relationships with God, family and friends are much more important than having the latest convenience item or getting the decor of your home just the way you want it. When your relationship with God is the priority, then so to is living a life that is pleasing to Him rather than one that is pleasing just to yourself. Personal holiness becomes more of a priority than personal pleasure.

Another way in which Paul & Barnabas sought to build up the people in these new churches was to appoint elders in them. The word “appointed” is ceirotonew / cheirotoneô which can mean either “vote by stretching out the hand” or “appoint.” This passage would be unclear of the exact method used in selecting and setting men apart to the ministry of “elders” in these churches. Certainly, at the minimum, Paul & Barnabas would need to rely on the knowledge of the local people concerning who was qualified for being leaders even if they were appointing them directly by Apostolic authority. Since the word is also used in 2 Cor. 8:19 for Titus being “appointed by churches” to travel with Paul, and Luke could have used a more definite words for appoint, it is probable that this was done in a manner similar to the selecting of the Seven in Acts 6. The apostles listed the qualifications of those who would serve as Elders, then the people found such individuals who were then appointed by Paul and Barnabas.

After they had finished doing this in each of the churches they had established they eventually arrived back at Perga. This time they do not just pass through, but take the time to preach the gospel there too. After that they went to the nearby seaport of Attalia from which they then sailed back to Antioch.

Report to Antioch (27-28)

27 And when they had arrived and gathered the church together, they [began] to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they spent a long time with the disciples.

When they arrive back in Antioch they report on the work God had done during their journey. Luke stresses the point that the door of faith that had been opened to the Gentiles. The witness of Jesus was now going “to the uttermost parts of the world ” just as Jesus had commissioned the church to do back in Acts 1:8 before He ascended. The Greek text this says that Paul & Barnabas spent “not a little time” with the disciples before the next event recorded by Luke occurs. This may have been up to a year or so. The door of faith was now open to the Gentiles, but there was still the question of the integration of Gentiles and Jews. That would be answered in Acts 15.


Sermon Study Sheets


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.

Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up. 2) How many different places are mentioned? Talk with your parents about how you would have responded to the way Paul was treated..


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

Why were Barnabas & Saul sent out to be missionaries? What were their qualifications? What was the response to their initial ministries in Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch? How do you respond when people gossip about you? What about when they lie about you? What about when they physically abuse you for doing the right thing? What was the initial response by those in Iconium? How were their minds changed? How did Paul & Barnabas respond to the initial opposition? Why did they leave when threatened with stoning? How can you know when you should be bold toward opposition and when you should leave? How did the people in Lystra respond to Paul healing the lame man? Why did they call him & Barnabas gods? Why did they change so radically from seeking to worship Paul to stoning him? How do you think they responded when after they left Paul for dead that he walked back into the city? What was the response to the gospel in Derbe? Why did Paul & Barnabas return to each of the cities in which they had started a church? What did they do in each of those cities? Why did they do those things? What was the response of the church in Antioch to their report? How do you serve the Lord now? What would you like to do in the future? How can you prepare?

Sermon Notes – March 12, 2006

Boldness in the Face of Persecution – Acts 14:1-28


Ministry in Iconium

Ministry in Lystra

Healing & Response

Opposition & Stoning

Ministry in Derbe

Return Trip

Report to Antioch

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