Well, let’s see what’s going on in this particular chapter of the book of Acts. Paul and Barnabas are preaching in Iconium (modern day Turkey). When they receive word that the religious authorities plan to stone them to death (Acts 14:6), they flee, walking about eight hours down the road to Lystra. Little do they know, however, that these same authorities have followed close behind them to Lystra. There these antagonists successfully rally the locals (who just beforehand are ready to worship Paul and Barnabas) and achieve what they set out to do in the first place: stone Paul until he’s dead (or at least appears to be). After this, the two apostles read the writing on the wall and flee much further down the road to Antioch, which is about 2,000 miles closer to home.
Notice that Paul and Barnabas don’t go looking for suffering; they flee it in fact, repeatedly. But their primary objective is never in question. They are charged with preaching the Gospel, and preach the Gospel they will, consequences notwithstanding.
We should be careful not to make an idol of misery here. Biblical lessons should always be read in context, and in this particular biblical context, affirming your faith in public (a requirement of faith) is likely to get you persecuted or even killed; in today’s North American setting, it probably won’t. We ought not to assume, therefore, that this passage negates everything Paul has to say about being saved by grace through faith, it doesn’t. Neither, however, does what Paul has to say about being saved by grace through faith negate everything Jesus has to say about what it really takes to be a disciple:
“Follow me now. Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.”
- Matthew 8:22
“If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.”
- Matthew 10:39
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.”
- Matthew 7:21
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
- Luke 14:33
That is to say, ‘faith’ isn’t equivalent to idle belief, theological assent, or the conjuring of an emotional response. Faith is sacrificial in nature. It requires us to do what it takes to obey the clear call of Christ in our lives (read the Gospels if you’re not sure what that is), regardless of what the consequences may be. It requires us to trust Jesus to the point of obedience, even costly obedience.
Take a moment, does this sort of commitment even closely resemble your walk with Jesus? If the answer to that question is “yes” – bravo! Undoubtedly, you’ve seen miracles that most of wouldn’t believe if we saw them with our own eyes, and experienced joys most of us can’t fathom. But if not, what’s holding you back?
We have a problem in North American Christianity – particularly evangelical Christianity – in that we’re looking for happiness: an absence of bad stuff and an abundance of good stuff. We want less debt, more money, more time, more freedom, better relationships, more enjoyment, less work, better health, and so on. But Christ promises none of these things in this world. Not one. If He promises anything, in fact, it’s the opposite:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
- Matthew 5:11-12
“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
- Mathew 10:38
What we are promised (aside from eternal life) is joy, if we’re obedient, if we’re willing to follow Jesus, if we’re willing to take personal risks for His names’ sake, if we’re willing to suffer, to endure spite, derision, poverty, disgrace and heartache for the sake of His Kingdom and His righteousness.
Are you confused by the disciples’ curious response to being unceremoniously tossed out of Pisidian Antioch? Don’t be. They were considered worthy to suffer for the name of Christ, which to them was cause for celebration, as it was to Peter and his compatriots in similar circumstances:
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
- Acts 5:41
Much ink has been spilled in recent days over a Christian rock star who publicly renounced his faith. While I don’t presume to know another man’s heart, I do wonder: was this the sort of Christian who was willing to suffer for the Name, or who considered his earthly accomplishments and stature to be garbage when compared with the riches of Christ, as Paul did (Philippians 3:8)? Was eternal life really what he had in mind? Or was happiness his end-game? Comfort and contentment? If the latter, it’s no wonder he’s giving it up, he’s reached his goal. If anyone can ever be said to have “arrived” at the point of personal happiness, it’s a famous rock star with an extensive network of eager friends, an illustrious career, and cash to burn.
What about you? Is happiness your aim, or are comfort, satisfaction and status things that you’d gladly sacrifice for a much greater prize: the Kingdom of God? Look, none of us still living has "arrived" at a perfect state of sacrificial holiness - I sure haven't. The journey of Christian self-denial takes a lifetime; and we are prone to get that wrong, slip up, err, miss the point and go running off in the wrong direction, no one is arguing otherwise. But saints, what we believe matters. Only the truth can set us free (John 8:32). And the truth is, God's plan for us is not what we typically regard as 'happiness', but something much, much better.
Heavenly Father, none of us are beyond the temptations of this world. We would never dare ask you for unhappiness. But Lord, we do want Your joy and Your peace in our lives, Your Shalom. Though the prospect of suffering may terrify us, we eagerly seek the opportunity to be considered worthy enough to work and even suffer for your Names’ sake. We seek something that’s much greater than anything this world could possibly offer. We ask this in the name of your precious son, Jesus: Yeshua, our Lord, our Saviour, our Companion, Friend, Brother and King. Amen.
The irony of this moment should not be lost on us, surely. While these holy men conspire to put an innocent man to death, they take care not to become ceremonially unclean and miss out on the religious festivities. They don’t want to get their nice clothes dirty before the big party.
But how many commandments are these paragons of respectability breaking here? Let’s review:
You shall not murder.
- Leviticus 20:13
Check: contrary to what they tell Pilate about not being able to put a man to death (John 18:31), Leviticus 24:16 says otherwise. Now there are many views as to why they say this, and there may be truth to the matter that there were restrictions preventing them from carrying out a sentence – either self-imposed or enforced by the Romans (see Matthew Poole’s commentary); nonetheless, there is only one correct way to put a man to death, and that’s in accordance with the law that commands it. Everything else is called murder.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- Leviticus 20:16
Check: when Pilate asks them what Jesus has done to deserve death, what’s their reply?
“This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.”
- Luke 23:2
Say what? No, Jesus was asked the tax question, and He replied clearly that people ought to render Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17). And the messiah thing? Well there’s some spin there, isn’t there? Pilate is likely to be flat-out bored with the claim that Jesus is the embodiment of centuries-old Jewish prophecies (“how quaint”, we can imagine him saying), so they frame it for him, inferring that his end-game is to revolt against Rome, an assertion that is backed up by precisely nothing.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
- Leviticus 20:7
Check: when Jesus is before the Sanhedrin, they ask the question “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” and He answers truthfully: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62).
By their own laws it would be considered blasphemy to claim this if it isn’t true, BUT one must first prove that it isn’t. If your religion states that this cannot be true for anyone except one very special person, you cannot by default kill everyone who makes the claim. First you must prove the claim wrong; and they can’t. Not having actual evidence of blasphemy, they only have two appropriate and lawful ways to respond:
But, as we can see, the High Priest and his cabal aren’t interested in getting at the truth, they’re interested in putting a man to death; and they’re using God’s name to do it. This is the very definition of using the Lord’s name in vain. God’s name is not to be invoked to achieve our selfish ends, and lawful ends are clearly not their objective.
So, the religious leaders do what the bible has made them famous for doing. They attend lovingly to religious trifles while spitting all over God’s perfect law. Surely this isn’t news. But what are we to infer from this? What’s the lesson today?
Jesus warned the Pharisees about removing a fly from a cup of coffee while simultaneously inhaling a horse (I paraphrase, see Matthew 23:24), and they ignored Him, quite fantastically, as it turns out. But what about me? Am I upholding virtues that do little except caress my precious ego while simultaneously tap dancing all over the spirit of God’s sacred law to love Him with my whole heart and my neighbor as myself? Are you?
Are you withholding forgiveness from someone who’s wronged you while cheerfully attending bible studies and bake sales? Are you proudly dropping your requisite 10% into the collection plate while gossiping ruthlessly about the person who sits three pews down? Are you lamenting the sexual depravity of your neighbor and concurrently defrauding him in your place of business? Do you proudly abstain from even the smell of alcohol while joyfully condemning the alcoholic?
Look, attend your bible studies and bake sales, give faithfully to your church, abstain from the sexual celebrations and excesses of this post-Christian era, abstain from drunkenness and drug abuse, that’s all good stuff. But consider carefully the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23); beware the sins of the heart. If we think we can polish the outside of the cup while leaving the more egregious, internal sins to fester unimpeded, we’re wrong: dangerously wrong.
I wonder if I really understand that the goodness of God not only exists within me, but defines me; He is the core of who I am. He is at the center.
I know this, on some theological level, but is this central to my understanding of myself in relation to God and to the world around me? If I’m to be completely honest, I likely spend a lot more time approaching God from the standpoint of an malevolent sinner in need of penance rather than a redeemed child in need of forgiveness and a helping hand.
Of course, repentance and confession are and must be central to Christian living. A Christian must have a confessional attitude (1 John 1:9-10), but does that necessarily translate to an attitude of scorn and derision as it concerns me? More disconcerting still, do I subconsciously project this expectation onto other Christians and expect that they ought to do the same? Again, if I’m to be honest, I probably do.
What struck me this morning as I read David’s psalm is his acknowledgement of God’s work in himself as wonderful - a praise where praise is due sort of statement - which he manages without the slightest trace of conceit. If God has truly made me wonderfully, is it really virtuous of me to heap scorn on myself? On my sin, yes, but on myself? I wonder.
This morning, God’s word has compelled me to hit the pause button and reflect on an unspoken assumption that I’ve carried around with me for a long time. While I certainly don’t want to join in on the narcissistic “celebration of self” that seems to have become the world's favourite pastime, perhaps I need to be more careful not to go running off another cliff entirely. We’ve all done that now, haven’t we?
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.