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.
Is this a call to communism? No, communism (much like its antagonist, capitalism) is a secular ideology that cares nothing for the Kingdom of God. It uses compulsory and desultory means intended to artificially achieve a ripped off version of God’s design. Naturally, such an ideology is doomed to failure, albeit with countless bodies stacked up in the process.
No, we ought not to go start a commune where private possessions are outlawed, and untold worldly authority handed to those charismatic enough to command our attention. That is to say, we shouldn’t use religion in an attempt to achieve a ripped off version of communism. This isn’t what the first Christians did – they voluntarily held possessions in common – neither is it what we should do.
Nonetheless, we should feel deeply concerned with the fact that the above scene would be nearly unrecognizable in a contemporary setting. I have no doubt that if such a spontaneous outpouring did occur, it would be rebuked. Sermons would be preached, tracts written and blogs posted outlining the theological shortcomings of such a lifestyle. Water would be poured on fires and control quickly re-established by any means necessary. If I’m being completely honest, I’m not 100% certain that this wouldn’t be my own reaction, at least initially.
After all, to witness such a thing and have to compare it to my own lifestyle would be tremendously unsettling. As much as I like to believe that I’m an obedient Christian, many or most of the life decisions I’ve made, albeit with prayer thrown in, have defaulted to the western, individualistic, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” way of doing things. Is my “retirement” (not a biblical principle to begin with) contingent on God’s wisdom, or my banker’s advice? Is serving God’s Kingdom at the top of my priority list, or is it 3rd or 4th on the list, just below whatever I happen to be bingeing on Netflix?
Am I saying you should go out and sell your stuff? If you’ve been reading my other posts, you know the answer to that question. Ananias and Sapphira tried just such an external gesture and ended up dead at Peter’s feet. Why, because they held back a little for themselves? Peter went out of his way to tell them that their land, and the money that resulted from the sale of it, was theirs to do with as they wished – guilt free (Acts 5:4). No, it was because they lied to the Holy Spirit. They tried to achieve outward holiness while making room for inward greediness. They washed the outside of the cup.
No saints, Jesus instructions on holiness are clear:
“You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.”
Matthew 23:26 (emphasis mine)
We must pray, pray, pray. We ought to repent over the lack of concern we’ve shown for our Christian brothers and sisters (not to mention those outside the church), ask the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and give us biblical mindsets, forge meaningful and lasting relationships with our fellow believers, and seek the Father’s instructions in everything we do.
Religion is what happens when we artificially replicate the spiritual practices of those who preceded us. Faith is what happens when we respond obediently to the seed that Jesus has planted in our hearts.
Undoubtedly, a doctrine of cheap grace has contributed as well. Any church that preaches a one-time confession without repentance – i.e. a complete u-turn in one’s life – preaches an emaciated gospel; and an emaciated gospel can’t be expected to get it right.
Let’s get to the point: if the gospel we’re preaching does not sound like good news to the poor, there’s a problem. The gospel is good news to the poor, it’s sight to the blind, freedom to the captives; it cares about peoples’ material and spiritual needs – not just one or the other.
A church that feeds the hungry without sharing the good news of Christ does little good. Conversely, a church that preaches the word but shows no interest for the physical needs of its listeners sows shallow seed.
And now, to bring this down to a personal and perhaps troubling level:
Many evangelical pastors have found ways to “spiritualize” the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Mathew 25. “If we’re saved by grace through faith”, they reckon, “and if faith means to believe”, then surely this mystical parable must mean anything except what it plainly says: that hell is a place reserved for the selfish, Heaven for the compassionate. Do you find such arguments compelling?
Here’s my takeaway: faith and idle belief aren’t the same thing; we can't dovetail a self-centered lifestyle with authentic Christian living. It just. Doesn’t. Work.
Yes, we’re saved by grace through faith, which is marked by an inward change of heart that is afforded us by the Cross. And no, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked will not, as an external exercise, get anyone into Heaven. It’s the blood of Christ that does that.
But if we have truly declared Yeshua our Lord as well as savior, and if we’ve truly turned our hearts to Him for safekeeping, then our attitudes towards others should change. Sometimes this is a rapid process, sometimes it happens slowly, sometimes people repent so late in life they don’t necessarily have time to do anything but confess (the thief on the cross comes to mind), but what’s our excuse?
Concern for people this world has trampled underfoot comes from God; a lack of it comes from elsewhere. If such compassion isn’t presenting itself, we ought to be deeply troubled, and find urgent reason to cry out along with the psalmist:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Unconvinced? Consider how many bible verses I needed to cram into the start of this post. This was my shortlist. Consider: John 14:23, Luke 16:19-31, Daniel 4:27, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 19:21, Galatians 2:10, Proverbs 31:8-9, James 2:5, Deuteronomy 15:11, Ephesians 4:28, Galatians 6:2, Hebrews 16:13, Luke 6:38, Matthew 5:42, Jeremiah 22:3, Proverbs 19:17, Romans 12:13, Luke 12:33-34, Luke 3:10-11, James 2:14-17, Luke 10:25-37, Isaiah 1:17 (I could go on).
Are we really going to discount all of this by saying that “we’re saved by grace through our very narrow, passive and idle definition of faith”?
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
- Acts 2:42-45
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
- John 13:34-35
You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
- Revelation 3:17
Today’s North American church has become utterly unrecognizable by biblical standards. Is it any wonder that we can’t persuade our neighbours to cease calling us evil, let alone listen to our message?
I implicate myself here as well, but where is the love for our Christian brother or sister? Not the sort of love that is characterized by emotional outpourings on Sunday morning, but rather that which is grounded in action and sacrifice? How often do we encounter someone in our church community who is struggling financially, and meet that need with prayer alone, or even (more cynically still) an empty promise to pray?
Where are our priorities? Where is our faith? Have we trusted our finances with God, or have we sprinkled a little biblical wisdom into the handling of our financial portfolios? Do we drop a manageable cheque into our respective collection plates and satisfy ourselves thereafter that our duty is fulfilled, and that while the family who sits next to us is out of work, staggering towards bankruptcy? How much of your church’s finances are dedicated to meeting the needs of its congregants, let alone the wider community? 10%? 5%? 0%?
We pray four our brothers and sisters yes, but are we their answer to prayer? If not, why not?
Heavenly Father, I bring my bankruptcy before you. You've given me talents, and I've buried them, deeply. Forgive my selfish and uncaring nature, and change me from the inside out. I ask this in the name of your precious Son, Jesus Christ, who died for my redemption. Amen.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.”
“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” … Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
- Acts 1:21-22, 26
In one passage, Jesus very clearly instructs His disciples to wait on a gift, following the receipt of which they will become witnesses to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). In the next, Peter’s taken it upon himself to nominate a replacement for Judas Iscariot’s office, this despite the fact that the promised gift has not yet arrived. Did Peter do well to take initiative on this?
The text doesn’t answer this question directly, but we may presume from the fact that the “apostle” Matthias is never mentioned in again in the New Testament that Peter may have missed the mark here. (I believe Jesus personally chose Paul to fill this vacancy; while this isn’t stated outright, Paul is counted as an Apostle by scripture). Peter is doing what Peter tends to do. He’s impatient, so he attempts to take control of a situation that he can’t see past. He creates his own marching orders, a side-project to work on while he completes his primary mission of waiting on the Holy Spirit.
Fortunately for Peter, God’s promise isn’t contingent on his ministerial competency. The Spirit arrives, and arrives in force; and one chapter later Peter is speaking with a degree of power and eloquence that is clearly beyond his natural abilities.
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
- Acts 2:22-24
The difference is astonishing, isn’t it? Without the Spirit’s presence Peter is awkward, brash, spiritually clumsy, somewhat temperamental, and even cowardly. With the Holy Spirit, Peter is a force of nature, someone to be admired, and certainly not to be trifled with. We’re the same. While I can’t answer in universal terms how we can always tell what the Spirit is saying, it's crystal clear that that direction of the Spirit is needed before we go adventuring on our own.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit (as with most things), many Christians tend to fall off one of two ledges. Ledge #1 is to treat the Spirit as if He is “the force”, here to exalt us rather than Jesus. Not even someone, but something to be controlled, harnessed into some sort of an energy that can be channeled by the Christian to perform signs and wonders. Ledge #2 is to treat the Spirit as if His involvement in our lives is marginal; while He may be important, He is indecipherable and therefore not significant for our purposes. There is no shortage of Christians who are leaping off both of these ledges, and it’s very much hindering our witness in the world.
For our purposes we only need to remember two things:
Heavenly Father, you have blessed your church abundantly by being present in the person of your Holy Spirit. He is our lifeline, our joy, our precious gift from you and your Son, Jesus. It's a tremendous privilege that we can worship and serve you with His direction and in His presence. Please don’t let us ignore this gift; neither let us forget that He is one with you, awesome, glorious, amazing. Teach us to cultivate a relationship with the Spirit that is pleasing to you and forever rewarding to us. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We are not Gnostics; the path to salvation is God’s amazing grace, not man’s amazing knowledge.
With that being said, to neglect God’s word when we have the choice to do otherwise is profoundly foolish – tantamount to a starving man refusing to eat a buffet that sits before him. In an age where we are consistently and willfully subjected to misleading information (typically in an effort to get us to buy one product or another), it is critical that those of us who are able to steep themselves in the Word do so.
This is all the more critical in a church that is brimming over with ear-tickling false teachers who stand to make a fortune telling us what we so desperately want to hear: that the way we’re living our lives is perfectly fine, that the God of the bible is intimately concerned not so much with our service, but with our satisfaction.
“Name it and claim it!”. “Live your dreams!”. While not all of us have the luxury of formal training in hermeneutics and biblical Greek, a careful, personal study of God’s word - combined with the accountability that fellow Christians and a Godly pastor can provide - ought to guard us well against such damning and witless heresies, and further protect us from a world that is determined to drown us in an ocean of lies.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.