In Pisdian Antioch, Paul’s reward for preaching a great sermon was getting expelled from the city.
In the next place he visited, Iconium, the people tried to stone him.
In the place after that, Lystra, he WAS stoned and thought to be dead.
And that’s just Acts 13-14! Later he is flogged (five separate times!), imprisoned, shipwrecked, bit by a poisonous snake, and perhaps thrown to animals in a gladiator-type event (what else could 1 Corinthians 15:32 mean - ‘I fought wild beasts in Ephesus’?).
But the dude did not give up. After being stoned in Lystra, his body was dragged out of the city to hide the evidence. In what is the most Paul thing ever, when he wakes up he immediately walks back into Lystra and continues preaching. A normal person would head for the hills, but Paul was cut from a different cloth. Instead of trying to limit his own hardships, Paul focused on expanding God’s kingdom - no matter what. It wasn’t that he enjoyed pain, but that he believed his suffering would lead to others’ spiritual renewal. Imagine how the people of Lystra must have reacted when they saw a man they thought they had murdered come back and respond in love! Hmmm, sounds like someone else we know…
Paul didn’t have to live such a hard life, he could have taken the easy way out. He had a chance to do just that when he and Barnabas first arrived in Lystra. After seeing them heal a man, the people figure they are Greek gods. They call Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes” and are about to worship them until Paul puts a stop to it. He and Barnabas could have lived a life of luxury! Of course, posing as a god and accepting their worship would have been contrary to everything we know about Paul. He wasn’t really one to deceive others, plus his whole M.O. is pointing people to Jesus, not to himself or a false god.
Paul was always willing to suffer personal hardship if it meant others might enter God’s kingdom. There’s a saying in church history: “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” As we saw with Stephen, persecution led to the gospel being spread. This was the case for the first few hundred years after Jesus rose, before Christianity became legal under Constantine in 313 AD with the Edict of Milan. Under the Roman Empire from 33-313 AD, many church leaders were forced to recount their belief in Christ. Those that didn’t were killed. The ones inflicting this harm assumed that it would stifle the growth of the church, but the opposite happened. When people like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Cyprian chose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Stephen and Paul the news of their courage spread and others came to faith.
Sometimes we think that the way of Christ ought to be easy. That if we follow God, He will make our paths pain-free. Paul puts that nonsense to rest here in Acts 14: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” The apostle Peter says as much in 1 Peter 4:
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
Fortunately we live in a country today that practices the freedom of religion. Most hardships people experience here in the U.S. for being Christian are minimal compared to what people in Peter’s day went through. Yet there are other countries in the world today in which it can be dangerous to publicly worship Jesus. Let’s remember our brothers and sisters around the globe who endure persecution for their faith.
We all suffer some hardships along the way in our spiritual journey. Loneliness, grief, sorrow, betrayal, fatigue, humiliation, poverty, and persecution are not evidence that you have strayed from the path. On the contrary - we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.
This week, what will you do for the sake of the gospel?
As Paul and Barnabas refused the comfort of being treated as gods in Iconium, what comforts will you refuse?
How are you being challenged with expanding God’s kingdom?