1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the gospel.
Many Christians these days seem to have a real problem with Christianity. Oh, they love certain aspects of it, like maybe the traditions, the encouragement that it can bring, and the camaraderie but there are also aspects of it that they do not like. People who claim to be Christians themselves are almost embarrassed at the idea of Christianity being divisive in any way. They have instead turned Christianity into a sort of universal catch-all where any beliefs are welcome and they don’t want to create waves at all. They cringe at and denounce anything Christian that actually divides the saved from the lost, the disciple from the wanderer.
As trendy and popular as that sort of Christianity has become in our world of tolerance, it stands in stark contrast to the beliefs and practices of the first century. This can be difficult because it is not acceptable in our culture to claim a singular truth. It is deemed offensive and arrogant to do so. But at the heart of the gospel message is the truth that Jesus claimed that he was “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that no one could come to the Father but through him (Jn. 14:6). Jesus also made it quite clear that his gospel would cause division: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Lk. 12:51-53). The message of the gospel that brings peace to those who accept it is so demanding and challenging that most will not accept and that automatically causes division.
Nearly every religion, of course, makes truth claims at one level or another. That is important because truth claims necessarily separate those that accept those truth claims from those that don’t. What sets Christianity apart, however, is that it is the only religion, philosophy, or worldview that can actually plausibly back up its claim to be truth. The vital question to ask here is how do we determine that a religion or philosophy is true? Nearly all religions and philosophies that seek to answer that question respond by saying that an adherent will simply know within themselves that this is true. It is that inner witness and confirmation which will tell them that their beliefs are true. But that is not what the early Christians staked their claim on. In the first 19 verses of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes it quite clear that the veracity of the Christian faith lies in the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If it happened as claimed then Christianity is true and Jesus really is the rightful savior and Lord of the entire world. If it never happened, then Christianity is a sham and a waste of time.
Armed with the resurrection as the core of the truth of the gospel, as Luke has made clear throughout the book of Acts, the disciples went around boldly proclaiming the gospel. But just as surely as they preached the resurrection of Christ wherever they went they also encountered sharp opposition wherever they went. It was something that they could expect. Jesus had told them as much, saying “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22). Wherever they went the gospel divided between those who wanted the light that was revealed through the preaching of the truth of the word of God and those who hated the light and chose to stay in the dark. It’s a truth that we must firmly understand and accept or the Christian walk will always be painful and unbearable. Preaching the truth will not be popular; it will not always produce results; and it will always cause division and opposition.
As was their usual custom, Paul and Barnabas began their preaching Iconium at the synagogue. It served as a good based to reach out to the Jews and Gentile God-fearers. Those who were waiting for God to act on his promises and were open to the truth of Jesus being the Messiah and fulfillment of those promises were quick to believe so the mission in Iconium met some early success. But that did not mean that things were all pleasant. The Jews who refused to accept the truth of the gospel were not content to simply reject it and walk away. They, like Paul once was, were determined to show their zeal for God’s ways by fighting and hopefully destroying this new upstart Messianic movement. So they stirred up the Gentiles, presumably both the God-fearing Gentiles and the pagan Gentiles, by slandering the gospel and urging them to actively oppose and persecute the Christians.
Without the fully established witness of the word of God as contained in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit confirmed their message through the means of signs and wonders. Luke doesn’t specifically recount what those were in Iconium, but they no doubt included the same sorts of things like praising God in languages that were previously unknown to the speaker and miraculous healing as they had performed in other places. These signs were not meant to impress so much as to demonstrate the values and principles of the age to come. Through the preaching of the gospel and the establishment of the kingdom of God, the elements of that future age were breaking into the present age. The manifestations of that, the signs and wonders, were confirmation that access to that age of eternal life really was available through the Messiah just as they claimed.
As Christianity will do, their message divided the city. To some it was foolishness. To others it was a stumbling block and a scandal. But to others, they saw in the gospel presentation, the power of God. The life of God’s age to come really had broken into the present age through the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and had been made available not just to the Jews but also the Gentiles.
It appears that there was a bit of lag time between the arrival of Paul and Barnabas in Iconium and the time that the persecution against them gained traction. Luke doesn’t tell us how much time they were able to spend there but it was enough time that they were able to establish the core of a Christian community when they left. God had established a window for them of just enough time to do what they needed to do there and then get out before the persecution got too stiff. Eventually a plot somehow came to their attention that their lives were in danger and God had more work for them to do. It is important to note that the reason they left was not because their lives were in danger or because they were afraid but precisely because it was God’s plan and will that they continue on in the mission. When the time came for them to face death, they would do that without flinching, as men who believed firmly in the resurrection of those in Christ.
Upon leaving Iconium, Paul’s group would head Southwest to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe. This was no normal escape or vacation, however. They went there to continue their mission of preaching the gospel. This illustrates the importance of understanding the true nature of the gospel. If we rightly understand that the true gospel is the victory proclamation that Jesus is God’s promised Messiah who has defeated death through his resurrection and shown himself to be the true King and Lord of all people, and that the only proper response is to obey that proclamation by laying down our own lives and will, and entering into the body of believers that is God’s family, and to live according to his will by putting the interests of the family of believers ahead of our own personal interests, then the path becomes clear. Wherever we go we can’t help but to declare this truth and live out the reality of the kingdom of God on earth. We realize that we are God’s people, called to live together as his family that is imperfect in this age but dedicated to the proposition of living here and now as a people that are committed to the values, principles, and realities of that future age. If this is our true mindset then we will naturally spread the gospel wherever we go.
If, however, we are confused on all of this and think of salvation as a personal issue between God and myself that does little more than change my future from an eternity in hell to one in heaven with God, then evangelism becomes a very different animal. It becomes something that I must constantly do rather than who I am. It becomes a task of which I can tire rather easily instead of a constant expression of the recognition of who we are in Christ and an ongoing expression of gratitude for calling us to be his family. It is when we really grasp that fully that we too will continue to preach the gospel wherever we go.
What is your attitude about evangelism? Is it something that you have to do or is it a natural expression of who you are? As you share your faith with those that need to hear the gospel have you embraced the fact that it will be divisive and not necessarily make you the most popular person? Why is that an important truth to grasp?