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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Maximum Breakthrough in Iconium’s Crucible


"From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.” Acts 14:26

Acts 14 is the final leg of this first missionary journey of the apostle Paul. He is accompanied by his friend, Barnabas. Something has just happened to them. Quite a few of you are currently in formal education – school, or college or university. You probably have goals that you want to achieve. You may already have your heart set on a certain career. You may not. Perhaps you have certain grades you want to get, in real or mock exams, before the summer break. However, I suspect there is something that you don’t want to get. You definitely don’t want to get expelled! That just brings a whole lot of trouble. People will question your bad behaviour and point out how you have let down those who love you. Why do I mention this? Well this is why Acts 14 starts with Paul and Barnabas in this new place, called Iconium. They had just been expelled! - Not from school, but from Pisidian Antioch. That is what we are told in Acts 13:50.

So, had they been behaving badly? Had they let down someone who loved them? No, quite the opposite. They were loved by God and had served him well. They were on a new mission to tell new people, in new places, this new message – the Good News message about Jesus. As the Bible says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). There were people who had heard this message and believed it for themselves. They now had faith in Jesus and were experiencing the beginnings of a new life of restored relationship with God.

However, while there were those who received the message joyfully, there were many others who hated it. In fact, they hated it so much that they organised themselves together and ‘expelled’ Paul and Barnabas ‘from their region’. Expelled for behaving well – Can you imagine?!

So, they come to Iconium. Paul follows his usual practice (see Acts 17:1-2) of going first to the local Jewish synagogue with this message that Jesus was the Messiah who God had been promising throughout the Old Testament prophecies. Then we are told something really striking. He and Barnabas ‘spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed’. What does this mean? What does it mean for us? How can we also ‘effectively’ communicate the message of Jesus? Well, we should have this desire? We should aim for effective, current, common language as much as possible. But, is this verse really highlighting Paul and Barnabas’s built-in effectiveness? No. It is highlighting a greater power – the power of God’s grace.

Last time I spoke about the two main ways in which this word, ‘grace’ is used in the bible. One of those ways is to describe God’s power for Christian living. ‘Grace’ in this sense is talking of his influence, or acting, in a way that changes our capacity for obedience and suffering and work for Jesus. It is used in this way in Acts 14:26, the verse that I quoted to start us off today. That verse is at the end of this time of mission, when Paul and Barnabas are reporting back to their local church, but it directs us to the start. Before they set off, ‘they had been committed to the grace of God’.

We read of this happening at the start of Acts 13. There was prayer and fasting – it was a serious moment. There was placing on of hands – the church took ownership of these men and responsibility for them. Then, at the end of Acts 14, we are given this great reminder of this having taken place. The last couple of verses of this chapter are a time of report and review back at their church in Syrian Antioch. But this Acts record, wants it to be a time of review for us as well.

It’s saying, in effect, ‘look at what has happened following this committing of these men and their efforts to God’s grace’. Despite serious opposition, look at the success achieved for Christ’s kingdom. We being encouraged to ask questions for ourselves – ‘is it worth committing our church efforts for Jesus to the grace of God?’ – ‘Knowing the difficulties which we will face, is the grace of God going to be enough? And we are meant to cry out - ‘Yes! Amen! Lord God, pour out your grace on us. Shape us to serve you.’

Now, we may object here. We may think, ‘but it isn’t going to be the same. I’m not the apostle Paul. He was really, really good at what he did and I’m just a bit rubbish’. This is not true, though. Yes, we are be a bit rubbish, but Paul was little different. He admits it in his letters.

In 2 Corinthians 11:6, he says that he was ‘untrained as a speaker’. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul tells us what people were saying this about him, ‘in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing’. In verse 1 of the same chapter he says, ‘I… am ‘timid’ when face to face with you’. And in 1 Corinthians 2:1-3, he reminds those believers of how he was when he visited them – ‘I did not come with eloquence… I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling’. The apostle Paul experienced what I would called, ‘anxiety’ when he visited those places. That does sound a bit like us! He is listing a whole load of things that seem to render him rather useless, rather than useful. But then, he tells us something really important. ‘My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power’. In his evident weakness, he ‘relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 2:4 (NLT)). And, despite his flaws, this man had been committed to the grace of God’. The result is in verse 1 of Acts 14 - Paul ‘spoke so effectively that a great number… believed’.

Who was effective? God was. Again, this is highlighted in the review at the end of this chapter. Verse 27 says, ‘they gathered the church together and reported…’ What did they report? All that they had done with their own brilliance. That couldn’t be so. Those two letters to the church in Corinth which I have quoted, show us that Paul was not brilliant. He wasn’t - but his God was! And so we read, ‘they… reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith’.

Last weekend was the final of the World Snooker Championships held at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. A man called Mark Selby scored a 147 – snooker’s maximum break. It is a rare thing and had never happened before in the final. It involves potting the coloured balls in a very set order. To get this maximum score, you have to pot 36 consecutive balls in a set sequence, without missing any, using a tool called a ‘cue’. It is basically a long tapered piece of wood, specially shaped for the task in hand.

There was a lot of conversation about this achievement. The commentators discussed the brilliance of this player. But no-one commented on how good his cue was. And I didn’t sit there and think, ‘if only I had that cue then I could get a 147’. The truth is that, even with that cue, I’d probably take 147 shots to pot 1 ball! Yes, that instrument had obviously been chosen by Mr Selby for that task. He hadn’t snapped it off a tree that morning on his way to the venue. It had been carefully shaped to do the job required. But, even so, it was just a long pointy stick. The instrument was not brilliant, but the hand that held it was. The success depended on the eye, the hand, the dedication and ambition of the one who held the instrument.

After Paul’s Damascus Road conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts 9, the Lord said this about Paul – ‘This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel’ (Acts 9:15). Yes, the Lord chose him for that task. Yes, the Lord shaped him for that purpose. But he was still just an instrument – and his letters help us to understand that he was a pretty ordinary one at that. In fact, later in this chapter (v.15), when people get this so wrong, Paul and Barnabas exclaim, ‘We… are only human like you’. They were ‘as human as we are’. That is what James 5:17 (NLT) says about the prophet Elijah, but then James says, in effect, ‘but look at what Elijah managed to do when he was connected to God by prayer and used as his instrument’. So, with Paul. So, with us all.

How many balls would Mark Selby’s cue have potted if it was left to its own devices? None. How effective would Paul and Barnabas have been in Iconium on their own? As ineffective as me and you. They were just instruments. Paul was little better than a long pointy stick. But in the Lord’s hand, when Paul was used to point up Jesus, he ‘spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed’. A great number – more than 147, I suspect! Not a maximum break, but God’s maximum breakthrough – into hearts and lives that day in Iconium, using ‘weak’, ‘trembling’ instruments to the greatest effect.

So, if we’ve got the pattern of Acts now then we’ll know what comes next – gospel opportunity meets gospel opposition. The message of Jesus which Paul and Barnabas spoke was one of new opportunity for all people, but many ‘refused’ it. That is the word used in verse 2 – they ‘refused to believe’. Their rejection of Jesus was active and deliberate, and they then chose be active and deliberate in ‘poisoning… minds’ – they claimed that the Good News was fake news! Paul and Barnabas react to this threat. What a wonderful example to the church now which we have here in verse 3.

It starts with the word, ‘so’. ‘So’ – as a direct result of the poison of verse 2 – P & B so something. These were not just men who had been chosen and shaped to do one job – that of evangelising. They really understood church and its diverse needs. Ecclesiastes 3 begins with that well known comment on the seasonal nature of life – ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens’. No-one would plan to go cross-country skiing in Horbury Bridge in May. Baptisms, yes – skiing – no! But life isn’t just seasonal in a weather related sense. We often have to adapt our life schedules to what is happening now. And this is true of church life.

Ecclesiastes 3 lists various times of activity. It has ‘a time to plant’. That is what P & B were involved with in verse 1. They were sowing Jesus seeds - they were planting a church community in Iconium. Now comes a ‘time for war’. They were called to defend the gospel and to take a ‘time to build’ – to build up the infant faith of these new believers. What did it need? Time! ‘So, Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there…’ Sometimes our church schedule will need to be adapted to what is in front of us. We need to deal with now – whatever that is. As humans, we are so inclined to be taken up with the future, and what that might look like. It is part of our world’s philosophy. Jesus said, in effect, ‘don’t do it’. In Matthew 6:34 he gently instructs us of a better way - ‘tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’.

There was ‘enough trouble’ in Iconium for P & B to take a time-out in that place. They spoke ‘boldly for the Lord’. That is an interesting word – ‘boldly’. It implies an awareness of risk. You can only truly be bold if you are truly aware of danger. How could this ‘weak’, ‘trembling’ man be bold ‘for the Lord’? The answer is here – by the Lord’s ‘enabling’. He ‘confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders’.

‘But’, some may say, ‘this doesn’t apply to us. This is talking about a previous age, surely? We aren’t going to perform miracles are we?’ Actually, yes, I think we are. One thing to note here is the occasional nature of this gifting. Another misconception which we can have about people such as Paul is that they had permanent ongoing miraculous powers which they could just call upon willy-nilly. But this isn’t so. This verse highlights that they were particularly ‘enabled’ for this particular occasion – by the power of God’s Spirit and the power of his grace. They didn’t have a surplus of gifting. They were supplied as and when needed. And so will we be.

If we called to be bold in church life, what can we expect? We can expect what happens here. They reacted boldly – The Lord reacted graciously. Should we expect ‘signs and wonders’? Yes, if we are bold for the Lord then he will give us more grace and he will pour out his Spirit, in a way which enables us to do what we otherwise could not do. For someone as human as me, that is a miracle!

The message of Jesus divides people. Verse 4 tells us that, ‘the people of the city were divided’. Verse 5 informs of ‘a plot’ to put an end to all this Jesus talk. Opposition to the gospel unites people together who would otherwise be separated. Ill-treatment and even murder is proposed. When God works, there will be the opening of doors. But there will also be times when doors are closed.

In verse 6, a door is closed off and ‘a time to uproot’ comes for these men. They have to quickly leave for another place – expelled once again! Those anti-Christians must have thought they had won the day. To use another sporting analogy – they think it’s all over. But verses 6 & 7 tell us that it isn’t now! – ‘they… fled to the surrounding country… where they continued to preach the gospel’. What an example to us. There will be times when doors of service for Christ are closed, sometimes in sudden and unexpected ways. But our Lord will open other doors and enable us to continue to serve him according to the gifts which he has given. God’s hand is on this work. It belongs to him. He is always for it regardless of who opposes it. So, what should our response be?

Paul answers this question in his Roman’s letter. Romans 8:31-32 has this –‘What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’

This should give us such confidence. Paul says, ‘how will he not…?’ His argument seems to be this – Can you imagine that God would devise a plan to rescue people from the ruin of life’s failure, that involved his Son coming to earth to live the life that they couldn’t, to die the death which they deserved, and would raise him from the dead and take him to heaven to be exalted at his right hand (as Acts 2:33) and tell his people to carry this message of Jesus into a world of ruin and failure, but then say, ‘sorry guys and gals – you’re on your own now’? That would be ludicrous. That would completely undermine the preciousness of Jesus and the everlasting value of what he did on Calvary’s cross. If, to save us, he was willing to give up his Son, then what is God going to hold back? Nothing.

We see this in the lives of these characters in Acts. Their lives were far from easy. But everything they needed to persevere, they were wonderfully provided with. Not because they were better than us. They were no different. They weren’t brilliant. But their God was… and he still is! The shape of the Lord’s people is very similar now to what it was then. And the brilliance – the dedication – the ambition – the loving care - of our Lord is completely unchanged. Paul was ‘convinced’ of it. So should we be

Our lives will go through seasons. Some will be warm and joyous. Others will be cold and hard and really, really difficult, and many days will be somewhere between the two. But, the love of God is constant. Paul finishes Romans 8 (v.38-39) with these words – ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’.


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