Doors of Risk

Original Date: 
Sunday, October 21, 2012

Acts 14 Open Doors: Doors of Risk

Opening the Door of Faith
Today’s text is Acts 14. And I want to start at the end. Acts 14:26 and 27. This is the report of what happened when Paul and Barnabas returned home from the very first overseas missionary journey:

26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

I want you to notice the phrase at the end; the part about how God “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” We’re in a campaign called Open Doors and we’re looking at different places in scripture where that phrase is used. “Open Doors” is a common metaphor in the Bible for people coming to faith in Jesus. The rest of Acts 14 is the story of how that happened on Paul’s first missionary journey.

In Iconium and Lystra
Let’s go to the beginning of the chapter. Paul and Barnabas are travelling to cities in Asia Minor, what we know today as Turkey. Verses 1 & 2:

1At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. 2But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.

Here’s the pattern Paul established for all his missionary journeys. Whenever he entered a new town, he began with the Jews. He always went first to the synagogue to share the message of Jesus. And in Iconium, his message found success. Both Jews and Gentiles came to believe.

But there was another pattern that tended to plague Paul. Some of the Jews took exception to the message of Jesus, and stirred up trouble. Wherever Paul goes, his critics are never far behind. Verses 3-7:

3So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. 4The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7where they continued to preach the good news.

God grants success to Paul’s preaching, but the opposition intensifies. The city divides. Then the plotting begins. Paul and Barnabas get out of town, but the difficulties continue. Verses 8-13:

8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

This is an amazing little story. Paul and Barnabas are a part of a tremendous healing, they draw a crowd, but the people misinterpret what has happened. They assume that Paul and Barnabas are in fact Greek gods and bring out offerings for them. Paul and Barnabas want no part of a worship ceremony directed at them, but—ever the missionaries—they take the opportunity to introduce the people to Jesus. Verses 14-18:

14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15"Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." 18Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Then things get really rough. Luke only uses one verse to tell the story (two sentences) but it is undoubtedly the worse thing that Paul has yet had to face. Verse 19:

19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium [the last two towns Paul was in] and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.

When people in the ancient world stoned somebody, they were playing for keeps. They didn't just throw bits of gravel the way you might throw stones at a stray dog you want off your property. They threw rocks that were meant to kill. In fact, I am told that stoning victims would usually be first cast down a high hill and then have large rocks—paving stones and the like--thrown down on them until they were dead.

And that, apparently, is what happened to Paul. They dragged him out of the city and pelted him with chunks of stone until they thought he was dead. That means he wasn't moving anymore, it means when the stones cracked into him he no longer cried out in pain, it means he was lying there bloody and broken and helpless. Maybe he was in a coma, maybe he was just unconscious, but to the Lycaonians throwing the stones he looked dead (and maybe he was?).

Then, verse 20:

But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up...

I'd love to know what happened there. Barnabas and the other believers in the city come out--thinking they are going to have to bury Paul--and they discover he is still alive.

I don't know what they did, maybe they laid hands on him and prayed for God's healing, maybe they splashed his face with cold water, certainly they helped tend to his wounds--but at any rate, Paul gets back up and (get this!) he walks right back into the city! Verse 20 again:

20But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city.

Can you start to get a sense of what kind of guy Paul is? I mean, here he is: concussed and battered and no doubt shaky on his feet, and he walks right back into the city that just tried to kill him! And then... follow the narrative, verse 21:

The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples.

They go to a different town, a safer town, and a whole bunch of people put their faith in Jesus. So what do they do? Do they hang out in Derbe and say, "This is great, this must be where the Lord wants us to do ministry"? No. They decide that they need to go back through the cities they've just visited and strengthen the brothers there.

And so, Luke tells us,

They returned to Lystra [that's the place where Paul got stoned], Iconium [where they got run out of town] and Antioch [where the opposition started, chapter 13], strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.

And how did they do that? What message of “encouragement” did they preach? This:

"We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."

After being maligned, and plotted against, and pelted with stones until he was left for dead, Paul kept on preaching the good news about Jesus. He kept on strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. He went right back into the very cities where he faced so much opposition, and he said to them: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Can you picture that? Can you get a sense of that in your mind? Here's Paul--in the city where not too long ago he was nearly killed, probably with his eyes still blackened and his nose twisted out of joint, with scars all over his face and arms, with big, purple bruises and lumps on his head--and he's saying "we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."

I don't think too many people spoke up and said: "What do you mean Paul?" I doubt if he needed much by way of illustration for that sermon. He was the illustration.

Following Jesus Means Risk
So what does that mean for us?

For one thing, it means that if you are going to be a Christian, then it is likely that hardship will come your way. Following Jesus means risk.

That’s what Paul is talking about. He calls it entering the “kingdom of God.” He’s talking about the full measure of God’s reign in our lives. He’s talking about living our lives in obedience to God and according to His call in our lives. And he’s saying it won’t come easy.

That’s what happened to Paul: he was simply carrying out his call. He was being obedient to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. He was loving God by proclaiming the good news of Jesus and He was loving people by pointing them to the only hope of eternal life this world has. He was doing what every Christian is called to do.

And he met with hardship.

There’s a quote from the U.S. Naval Commander and Military historian H.H. Frost that is one of my favorite non-Bible quotes. It goes like this: “Every mistake in war is excusable except inactivity and the refusal to take risks.”

I think that quote is so applicable to the Christian life. The truth is: the Christian life is a form of warfare. We are involved in a fight between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. And so, we must do something. We must be active in our service to Christ. And we must take risks for the cause of Christ.

We must look at living our lives for God as a sort of wartime lifestyle. And living with that kind of wartime mentality means taking risks.

What is Hardship?
The problem is, our idea of hardship has become so watered down. In a book called Rumors of Another World Philip Yancey writes:

In my visits to churches overseas, one difference from North American Christians stands out sharply: their view of hardship and suffering. We who live in unprecedented comfort seem obsessed with the problem of pain…Prayer meetings in the U.S. often focus on illnesses and requests for healing. Not so elsewhere.

I asked a man who visits unregistered house churches in China whether Christians there pray for a change in harsh government policies. After thinking for a moment, he replied that not once had he heard a Chinese Christian pray for relief. “They assume they’ll face opposition,’ he said. “They can’t imagine anything else.” He then gave some examples. One pastor had served a term of twenty-seven years at hard labor for holding unauthorized church meetings. When he emerged from prison and returned to church, he thanked the congregation for praying. Assigned a dangerous prison job, he had managed to couple together one million railroad cars without an injury. “God answered your prayers for my safety!” he proudly announced. Another imprisoned pastor heard that his wife was going blind. Desperate to rejoin her, he informed the warden that he was renouncing his faith. He was released, but soon felt so guilty that he turned himself in again to the police. He spent the next thirty years in prison. (Rumors of Another World, 212-213)

Frankly, our idea of hardship is just too benign, too self-centered. We are spared from the more difficult things many Christians elsewhere in the world face for their faith. We do not run the risk of being thrown into jail for going to church. We really do not need to worry about mobs coming to run us out of town or throwing stones at us for talking about Jesus.

Ironically, though, instead of freeing us up to take more and greater risks for the kingdom of God, I’m afraid our freedom from persecution makes us even less willing to face things that make us uncomfortable.

I mean, what are hardships we might have to face for believing in Jesus Christ? What are the risks we face?

Maybe it will mean feeling a little uncomfortable as we invite a friend to church or initiate a discussion about Jesus Christ. Maybe it will mean feeling left out when your friends decide to go to a drinking party, or a casino, or an explicit movie and you decide it would be more honoring to Christ if you refrained. Maybe it will mean driving an older car or living in a smaller house or wearing less fashionable clothes so that you can give more money to the cause of missions. Maybe it will mean giving up a night at home so that you can volunteer to work with a children’s program. Maybe it will mean changing things at church that you’ve become comfortable with so that more people can be introduced to Jesus.

I’m not saying these things aren’t hard—they can be very hard and intimidating—but really, are these things harder to endure than what Paul went through? Than what those Chinese pastors suffer for the sake of Christ?

Facing Hardship for Christ Takes Courage
The truth is, following Jesus means risk and taking risks for Christ takes courage. Can anyone doubt the courage of the Apostle Paul as he stood in front of the rock throwing mob at Lystra?

John Piper, in his book Don’t Waste Your Life writes:

In wartime sinners often rise to remarkable levels of sacrifices for causes that cannot compare with Christ. The greatest cause in the world is joyfully rescuing people from hell, meeting their earthly needs, making them glad in God, and doing it with a kind, serous pleasure that makes Christ look like the Treasure he is. No war on earth was ever fought for a greater cause or a greater king. But oh, what bold risks and daring sacrifices these lesser causes have inspired!

Piper then goes on to quote some stories from Flags of our Fathers, James Bradley’s history of the battle for Iwo Jima. That’s a book I’ve also read, and like Piper, I’m in awe of the courage men showed in World War II. For instance, there’s the story of Jacklyn Lucas:

He’d fast-talked his way into the Marines at fourteen, fooling the recruit[ers] with his muscled physique…Assigned to drive a truck in Hawaii, he had grown frustrated; he wanted to fight. He stowed away on a transport out of Honolulu, surviving on food passed along to him by sympathetic leathernecks on board.

He landed on D-Day [at Iwo Jima] without a rifle. He grabbed one lying on the beach and fought his way inland.

Now, on D+1, Jack and three comrades were crawling through a trench when eight Japanese sprang in front of them. Jack shot one of them through the head. Then his rifle jammed. As he struggled with it a grenade landed at his feet. He yelled a warning to the others and rammed the grenade into the soft ash. Immediately, another rolled in. Jack Lucas, seventeen, fell on both grenades. “Luke, you’re gonna die,” he remembered thinking…

Aboard the hospital ship Samaritan the doctors could scarcely believe it. “Maybe he was too damned young and too damned tough to die,” one said. He endured twenty-one reconstructive operations and became the nation’s youngest Medal of Honor winner—and the only high school freshman to receive it.

I read stories like that and I’m done away with the courage that war brings out in men. And then I wonder if I have the same kind of courage for the even greater war I’m engaged in.

Piper concludes:

Oh, that young and old would turn off the television, take a long walk, and dream about feats of courage for a cause ten thousand times more important than American democracy—as precious as that is. If we would dream and if we would pray, would not God answer? Would he withhold from us a life of joyful love and mercy and sacrifice that magnifies Christ and makes people glad in God? I plead with you, as I pray for myself, set your face like flint to join Jesus on the Calvary road. (Don’t Waste Your Life, p. 122-129)

Having Courage takes Trust
So where does courage like this come from? How do Christians find the strength to courageously face hardship on the way to the kingdom of God?

The answer, I believe, is found in verse 23 of our text:

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

“The Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” In that little phrase, I believe, there is a world of truth for Christians who want the courage to live for the Kingdom.

Trusting in the Lord. That’s where courage comes from. That’s how we can face discomfort and sacrifice and pain for the sake of Jesus Christ. Because God has made promises to us. Because the Lord has told us that those who live for Him will not be disappointed (Mark 8:35). Because Jesus has told us our reward in His Kingdom will be great.

If you are going to have the courage to live for Jesus, then it begins with trust in the Lord.

Where did Paul get the courage to dust himself off and go right back into the fray? How did he manage to keep going, even though Scripture tells us this was certainly not the only time his body paid the penalty of his commitment to Christ?

In the book of 2 Corinthians, he gives his answer:

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

In a word, Paul’s courage was sustained by faith. He believed the promises of God. He believed there was a Kingdom of God—an eternal, unseen Kingdom—and his trials on earth were but “light and momentary troubles” fitting him for glorious and eternal service in that Kingdom.

When you believe in God, when you believe His gospel, then you can risk hardship for that gospel because you know such risk is not in vain.

The Christian who is able to decide ahead of time that he or she does not need this body—or this comfort, or this approval, or this bank account, or whatever—the Christian who decides that he or she is living for something else--something better, something unseen--can show true courage for the cause of Christ.

I Decided Ahead of Time
I heard a story once about a helicopter pilot who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in Vietnam. He had set his helicopter down on a rice paddy in the midst of heavy cross fire in order to rescue members of a patrol which had been ambushed.

Now, put yourselves in his shoes. Hovering safely in a helicopter several thousand feet up, he could look down on a landing area criss-crossed with heavy tracer fire and pock-marked by exploding mortar shells. It was a virtual suicide mission. And yet, he knew that in the midst of that hell were several men who would die unless he got to them. So he took his helicopter in, endured the hits, and got them out.

When asked later how he had done it, he answered: “I decided ahead of time that I was gonna die.”

In a sense, that’s what we must do if we want to truly live our lives for Christ. We have to decide ahead of time that we are gonna be uncomfortable, that we are going to sacrifice, that we might be looked at differently, that we might embarrass ourselves, that we might—in a manner of speaking—die.

But, just so long as we avoid the worldly lie that says this is all there is…that is, if we trust God when He tells us something better is coming… then we can take those risks with courage. We can say, so to speak: “Look, you can have my body. Or my dignity. Or my wealth. Or my health. Or whatever. You can have it. Because God is going to give it back to me someday, and you can’t stop Him!”

Opening Doors Around the World
So, back to the verse we started with. Verse 27:

27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

This whole sermon has been the story of how God opened doors on that first missionary journey. And the tie in to our capital campaign is that we want to open doors to Jesus around the world. One of the goals of the campaign that we’ll be pledging to next Sunday is that we will trust God enough to have the courage to take risks so that the good news of Jesus can spread to people around the globe who haven’t heard it yet.

Many of you are going to be pledging risky amounts of money. More money than you have ever given before. It’s going to take courage. And courage comes from faith.

So, remember, we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. The cause of Christ is worth it. The mission is worth it. God will not let you down.