The gospel is…the word about Jesus Christ and what he did for us in order to restore us to a right relationship with God. – Graeme Goldsworthy

Monday, April 18, 2011

Abnormal Christianity

I was reading Acts 14 this morning . When I hit verse 22, I was struck by its potency.

"Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God."

If you read the entire chapter, it gives much more meaning to this verse. In verse 8, we're told Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra when they met a man who'd been crippled since birth. In verse 10, the man is healed by God's power through Paul. In verse 11-17, things become interesting. The crowd who witnessed this miraculous healing turned idolatrous...toward Paul and Barny. Paul and Barny freaked out, telling the people to stop it - to the point of ripping their clothes in angst (v. 14). Why? It grieved them to the point of holy indignation and frustration that their ministerial works and power should result in worship towards mere mortals like them (v. 15b), rather than toward the living God of the gospel (v. 15c) and creation (v. 15d) who had shown them forebearing mercy (v. 16) and common grace (v. 17). To their relief, this quick sermon worked, but not without a spiritual battle (v. 18).

Proving the fickleness of idolatry, some out-of-town Jews who passionately hated Paul and Barny's missiological message talked the mythological madness out of the crowd (cf. vv. 11-13 with v. 19). Consequently, the religious rock concert atmosphere of Greek mythology morphed into a rock-throwing contest, and Paul was the target. The frenzy of stone pelting was sucessful. Paul's bruised and broken body was dragged like a dead animal out of the city, "supposing him to be dead" (v. 19). Was this the end of Paul's ministry? Hardly.

I love verse 20. Once Paul's own crew showed up - those who loved his message and method ("the disciples") - and encircled him - and all the murderous religious folks were gone, "He got up and entered the city." Did they have a prayer session and raise Paul from the dead? Was he playing dead to the glory of God? Who knows. The text doesn't say. It just says what it says, and I find it intriguing...and kind of hilarious.

The second part of verse 20 and the first part of 21 reveal a man who's both tough and tenacious for the gospel. Paul goes to another city after standing up, post-stoning. There the apostle continued preaching Jesus and saw converts come to the message of the cross. But then he does something most of us pastors, missionaries, and Christians don't do. Verse 21b informs us that he heads back to the stomping grounds of his stoners (and I'm not talking about kids dressed in all-black who smoke just off high school grounds [if you weren't a teenager in the 80's, never mind]). He returns to where he was pelted for Jesus and to the towns where his would-be murderers resided. And what'd he do? It's worth reading again.

Acts 14:22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God."

There's nourishment here for us. I love the beauty of the grammar of this verse. How did he strengthen those believers who may be scared and wavering in their resolve to follow Jesus - primarily because they saw what that might mean for them through Paul's stoning? He encourages them to persevere in the gospel ("the faith"). And what's the content of that encouragement? What's the crux of his message of exhortation? "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." To sum it up: he strengthens Christians by encouraging them with this message: "Persecution is not unusual. Christianity - following Jesus - is full of difficulties. And those difficulties will not end until He comes again...or He calls you home."

And this is supposed to ground them? This is supposed to keep them from falling away because of persecution? This is the crux of what he tells those who want to give up? This is the "encouraging" sermon to those who've beheld demonic mobs who want to crush their skeletal systems? Hmmmm. It's no wonder why Joel Osteen never touches this text. I never heard it growing up in a church that had the likes of Copeland, Hinn, and Duplantis darkening our pulpit (and I use darkening very intentionally). I don't think it's in Love Wins. Do you know why? Because it's not soft. It doesn't fill seats. And it doesn't sell. It's real; it's rough. But, most importantly, it's redemptive - because it points us to the One Who "through many tribulations" purchased redemption for us! He was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with much grief" (Is. 53.3). Do we think it will be any different for us? Maybe this is why the author of Hebrews said something similar to a group of our brothers and sisters who were also enduring severe persecution two thousand years ago. "For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (12.3).

What's crucial to persevering through seasons of gospel persecution is not a stoic, grit-your-teeth attitude. We must focus continually on our Savior and, in doing so, find the grace to imitate His joy in the face of trials, as well as His defiance against the trap of self-pity that comes with such persecution (Heb. 12.2). We must remember, as hard as things can be at times while following Jesus, we still haven't shed any blood - as He did for us (Heb. 12.4). The Holy Spirit is not relegating our pain to the category of inconsequential by such a statement in Hebrews 12.4, but puts our gospel pain in perspective for us. And who of us doesn't need some perspective when suffering for His name's sake? I know I do...every time...without fail.

Let's keep such truths in the forefront of our minds this Easter week, saints. When it's easier to sin than obey the commands of God this week, remember Jesus who "learned obedience from the things which He suffered" (Heb. 5.8). When standing for truth in a loving manner becomes a tensious burden with someone to whom you are very close, let us remember that he said, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14.26). When sharing the gospel may result in being shunned - by coworkers, family, neighbors, or your barista, "Let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach" (Heb. 13.13).

For just as Paul told the believers of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, the Holy Spirit proclaims to us in the 21st century: such things are not abnormal to Christianity. It's abnormal when they're not normal.

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