`We Must Go Through Many Hardships to Enter the Kingdom
Paul’s First Missionary Journey
The date was A.D. 46-48, about thirteen years after the resurrection of Christ, and a group of believers in Antioch felt that they should obey the Great Commission and go into the whole world making disciples for Jesus. Until now the church in Jerusalem had been the center for all of the early believers. But by now some believers had traveled to Antioch and a strong church had been formed there. It was in Antioch that believers in Jesus were first called “Christians”.
There were prophets and teachers in the Antioch church and they were praying about how they should go about spreading the gospel. One day while they were all together worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke to them, probably through one of the prophets in the group. “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,” the Holy Spirit instructed. (Acts 13:2b) The group had waited for God to speak and give them direction. Now they were thankful for this word. They laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them off to the known world to spread the news that Jesus is Lord and Savior.
Barnabas and Saul left Antioch and walked to Seleucia, a seaport town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. John, Barnabas’ cousin, tagged along as their helper on the trip. The three men boarded a sailboat going to the island of Cypress and settled in. When their boat landed on the island, the first thing they did was to go to the nearest synagogue in the town of Salamis and preach. Because many Jews lived all over Asia and Southern Europe, there were synagogues in nearly every town. Saul felt that they should give the good news to the Jews first, so he wanted to preach about Jesus in the synagogues first.
Afterwards Saul and Barnabas and John walked all over Cypress preaching. Everywhere they went preaching the good news the people were believing in Jesus and being baptized. A man named Sergius Paulus heard about them and sent word asking them to come and tell him their message. Sergius Paulus was proconsul or governor of Cypress and his palace was in Paphos, a city at the other end of the island.
When Saul and Barnabas arrived at the governor’s palace and tried to tell Sergius Paulus about Jesus they were met with an obstacle. One of the palace staff was a man named Elymas, whose name means “false prophet” or “sorcerer”. Sergius Paulus listened to the Word and was beginning to believe in Jesus as Savior when Elymas rushed in and tried to persuade him against believing.
Saul (who was also called Paul) got angry and with Holy Spirit’s power looked straight at Elymas and said: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are filled with all kinds of deceit and trickery….You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see …” (Acts 13:10-11a)“Immediately mist and darkness came over Elymas and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him …” (Acts 13:11b) When Sergius Paulus saw what had happened to Elymas he stopped doubting and he believed in Jesus as his Savior. As you can see, Paul and Barnabas not only preached, but signs and wonders often attended their preaching. You might call this “power evangelism.”
`From Paphos Paul, Barnabas and John Mark boarded a ship and sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to Perga. For some reason John left Paul and Barnabas at this point and returned home. I think Paul was a bit irritated with him for this.
Paul and Barnabas traveled inland to the town of Pisidian Antioch and visited the synagogue there on the Sabbath. As part of the religious service it was customary to invite any visitor to stand and discuss the Scriptures. So since Paul was visiting he was invited to speak. And of course he showed them how the Old Testament scriptures foretold the coming of Jesus as Savior. This topic raised a lot of interest and Paul and Barnabas were invited back to speak again the following Sabbath.
Word got around that Paul had an exciting message to share and “on the next Sabbath, almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” (Acts 13:44) Many Gentiles crowded into the synagogue to hear about Jesus but then something went gravely wrong. “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying.” (Acts 13:45)
Many Gentiles accepted Jesus as their Savior. “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.” (Acts 13:49) But the Jews became even more angry as so many were turning to Christ. “The Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.” (Acts 13:50) Paul and Barnabas shook the dust from their feet and trudged on to the town of Iconium. And they were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:51-52)
They did their usual thing and first went to the synagogue in Iconium to teach about the Savior. And the people of Iconium were divided when they heard about Jesus. Many Jews and Gentiles listened and believed in Jesus but many more were angry and even tried to kill Paul and Barnabas. Listen as Scripture tells the story. “The people of the city were divided: some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the cities of Lystra and Derbe…” (Acts 14:4-7)
How many towns are Paul and Barnabas going to be thrown out of? This seemed to be happening too often. When they walked into the town of Lystra they saw a lame man sitting out on the street who was interested in hearing about Jesus. Paul through the power of the Holy Spirit realized that this lame man had faith to be healed so he told the lame man to stand up in Jesus’ Name. The lame man stood up and began walking and the crowds went wild. The people of Lystra had known the lame man and they knew that he couldn’t walk.
Paul tried to tell the crowds that this man had been healed through Jesus but they wouldn’t listen to him. In frenzy the people began shouting: “The gods have come down in human form.” (Acts 14:11b) They tried to worship Paul and Barnabas, calling Paul “Hermes” and Barnabas “Zeus”. The priests brought bulls and wreaths to the city gate so that the crowds could offer sacrifices to them. Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes and finally were barely able to stop the people from worshiping them.
Paul stayed and preached to these idol worshipers telling them to worship the living God and not their useless idols. But some of the Jews from Iconium and Antioch who had thrown Paul and Barnabas out of their towns earlier came to Lystra and worked the crowds into a rage. This time the crowds that had tried to worship Paul now grabbed him and in a rage stoned him. How dare he preach about Jesus and try to take them away from their idols! When they thought he was dead they drug his limp bloody body outside the city and dumped it in the dirt.
But some of the believers snuck outside the city in the dark and found Paul broken body. They all circled around him and prayed over him and miraculously he recovered. He crept back into the city that night and the next day he and Barnabas left. They went on to the nearby city of Derbe and preached and many believed in Jesus there.
And then Paul and Barnabas turned around and retraced their steps back through the towns where they had just been, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch. They were on their way home now but as they arrived in each town along the way they stayed awhile and tried to strengthen the new believers there and encourage them to be true to the faith. There were so many Gentiles who had believed in Jesus when Paul and Barnabas had preached in each town and now they needed help in growing in the faith. With prayer and fasting Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for each of the new churches in each of the towns they had traveled through.
And then they finally took a ship back to Antioch and back to the church group that had sent them out in the beginning. They had been gone maybe two years and now their first missionary journey was completed. They joyfully reported to the church in Antioch that God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And when Paul told the Antioch believers about all of the persecutions and troubles they had had along the way, he added, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom.” (Acts 14:22b)
What can we learn from this story from the Bible? Perhaps first we see that the believers of the church in Antioch arrived at decisions only after fasting and worship and prayer. While they all worshiped and waited on God, the Holy Spirit came and told them to set Barnabas and Paul apart to go on a missionary journey to the Gentiles. Do we need to learn to fast and pray and listen for God’s direction in our lives too?
Another lesson we take away from this story is that in every town where Paul and Barnabas preached about Jesus, they were either met with interested listeners and joyful converts or with angry threats, violence and persecution. And the same thing happens to Christians today who spread the gospel. Persecution is part of the territory. Jesus said that a person is either for Him or against Him. When we meet Jesus we can’t stay on the fence. We can either accept Him or deny Him.
Paul and Barnabas were rejected and thrown out of nearly every town they visited. And Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra after the lame man there had been healed. This was Paul’s very first missionary journey but he was already learning something. He was learning that a believer must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom.