"Good News for non-Jews: Kindness and Clues"
June 6, 2010 Acts 14:8-20
SHY ON EVANGELISM?
Vance Havner said, "The Gospel is not something we come to church to hear; it is something we go from church to tell." Yet many Christians have reservations about telling another person the gospel. The Barna Research Group found in a nationwide survey of Americans that just 31% - less than one-third of all adults - know the meaning of the expression "the gospel". Even for those who do know 'the gospel' means 'the Good News' about Jesus, we're sometimes reluctant to share it with others because we don't know where to begin. A published presentation like the "Four Spiritual Laws" may not seem to fit. Sometimes if we DO share, we can get discouraged if there doesn't seem to be any visible result, as far as we can tell; it may take a person many hearings of the gospel before they respond. There are many factors which can make us shy or hesitant about telling another person how they can be saved.
You might be surprised to find out such a well-known head of an evangelistic organization as Bill Bright shares those reservations. (Bill Bright founded Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Power To Change.) He wrote, "Although I have shared Christ personally with many thousands of people through the years, I am a rather reserved person and I do not always find it easy to witness.But I have made this my practice, and I urge you to do the same: Assume that whenever you are alone with another person for more than a few moments, you are there by divine appointment to explain to that person the love and forgiveness he can know through faith in Jesus Christ."
God does arrange 'divine appointments' for us to communicate His Good News to others. Today in Acts 14 we see the apostle Paul with God's help creatively finding a starting point from which to introduce the gospel, and reaping eventual significant results despite a discouraging initial response.
'GOOD NEWS' DEPENDS WHERE YOU'RE AT
Up until now in the book of Acts, the apostles have been working in a primarily Jewish context; Peter did preach to Gentiles in Acts 10, but Cornelius was already a devout 'God-fearer' so Peter was able to begin his talk from the story of Israel (Acts 10:2,36). What was the core of the message preached by the early church? How could we sum it up? CH Dodd in The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments summarizes Peter's first four speeches thus: 1) The age of fulfilment has dawned, referring to the prophets' predictions about the Messiah in the Old Testament. 2) This has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, with proof from the Scriptures that all took place through God's determinate counsel, including Jesus' descent from King David. 3) By virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God, as Messianic head of the new Israel. 4) The Holy Spirit in the Church is the sign of Christ's present power and glory. 5) The Messianic Age will shortly reach its consummation in the return of Christ - 'the restoration of all things, of which God spoke through the mouth of His prophets from of old.' 6) The Kerygma always closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of 'salvation' / 'the life of the Age to Come' to those who enter the elect community.
So you can see how embedded in Jewish history and Scripture the gospel has been in the first dozen chapters of Acts - you see that even in Paul's sermon at the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13(16-41). But when Paul arrives in Galatia, in this region of Lycaonia, he's suddenly got a big problem: there's no local synagogue, no knowledge of Scripture or recognition of the Hebrew Bible as morally authoritative in any way. He's here among pagans. How to translate the gospel into new terms that are relevant to his listeners?
Later in Athens in Acts 17, Paul finds a local point of reference - an altar to 'the unknown God'. Here it's something different. There's a miraculous healing: vv8-10 a man crippled in his feet, lame from birth, who has never walked, listens to Paul, believes, and suddenly is healed. That definitely makes an impact on observers!
Paul also uses God's general revelation in nature as a jumping-off point. V15, "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." At Athens he similarly speaks of "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth...He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else..." (Acts 17:24f) Likewise in his letter to the Romans, first chapter, Paul writes, "what may be known about God is plain to [people], because God has made it plain to them.For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-- his eternal power and divine nature-- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Ro 1:19-20) Start with the fact of what is, and how God must have put it there.
In short, the question is, "How has God's grace been active in each person's life? What are the good things already given to them that point to God's kindness?" Acts 14:3 sums up Paul and Barnabas' proclamation about Jesus this way: "speaking boldly for the Lord...the message of his grace..." Never forget that GRACE is the distinctive note which sets Christian teaching apart from other world religions - God paying the price to reconcile us to Himself, rather than our works or offerings earning His favour.
The ancient secular writer Ovid refers to a legend in which the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes visited the region which was neighbour to Lystra in disguise, in human form. They weren't recognized by most people, only by an elderly couple named Philemon and Baucis. So they rewarded the couple who gave them hospitality by making them guardians of a magnificent temple - but killed all those who had rejected them. That's why the citizens of Lystra got so excited at Paul and Barnabas' miracle - they didn't want a repeat of the legendary judgment! How different the God of the Bible is from pagan myth gods! No grace in the secular legends. (In the current movie Clash of the Titans, the rivalry between Zeus and his brother Hades, god of the underworld, is another example.) Only the Trinity is big and paradoxical enough to ransom us from sin. Besides Jesus, no other religious leader ever claimed to die and be raised as payment for our sins, a propitiation satisfying the judgment of the Almighty.
So, in that 'Bill Bright' moment when you realize this personal encounter may be a 'divine appointment', you can be praying, "how has God's goodness and grace already been active in this person's life?" That may involve sensitively finding out some of their story, the ups and downs of their journey.
Our situation today in many ways is like that of Paul. No longer can we rely on quoting Scripture verses as if they'd be convincing to a secular person on the basis of their own authority, as may have been the case a few decades ago before the collapse of 'Christendom'. But, on the other hand, the argument from general revelation about God as Creator is gaining weight as flaws in macro-evolutionary theory become increasingly problematic for secularists. Decades of archeology have failed to reveal 'missing links' in the fossil record. On a molecular level, information science challenges the probability of life just 'happening' (witness Kirk Durston's research on 4-dimensional enzyme complexity). Cosmic research shows how delicately fine-tuned earth is, the planetary conditions required in order to make life possible. Evolution can also be challenged on philosophical grounds - scientists concede the second law of thermodynamics on an overall scale (that is, regarding entropy - free energy in a system is always increasing, things tend to break down or become more disorderly); but when it comes to the particulars of the origin of life, somehow entropy suddenly doesn't apply. That's just plain inconsistent!
Paul maintained the living God 'made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.' God's invisible qualities are 'clearly seen, being understood from what has been made' - if people will simply be intellectually honest and put aside any moral bias pre-disposing them to demand there be no God because that would spoil their fun.
NEVER ALONE: GOD OUR 'CO-WITNESS'
Paul wasn't alone in his presenting the gospel. Yes, Barnabas was his companion on the mission journey; and 14:20 mentions other disciples gathering around Paul after the stoning. But most important, God was a 'co-witness', orchestrating events and working in people's hearts by His Spirit independently of Paul's preaching. 14:3 says "the Lord...confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders." The word translated 'confirmed' is literally martureo, to bear witness, as in a 'martyr' who testifies. The healing of the man lame in his feet from birth was an example of Mark 16:20, "the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it."
Paul points out God's witness in general in 14:17, "Yet he has not left himself without testimony [or, witness, same root again]: 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." God's grace has touched everyone's lives at some time or other in the physical and emotional realms. Lystra was surrounded by a tableland suited to sheep pasture, but was often dry, so this dependence on rain would be keenly felt locally.
God's grace is seen more sensationally in the particular instance of the healing of the lame man. 14:8-10 NRSV, "In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And the man sprang up and began to walk." One commentator puts it, "He leaped up with a single bound and began to walk." Wouldn't that get your attention! God will work amazing things when we're obedient in witnessing to His grace. I can think of a couple of instances in our congregation just this past week people shared with me that were pretty special - one involved a baker, another a teenager.
Also dramatic was the outcome of Paul being stoned and dragged outside the city in v19; his attackers thought he was dead. But read on to v20, "After the disciples had gathered around him [perhaps praying], he got up and went back into the city." Stoning was meant to be fatal! But God sustained or resuscitated Paul even through that.
In v8 'crippled in his feet' the word crippled or disabled elsewhere is rendered 'impossible', as in Jesus' saying in Matthew 19:26, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." God specializes in things that seem humanly impossible, because then it's evident it has to have been a 'God-thing'.
Do you feel 'disabled' when it comes to witnessing? Your point of weakness, your inability, may be the very thing God uses to minister to others. For instance, Joni Eareckson Tada - though paralyzed in a diving accident, has had a tremendous ministry. Another is Nick Vucisic, who was to be a main speaker at an outreach event in Kitchener - his website title, 'lifewithoutlimbs.org' describes his physical challenges. But God's using him to point people to Jesus as the One who ultimately can give life meaning, whether or not you have arms or legs.
WAS TAKING A LICKING IN LYSTRA WORTH IT?
How had Paul and Barnabas been faring in their first missionary journey to this point? Back in Pisidian Antioch, the jealous Jews talked abusively against what Paul was saying, stirred up persecution against them, and expelled them from their region (13:45,50). At Iconium there developed a plot to mistreat and stone them, but the pair got wind of it and fled before it could come to pass. Here Paul actually gets stoned. This could have been very discouraging for them; one minute the crowd's wanting to sacrifice to you, the next minute they're killing you!
Stoning must do major damage to a person's body and physical system. In 2Cor 12(2-4) Paul talks about a man getting caught up to the third heaven or paradise, then a 'thorn in the flesh' is given to him to torment him and keep him from becoming conceited on account of the revelations. The man could be Paul and the 'thorn' a result from near-death damage due to stoning. He writes to the Galatians (6:17), "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus." Persecution leaves scars.
In witnessing, Paul became battered and 'used up' for the gospel: was it worth it? Is it worth it when we speak up as a Christian and are scorned for it? Is it worth it when we tithe for Christian causes and consequently can't afford as nice a holiday as someone else? What reward did Paul see for his faithful witness?
First, God gave him a Timothy. A commentator notes that Timothy may have witnessed the healing of the lame man and was probably converted Paul's stay here. Timothy later became a 'right-hand man' for Paul in coaching the young churches. Paul saw him as a very valuable co-worker: writing to the church at Corinth he refers to Timothy as "my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus..." (1Co 4:17) To the church at Philippi Paul "I have no one else like [Timothy], who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel." (Php 2:20-22)
A second outcome of Paul's witness is the new disciples, perhaps some of whom gathered around him after he was stoned. Paul's letter to the Galatians would have included the church at Lystra. A commentator observes that Lystra "is called by a name meaning 'The Thousand and One Churches,' on account of the ruins of so many sacred edifices. Lystra is named frequently in early church history as a center of Christian influence."
But there was also a third benefit to Paul for his troubles. When he and Barnabas make a return visit a little later - wouldn't that take some nerve, going back to a place where you'd been stoned and dragged out of town! - what do they say in v22 to strengthen and encourage the disciples? "We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God." (Repeat) The Christian way may be hard, but God's Kingdom is the reward. So don't give up when things are difficult. Don't quit, but turn to Jesus for renewing strength. In John 16:33 He said, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
What did Paul write to the Corinthians? "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." (2Co 4:17) The Kingdom - God's eternal glory - will make us realize how light and passing our troubles here have been.
SAINT STAYS SWEET DESPITE 30 YEARS IN THE SEWER
John Bechtel was a missionary with the Christian & Missionary Alliance. On a visit to China once, he was determined to find a Christian. He offered a woman some perfume if she'd introduce him to a Christian. She led him to a 62-year-old woman whose round face was like an angel with a smile from ear to ear. This lady lived in the servants' quarters in the house her parents used to own, with the surrounding land. But the communists executed her parents because they were wealthy and educated. Because she was a Christian, this woman was brought before the court in a stadium full of people. She wore a label 'Christian' and had to wear a dunce hat. Then they removed all her clothes to humiliate her and told her to renounce her faith. She told the judge, "I will follow Jesus the rest of my life." He sentenced her for the rest of her life to clean an open sewer the length of a city block every day with a rake.
So John Bechtel met this woman after she'd been doing this lifelong sentence for 30 years. And she was smiling! She asked him, "Are you a Christian?" When he said yes, she asked, "Can I hear you pray?" As he prayed he peeked and saw tears streaming down her face because it was the first time in 30 years she'd heard another Christian pray.
Bechtel found out that what she wanted most was a
Bible. He bumped into another pastor from Hong Kong who had brought in 6 Bibles, but they all had to go out with him when he left the country. Bechtel took his knife and carved Matthew Mark Luke and John out of one Bible, and so on through the 5 others, until he'd carved out one whole Bible out of the 6. His wife sewed the parts together with some T-shirts. The next morning, the day he'd be leaving, he went to see the woman again. He gave her all the clothes he and his travelling party weren't needing to take with them; the woman said, "Put them over there." He gave her some money - not much by Western standards, but what would be the equivalent of 4 years' worth of her salary. She didn't even hold but just said, "Put it over there." But when he gave her the cut-up, stitched-together Bible, she held it to her breast and said, "Precious! Precious!" She hadn't had a Bible for 30 years. Then she pointed at the clothes and money and said, "These things are not precious" - then looking at the Bible said, "THIS is precious."
How about us: Would we be willing to be humiliated in front of a stadium full of people for being a Christian? Would we still be smiling after decades of being forced to clean an open ditch of raw sewage with a rake? How precious to us is God's Word, with the promises of His Kingdom and glory? May the Lord be so real to us, so precious - and may He grant us boldness and creativity to witness to His grace and goodness in ways that will truly impact those we meet. Let's pray.