The Persecution Prescription

Acts 14:1-7

And it came about that in Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles, and embittered them against the brethren. Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. But the multitude of the city was divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; and there they continued to preach the gospel.

A few months ago in the very early hours of the morning I was speaking with my former pastor, who is from another nation, about our pastor friend from yet another nation. We were sending off a group of short-term missionaries to yet another nation. As we waited for all the missionaries to arrive, my former pastor asked if I had any updated reports concerning our pastor friend’s flight from persecution. As we spoke, my former pastor pondered, asking me my thoughts concerning flight from persecution–fight or flight? Does one stay and endure extreme persecution and attempt to turn the tides or run away? I responded by paraphrasing part of Matthew 24. “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. But woe to those who are with child and to those who are nursing babies in those days! But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath.” Yes, out of context but still suggestive. I believe that if a believer faces extreme persecution and is able to flee, he should. Death and martyrdom are rewarded but remember what Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.”

Why die if living also produces fruit? I realize that this is somewhat out of context as well but I see similarities. Persecution provides two things–fruit and judgement, perhaps it also provides more. We will see that flight provides partial, temporal relief from persecution and while fruit is found in the ebb and flow, persecution finds it’s way in again. It moves the apostles to the next place where preaching has been prescribed. Let’s look at today’s text, carefully considering the surrounding context. Paul and Barnabas have traveled over land and sea, preaching in various synagogues but have pledged to go to the gentiles and have fled from persecution.

“And it came about that in Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks.” Eeeaarrr…the needle scratches and shrieks as it slides off of the record. Wait a minute–synagogue? I  thought Paul and Barnabas were done with the Jewish people. Context is king, Paul and Barnabas were done with those Jewish people but not these Jewish people, yet. (Remember this, it is actually very important.) Yes, a symbolic shift has happened but going to the gentiles doesn’t mean that Paul will never again preach to a Jewish person and we see this consistently in the Bible–when seismic shifts happen, they happen slowly and methodically with much warning. It took Noah more than mere months to build the ark. Adam and Eve didn’t die that day in Eden but lived on for hundreds of years. Nations don’t fall in a day. Jesus didn’t come immediately after the fall and didn’t die the day after his birth. Paul has not completely abandoned his Jewish brethren–quite the contrary, for Paul writes; ” I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” Nevertheless, Paul himself, the Hebrew of Hebrews had to be converted, and while it happened in an instant, on the road to Damascus,  he didn’t immediately become a preacher.

There is a reason why Jesus chose Paul. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, studied and knew the Law but also was a murderous fiend, dragging church members off to Jerusalem in chains. Remember, Paul didn’t persecute people on his path, he went out of his way to find christians to bring back to Jerusalem in chains. He is the perfect example of someone changed by grace. Yet he was also teachable and knew the Scripture even if he misinterpreted it. Paul had the proverbial heart of stone but Jesus circumcised his heart and Paul’s mind was changed after being with Jesus–that is true repentance. We see the significance of the Lord’s choice in Paul. Paul represented all that was wrong with the religion of Judaism but after Jesus met him on the road to Damascus, Paul becomes an entirely different person, but it didn’t happen overnight. Paul explained this in his letter to the Galatian church. Paul was representative of the religious, Jewish people but now is representative of the true Israel, as he has painted the picture of a cultivated, olive tree in Romans 11.

It is no wonder then that Paul can relate so closely to the blood descendants of Jacob–he was one of them. He had a zeal for the Lord, but not according to knowledge. Paul never gave up on the Jewish people, quite to the contrary, but his focus becomes preaching to all the nations–even through the synagogue. Notice; “they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks.” Upon reading this time, the needle stays on the record because we see that although the focus is not directly on the Jewish people, it is open and available to all peoples, tribes and tongues. The synagogue was a meeting place, where better to find large groups of people? Usually they were centrally and strategically placed in the center of cities, making it easier for Paul and Barnabas to engage with the town’s people–“they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks.”

I am an odd duck, as if you couldn’t tell. I’m not good at communicating to one person. If we add another person in the mix, I become a better communicator, up to the point where if we add 100 people, I can communicate at a much higher, more effective level. You will think that it is because I am a good public speaker, able to speak but not listen. However, if you were to sit in on any of my public speaking speeches, you would see that they are not speeches at all. I involve the audience–their input is integral to communication. I don’t know what Luke means exactly when he writes, they “spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed,” only to take it at face value. I believe, because I see it in myself as well as others, that we shy away from evangelism and discipleship because we don’t believe that we are good communicators. This missive has the title, “The Persecution Prescription” but we see many more prescriptions contained in the greater context.

One may be the only Christian in their entire workplace and that is a difficult situation for the introverted person. Unlike most pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers, I don’t put the burden on you to evangelize your entire workplace by yourself. But before you breathe a sigh of relief consider the greater context of the Bible and ponder the prescriptive package of preaching the gospel–get a partner. One could invite individuals over to one’s home and also invite a preaching partner. I had a great preaching partner–I was the Barnabas to his Paul. But like Barnabas and Paul, it couldn’t last forever. And since he was the Paul in the preaching partnership, he is in, yet another nation, the name of which I cannot mention over fear of persecution–he is underground. We would “preach” in parking lots, parks, and to drunk people present in a sandwich shop. We even preached the gospel outside of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ annual convention with another Paul like person–adding another always aides in authenticity. That’s a story for another time. In summary, we have not been back to do it again. Nevertheless the prescription is present; where two or more people help and feed off the Spirit in each other. The disciples went out in pairs, as did John and Peter as apostles to Samaria and clearly we see the prescription in Paul and Barnabas. It’s not about how well we speak but how we communicate the gospel. Many people are surprised when they discover that listening is the best way to communicate the gospel. But at some point, the gospel must be stated clearly. Find a partner and it may be someone that you wouldn’t expect. Also remember who it is behind your communication.

“But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles, and embittered them against the brethren. Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.” Speak boldly with reliance upon the Lord–I know it is easier said than done, we have faith that the Lord will provide all of our needs but not the Great Commission. I struggle with this myself but I know that practice makes perfect…enough. However we have other concerns contained in the context.

Seeing the sublime string of preaching partnership is not Luke’s aspiration to his audience but a side note. Though it is awesome to see that with dozens of writers over a thousand years that the same Spirit who inspired the writers to submit the sublime string, also works in us. Again, I digress but it is important to see. Luke’s aspiration to his audience is the Acts of the Apostles, hence the title of the book. Let’s look at the Acts of the Apostles and see the Persecution Prescription.

It never fails, the gospel that is. It always serves it’s purpose, it never comes back empty. It either serves to save or comes to condemn regardless of race, religion, creed, culture, traditions, tribes or tongue, the gospel either transforms the sinner into a saint or confirms condemnation on those who choose to be unworthy and unbelieving. Remember what Paul said last time; “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.” Paul wrote to the Romans, “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.” To the Jew first is not a distinction, it’s an order, ironically. Correct? Do you see this dogmatic dispensationalists? The gospel and salvation goes to the Jewish people first but condemnation goes to them first as well. How many times does Paul have to write that there is no distinction and no partiality but rather an order, before we will understand that there is no distinction and no partiality but an order? The dogmatic dispensationalists postulate that there is a distinction between Jew and Greek, and this distinction goes to the Jew first, then to the Greek, but then back to the Jew. But have we seen this anywhere in the context? Is this a theme that Luke develops? Did Paul predict a period of persecution from the Jews to the gentiles that would reverse after a rapture? Or, should we take things at face value–that is, all who don’t believe, are from every nation and those that do are from every nation. Consider the greater context, Jesus has instructed them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the remote parts of the world.

“But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles, and embittered them against the brethren. Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. But the multitude of the city was divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; and there they continued to preach the gospel.”

When we read a therefore we must consider what it is there for. Not the best sentence, grammatically speaking, yet it is an effective reminder. Notice the reason for which Paul and Barnabas stayed in their region–the unbelieving Jews stirred up the gentiles against Paul and Barnabas. We notice that under truly severe persecution, the prescription is flight. But amidst a minor persecution the prescription was to stay, preach and preform signs and wonders. Are signs and wonders applicable today? While I believe a million miracles happen each day, I also believe that the signs and wonders spoke of by Luke were a special epoch of time in the mid-first-century, during the overlap of the ages. Furthermore, I believe, Lord willing, we will see these specific signs and wonders decrease to a ceasing as we continue in the book of Acts. Again these are specific signs and wonders not spiritual gifts–that is a different topic. I agree with the dogmatic dispensationalists on this point: I believe in faith healings not faith healers. Therefore we must consider the reason why the Holy Spirit provided many signs and wonders when the unbelieving Jewish people stirred up the gentiles to oppose Paul and Barnabas. We are left wondering why the Jewish people present involved the gentiles. Could it be because they lacked the numbers and power to persecute on their own? We can’t forget that there were Jews and gentiles on both sides.

“Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.” Let’s look at a similar scenario we have already seen. “And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them eutterance.”

Why did this happen? Why did the first gentile converts speak in tongues? Does the Bible predict this and explain why? Indeed it does. Some seven hundred years prior to the event, it was predicted, promised and explained. That is a long time to wait for a prophecy to be fulfilled. Nevertheless it was fulfilled in a specific event but was also progressively fulfilled before and after the specific event. To understand and see this requires reading the Bible in consecutive order, considering the context. I gave the teenagers I taught at one particular church the choice of what book we were going to study next. Of course they picked Revelation. I was happy to do it, but, I told them that they would have trouble understanding Revelation without knowing Old Testament prophecies. But the same really holds true for most New Testament books. We don’t fully understand them because we only know a few, cherry-picked verses from the Old. We are all like the apostle Paul, not the murderous man I trust, but one’s who have been schooled in Old Testament traditions rather than a  sequential reading of the decline in civilization, with certain ebbs and flows. The fallen world didn’t get wiped out until the time of Noah. Israel didn’t fall in a day and Judah remained even longer. Judah returned to its land but the temple was never the same and no longer held the Ark of the Covenant. Nevertheless, God’s hand was with them so that the Messiah would be born to them. Jesus healed multitudes and cast out dozens upon dozens of demons, as did the apostles; why? Because there were multitudes of sick people and dozens upon dozens of demons.

Isaiah prophesied about all of this,  from speaking in tongues to casting out demons and healing the sick. See the sublime string–Jesus came at the pivotal time in history–sick people were everywhere and demons were running around unchecked. The dogmatic dispensationalists say that this is now, presently happening in our time but the Bible says it was then. Matthew writes, “And when evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘HE HIMSELF TOOK OUR INFIRMITIES, AND CARRIED AWAY OUR DISEASES.'” Paul writes, “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,’ says the Lord.” Isaiah prophesied about these days of which we are reading in the book of Acts–mid first-century. Yet Isaiah also prophesied about his day and a perhaps a few, select prophecies have yet to be fulfilled–possibly Isaiah 2:4b “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.” However we cannot make this assumption without considering the context. Neither Matthew nor Paul or any other New Testament writer has explained this passage, but that does not mean that it is yet undone. We don’t have the time in a missive moment to explore the entire context of the Bible. Nevertheless I have progressively pointed out glaring omissions on account of the Pentecostal, mega-church and dogmatic dispensationalist cultures and traditions. In the same way the redemptive history of the Bible is explained progressively as man progressively went from bad to worse peaking at the coming of Jesus.

I hate Christmas. I don’t hate Christmas trees, gifts, wreaths, tinsel, ornaments, lights, etc. I hate Christmas because I hate our so-called Christmas “Hymns.” I hate the celebration of Jesus being born in Bethlehem because we romanticize what is meant to show our sin and a suffering Christ. I hate the most beloved song of all time. It’s the proof that we tout tradition and don’t consider the context. “Silent night”– “there was no room for them in the inn;” “holy night”– “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord;” “all is calm”– again, the city was so full of people that Jesus was born outside; “all is bright”– rhymes with “night,” we have zero indication of the “brightness;” “round yon virgin mother and child”–there is nothing particularly wrong with this line but it is incredibly romanticized in its context–actually think about a virgin birth; “Holy infant so tender and mild”– that’s the Lion of Judah you’re singing about; skipping a bit for time’s sake–“heavenly hosts sing ‘alleluia'”–“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men awith whom He is pleased.;'” “radiant beems from thy holy face”– Shekinah glory emitting from the face of Jesus? I was under the impression that Jesus laid aside his majesty and came to earth under the most humbling circumstances. Like it or not Silent Night, even taken with literary license, is factually inaccurate. I don’t believe in Silent Night but in Luke chapter 2, Isaiah, Matthew and the rest of Scripture. But you are mad at me, thinking I am a scrooge. Consider the context. 

Everyone loves John 3:16 but rarely do people consider the context. Speaking to a Pharisee, Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil.”

In the same way that we won’t erase Silent Night from our hymnals, the Jews couldn’t erase their taught traditions from their religion. Jesus didn’t come to judge the world but he did come to judge their religion. In turn, the religious people persecuted the followers of Jesus, especially the apostles. The proof of all of this is found in the persecution itself. We see the persecution prescription in Paul and Barnabas. We see the persecution promise in Matthew 24. We see the persecution pattern in Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles–stay until they start to stone then spread the Scripture somewhere else. “And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; and there they continued to preach the gospel.”

The apostle Paul is the ultimate example. Once a persecutor based on his beliefs, circumcision and taught traditions he is now the persecuted because he has abandoned his taught traditions and accepted the grace of God. Paul is possibly the greatest believer in Jesus Christ to have ever walked the planet, yet he once was the Hebrew of Hebrews. How do we miss that in his being the Hebrew of Hebrews he was a murderous fiend? How do we miss that Silent Night is Scripturally dubious at best? Because we love time honored traditions but don’t take the time to consider the context.

Here is the Christmas song: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

 

 

 

 

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