“Commended to the Grace of God”
June 20, 2004
Texts: Acts 14, esp. vv.8-9; Romans 12:1-2
FCF: We are all lame from birth
CS: Faith enables us to stand and to exult.
Question: Is sacrificial living your routine?
Our text focuses on a cure for lameness. The place is Lystra, the place Paul and Barnabas fled to when the persecution got too hot in Iconium. So, when Paul teaches, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." we know that he is speaking from personal pastoral experience. We read in vv. 8-9 that a certain man had been lame from the womb. He suffered from a congenital defect--the kind of thing, alas, that today would have resulted in a recommended abortion. In this instance, of course, the plan of God--to heal this man’s lameness--would have been short-circuited. We are, if the truth be known, all lame beggars. Therefore we should never write each other off, rather we should have faith that God can work with us in all our imperfections. Faith operates in our lives to heal our lameness. Faith enables us to stand, to exult in the joy of God’s deliverance and to exalt the One who died to make such things possible! Lameness is but a sign of our fallen condition and of our helpless, hopeless condition apart from Jesus Christ. So we read this incident as yet another remarkable instance of God’s kindness. God liberated the lame man through the hearing of the word, by faith and through grace. How kind, how God!
Let’s consider two matters by way of understanding lameness as a metaphor, an apt figure for our fallen condition. First, let’s consider the homelessness of our day. We are aware, I believe, of the social problem of homelessness: there are many people these days, particularly in urban centers and third world countries, who are physically homeless. They have no home, no place in which to reside. Some dwell in cardboard shelters of their own making. Others travel from one homeless shelter to the next, taking advantage of such services are available--meals, warmth, a bed for a night or for a week. Some are single, some married and some with children. Some are old, and some are very young--many teens are numbered amongst the homeless. Some are drugs addicts, some are mentally challenged and others mentally ill. This is the painful reality in our own state capitol. We have some of the most piteous and impoverished creatures imaginable walking our capitol’s streets in all seasons, in all kinds of weather. “The poor you have always with you,” our Lord observed and we have obligations of kindness and love to dispense to these homeless. But much more widespread is the spiritual homelessness for which the social problem may serve as the proverbial tip of the iceberg. How is it that some many and spiritually on the streets? Adrift, wandering and wondering? I believe that many have been evicted by this age’s preoccupation with the tangible, the present and the immediate. This is worldliness. A cultural preoccupation with the here and now certainly pervades the church in general. Ironically, the drive to address physical homelessness, to alleviate that peculiar form of suffering actually harms us. It turns us into idealists, or utopians whose passion in life is fixing the here and now. And that passion for social justice in exclusively present, or current terms, let me say it bluntly, blinds us to our spiritual identity. The journey becomes confused with the destination.
But it was the sacrificial obedience of Paul that occasioned this healing. It was Paul’s calling that God used to advance His plan of redemption in Iconium and Lystra. To be sure these are ancient places in ancient times, but God has not changed. He is still loving, still extending grace to the lame through those who will go forth, who will preach the word of salvation. Sacrifice. We were originally designed to perform sacrifices of praise, a natural part of our original relatedness to God. Sin has complicated our lives. It interferes with that sweet communion which comes from the living, lasting and logical sacrificial way of life. Life as God planned it is worshipful, sacrificial. There were two types of sacrifice proscribed in the Old Testament times: the first is propitiatory sacrifice. Propitiatory sacrifice was for the putting away of sin--this is the system of sin offerings through animal sacrifice that never permanently solved the human dilemma. The second form of sacrifice was dedicatory. Dedicatory sacrifice was designed to express thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins obtained through propitiatory sacrifice. Our lives are to be sacrifices of this second type because Jesus paid the full price of our forgiveness. Tribulations, related to dedicatory sacrifice, exist to show us the cost of our sacrificial living. Without tribulation, your sacrifice of worship is a light thing, not costly. And, given the ultimately costly sacrifice made for your hope of salvation--that salvation which transformed Saul from a hateful persecutor of Christians to the instrument of God (“chosen vessel of Mine to bear My Name before the Gentile” Acts 9:15) who, by the power of God, healed the lame where-so-ever he went. Out of gratitude and commended to God’s grace, we choose to live sacrificially in this life.
Now I want to set forth plainly an important, but often unhappily skirted fact related to the tribulations that Paul himself endured, namely the revilement alluded to in verse 2. Acts 14:2 But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles, and embittered them against the brethren. The New King James renders this verse thus: But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren. And this contrary to their faith and practice! This activity is expressly prohibited by scripture in Psalm 15 which asks the question of who may stand in the Lord’s holy hill:
Psa 15:2 He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. Psa 15:3 He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; Psa 15:4 In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the LORD; He swears to his own hurt, and does not change;
Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; --this means, that a righteous person resists taking up the offense that somebody has against a third party. The people in Iconium should have resisted taking up the offense of the people in Antioch because it is not godly to take up second party offenses. Certainly this is not the only place in scripture where we are exhorted to avoid the gossip, slander and ill-speaking that God prohibits from those who would be godly. That’s a helpful, though challenging directive. It makes it clear the sin involved here, and sin is what it is, is two-fold: first, it is speaking evil, secondly, it is believing and acting upon revilement initiated by others. In our text, we are to note that originally there are two parties to sin here: unbelieving Jews and Gentiles whose minds were, apparently, open to thinking evil of others. So the revilement that Paul experienced originated with the religious types, unbelieving Jews, who thought themselves spiritual and who probably sincerely believed that Paul and Barnabas were divisive (v.4), troublemakers (v.5) and/or fakers. They thought they had the inside scoop, but they were wrong. However, their sin found fertile soil, yes, their slanders found a ready audience in the agitated and suggestible Gentiles. Is it possible that Paul needs any defense to those of us seated here against the charges of being divisive, a troublemaker and a faker? I hope not. I mean this: if Paul was not and is not purposing to divide people, then it is wrong to say that he is divisive. And the same may be said of any other charges which we now must see are slurs on his character and office, if not outright slanders. The same is true of the charge of his being a troublemaker, or a faker, or, in more modern terms, a religious charlatan or con man. So, beloved, revilement is sin; it poisons the mind of others with hurtful intent. It is a difficult thing to hear, but we must ask why are we prone to revile, and even more, prone to receive negative reports? Is it the world we live in? Is it a fearful heart that hesitates to believe the best about somebody in leadership? Are we imposing bad experiences from the past on persons who have no actual connection with that past except that they perhaps occupy a similar office? But this I have learned: those who easily submit to strong delusions, to passionate criticism of others, hate to receive the truth in their pride and love of that delusion.
I wish I could report that the matter of revilement was laid to rest in Iconium. It hasn’t been. It continues to be a given of the pastoral vocation. It is, unfortunately, common. It may be simply a tribulation that all spiritual leaders have to endure--but woe unto those through whom revilement comes. In my lengthy experience here at East Winthrop, revilement has been too frequently indulged in by far too many. Identical charges, as were leveled against Paul and Barnabas, have been leveled against the pastors who have been called to serve here--including myself. On the one hand, that similitude should perhaps encourage you to think that we are on the right path. Perhaps there are godly leaders after all, despite the revilement and negative reports which operate in our midst from time to time!
Present company excepted, I have been charged with being divisive, being a troublemaker and with being a faker. Certainly not the most enjoyable thing to hear about oneself. But I have learned to accept it, knowing that "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." Why should I be an exception? Now, while I have restricted my pastoral observations to those who are no longer with us, it may be that you are prone to sin in just the manner described too. Perhaps, you have reviled your spiritual leadership, or you have listened to , and harkened to those who have imputed evil, unworthy motivations to those God has appointed to shepherd you. By the mercies of God, I urge you to turn back. From my heart I can testify that I have never been intentionally divisive, nor a troublemaker, nor even a faker. I am equally positive that unintentionally I may have caused division, or trouble, or come across as insincere. For such weaknesses and for the real flaws in my character as do exist, I am repentant. Because of them, I have humbled myself before God and other--and I am grieved by not yet being all I would hope to be as a Christian, father, husband and, yes, as a pastor. I thank God that I have been given a chance to continue my pursuits of godliness in obedience to my calling.
None of this is to say that either Paul, or any other pastor is beyond criticism--Paul writes and I have frequently admitted my shortcomings and imperfections. Indeed, to those who have offered constructive criticism, to be plain, to all who have expressed their concerns in a godly manner without revilement, every pastor and I are hugely indebted. I repeat, I am grateful, preferring the wounds of a friend to the pretense that all is well, when all is not. It may that you have been as “tribulated” with me as I have been with my calling--indeed, I do believe, that those who have endured me through the years have earned their sainthood--field tested, true and firm. In like humble spirit, I now exhort any and all who have been seduced by revilement to see it plainly, to suffer conviction and to turn from making false charges against each other. Who knows what is in the heart of a man except God, and the Spirit who indwells him? Who are we to judge one another?
And, of course, compelled by the love of Christ for lost sinners and needy souls, Paul does not allow himself to be derailed by opposition even when it comes through those he might have expected to be most open, even most eager to receive the gospel. Out of gratitude and commended to God’s grace, Paul and his 21st century pastoral counterparts, persevere in obedience to the call of God. The gospel shakes things up. But it is not only the enemies of the gospel who know this, so do the friends of the gospel. Therefore we are not surprised to read in verse 3:
Acts 14:3 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.
Paul and Barnabas persisted in presenting the grace of God to those who would receive it. They answered the false charges by living in the midst of the people. Anyone who really cared to know the truth about them, could easily discover the true motives of their hearts: their desire for unity and peace and genuine faith. They were like their Master and they proclaimed that universal concord can only come by way of mutual surrender to Jesus as Savior and Lord. They also knew that being divided and have some go to heaven is far better than being falsely unified and all going to hell. If you have been following through on reading John Piper’s The Passion of Jesus Christ, you would have read in reason #37:
Imitation is not salvation. But salvation brings imitation. Christ is not given to us first as a model, but as a Savior. In the experience of the believer, first comes the pardon of Christ, then the pattern of Christ. (In my experience of religious education, this order tended to be either reversed, or obscured, with the result that I tried imitation prior to salvation. That doesn‘t work and leads to discouragement, or spiritual desperation.) In the experience of Christ himself, they happen together: The same suffering that pardons our sins provides our pattern of love. . . .
However, this unique suffering, after pardoning and justifying sinners, transforms them into people who act like Jesus--not like him in pardoning, but like him in loving. Like him in suffering to do good to others. (Again, I have experienced this transformation as a progressive, or growing thing. I have been becoming more like Jesus and I expect that process to continue until I meet him in glory.} Like him in not returning evil for evil. Like him in lowliness and meekness. Like him in patient endurance. Like him in servant hood. Jesus suffered for us uniquely, that we might suffer with him in the cause of love. . . .
Our suffering for others does not remove the wrath of God. It shows the value of having the wrath of God removed by the suffering of Christ. It points people to him. (pp.92-3)
This is what we observe in Acts 14 as unfolding in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. What the people heard and responded to initially in Iconium is the love of Christ for the people. For the congregation, yes, but also for the whole populace. That love is expressed by Christ’s atonement, by His bearing in His own person the wrath of God upon our sin. They both heard if preached and they saw it enacted by miracles, signs and wonders.
This good work did not prevent violence from breaking out against them from time to time. In Lystra, they encountered strong pagan error. The patron gods of that city were Jupiter and Mercury (the Roman versions of Zeus and Hermes). The Latin poet Ovid in his work Metamorphosis had related a fable set in that region about a visit by the gods that resulted in a devastating flood for the sin of inhospitality some thirty years prior to Paul and Barnabas’ visit. The miracle the apostles performed on the lame man, set up by that tale, through things into a tizzy. And the priest of the Zeus temple comes prepared to offer sacrifice. It’s important to learn how important cultural setting and timing can be for the presentation of the gospel! We need to know what’s going on around us--there are windows of opportunity everywhere. There is always a context for the pagan idolatry we may be dealing with.
On a superficial level, we should note that the error of the Iconians could be stated as “Do not give to any human being, the honors due the one true God.” But they were polytheists and confused as to the nature of deity, so that act of discrimination was as far from them as the next galaxy. Perhaps there was a clue for them as to the God they were dealing with in that Jupiter never healed a crippled man. Paul and Barnabas were anguished. Of course, they understood that nothing but false honors can flow from the delusions held by the Iconians. So they preached a message of natural theology, of general revelation--God’s goodness manifest in the provision of rain, food and joy of living. And with this they were just able to prevent the sacrifices being made to them! But to have to preach on this level, using only natural metaphors for the character and purposes of God does suggest how very far these pagans had to go to attain saving faith. They were religious and they were suggestible.
This latter characteristic is what the unbelieving, religious types from Iconium played upon. What unfolds is a lynching. Paul is stoned to death. I take this strong interpretation with full knowledge that others can only go so far as to say he was in a coma, or unconscious--as if dead. On what basis? First, I take this incident to be the referent of Paul’s claim to have suffered “deaths” (2 Cor. 11:23--in a summary of his pastoral experiences). Secondly, I infer a certain impunity attended his walk back into Lystra such as might attend a man assumed to be dead (they certainly knew what stoning to death meant!). And, thirdly, I take the related fact that Paul walked some sixty miles to Derbe the following day to be attestation of a real miracle having occurred.
Here, we must draw to a close, for a season, our journey through Acts. We end on the brief, but happy note that many disciples were won in Derbe. Derbe lay just over the mountains from Paul’s childhood home. You might have thought they would head there as a fitting conclusion to the first missionary journey. But, no, what actually takes place is that Paul and Barnabas reverse their journey. They return to the churches they have founded to complete a further work of grace--establishing them more securely in the faith and raising up elders in each congregation. They were determined to hold the ground that they had gained through the preaching of the gospel, trusting in the local leadership to take it from there--finding such doors as God would open and entering them.