“And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren. Long time therefore abode they speaking boldly in the Lord, which gave testimony unto the word of his grace, and granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the multitude of the city was divided: and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles,” Acts 14:1-4.
Iconium is located in the south of present-day Turkey and is now known as Konya. Paul and Barnabas have arrived in the city on the first missionary journey undertaken by Paul. Having started off in Antioch in Syria, where there was a Gospel church, and where the disciples were first called Christians. They had spent time on Cyprus, where there was that marvellous encounter with Elymas the sorcerer and where Saul became known thenceforth as ‘Paul’ and took the leading role thereafter in the early missionary work.
From Cyprus the apostolic band sailed to “Perga in Pamphylia” which is on mainland Turkey, north west of Cyprus. From there they travelled through modern-day Turkey and finally returned home to Antioch by ship, sailing out of Perga.
Controversy and conflict were never far from the advancing of the gospel and it has ever been the same right up to this present-day. Aye, and it will be so until the Saviour returns in triumph to put down the enemies of His truth. The final days will see the Antichrist “make war with the saints, and . . . overcome them,” Revelation 13:7. But that triumph will be short-lived.
“And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God,” Revelation 19:11-15.
However, until that day, the events encountered by Paul and Barnabas in Iconium have been repeated in kind, innumerable times throughout the history of gospel preaching. Let us learn some vital truths from this portion.
1. DIVISION AND CONTROVERSY HAVE EVER DOGGED THE HEELS OF GOD’S SERVANTS
“But the multitude of the city was divided: and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles,” Acts 14:4.
Such cannot be avoided by the faithful gospel preacher no matter how he may seek to avoid it by all legitimate measures.
I say legitimate since every effort is to be made to avoid controversy. This was the practice of Paul and all like-minded preachers. “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved,” 1 Corinthians 10:32-33.
However, it is not ‘legitimate’ for God’s servants, in order to avoid offending any, to preach anything other than ‘all the counsel of God’. Such was Paul’s policy. He declared to the elders of the church at Ephesus, “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God,” Acts 20:27. Herein lies the conundrum! To be faithful in preaching inevitably will offend at least some men!
Never was there preaching like that of the apostles in the early church, with the exception of the ministry of the Saviour Himself. Likewise, never was there greater controversy and division than that which followed these times of blessedness!
With the Saviour we read that “there was a division among the people because of him,” John 7:43. Never were such loving and tender declarations of the wonderful ‘good news’ of the gospel uttered than those by the Lord Jesus. Yet men were offended!
Indeed, He made it plain to His disciples that such division was an inevitable consequence of His coming into this world. “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division,” Luke 12:51. That will surprise and puzzle many! But just remember what is stated at the beginning of the gospel of John.
“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not,” John 1:10-11.
There never was, and never will be a welcoming of Christ and His message by unregenerate men. That which moved Cain to murder his brother Abel, when Abel talked with his brother regarding why his sacrifice of a lamb was acceptable with God while Cain’s sacrifice of the fruits of the ground was not. “And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him,” Genesis 4:8.
The gospel message is quite contrary to man’s own notions, his vain and empty pride in himself and his own righteousness and ability to please God.
Universally, men have risen up in defiance to the message except where God, by His grace, has subdued that animosity and granted a sight of man’s true character, which induces repentance and a turning to Christ for salvation. As it is illustrated in the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’, so it is with those who are truly converted to Christ.
“And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants,” Luke 15:16-19.
As there was a realisation by the Prodigal of his true state, so the sinner is awakened by the grace of God to his lost condition.
“For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.
That seeking of Christ for mercy is a God-induced response to the gospel. The reaction of the ‘unbelieving Jews’ in Iconium is the natural, universal response of men to the Word of God. The Jews were unexceptional in their actions and must not be considered more wicked than any other nation, including our own.
2. SUCH DIVISION RENDS HOUSEHOLDS AND COMMUNITIES
“The city was divided.” I can imagine the headlines in the local press (if there was any – Josephus’ histories were an early example of ‘news reporting’) when reporting this event and the laying the blame upon the two apostles for the city-wide split.
Nothing has changed!
We should remember that the Lord Jesus has told us plainly of this outcome to the preaching of His message. I have already quoted from Luke 12. Let we take up where I left off.
“For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law,” Luke 12:52-53.
That makes the matter plain enough. The division seen between Cain and Abel is an inevitable consequence of the gospel!
Such divisions bring much heartache and grief and strife. It does not end at a philosophical difference of opinion. No, it invariably results in violence directed against the messengers of Christ. There are times when ‘zeal outweighs wisdom’ and Christians speak and act provocatively. I have already indicated that such is contrary to God’s will. That I believe is the exception rather than the rule, though the world would ever lay the blame for such division at the feet of the Christian.
The innocence and holy motivation of the apostles is very clear. Out of hearts moved with compassion to bear with discomfort, hardship and sacrifice they came proclaiming the message of salvation. A “great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed” in the sincerity of the apostles and in the truth of their message and were converted. Yes, homes and households were divided by the message but many were also joyfully united around the feet of Christ!
Separation and division is a ‘side effect’ of the gospel for which no blame can be laid against God or His servants. Let me apply an old adage from the pen of Robert Louis Stevenson. “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”.
The gospel feast for the souls of men cannot be made without the resultant animosity of the degenerate heart of men rising up in anger against God’sWord!
Cain was to blame for the slaying of Abel and no blame can be laid upon Abel for provoking him. Rather, righteous Abel spoke in love, desiring only to turn his brother to the path of truth and salvation. That was the opinion of God. “Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous,” 1 John 3:12.
3. GOD’S SERVANTS MUST BE READY TO BEAR WITH SUCH ABUSE
“And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully, and to stone them,” Acts 14:5.
Please note the unity of these haters of the truth of God. It was a case of natural enemies joining together to fight a ‘mutual’ opponent. It was a case of “Pilate and Herod” being “made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves,” Luke 23:12. Opposition to Christ superseded their political rivalry.
The Jews were hated of all nations and still are to a very large degree. An example of the animosity toward them may be seen in Acts 18:2. “And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them.”
The Roman historian, Suetonius makes mention of this expulsion. He wrote that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome, who were continually making tumults, being moved thereunto by one ‘Chrestus’.” This is generally understood to be a reference to ‘Christ’ and it is thought that the reason of this edict was, that the Jews in Rome continually opposing and disputing with the Christians, about Jesus being the Messiah.
That being so, even Caesar laid the blame for the divisions upon the unbelieving Jews.
Paul and Barnabas would have been well aware of the likely outcome of their preaching since they had but just come from such a situation in Antioch in Pisidia.
“And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region. But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts. But they shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium,” Acts 13:49-51.
It is clear then that Christians are to expect such a reaction and must not be put off by it but continue to faithfully preach Christ. We must ever grieve, as must Paul and Barnabas, that the wicked reactions of men rob them of eternal salvation.
Whatever hurt men may thus inflict upon God’s servants is nothing in comparison to the hurt they bring upon themselves. The apostles testified of this by shaking “he dust of their feet against them.” How dreadfully final that act was!
4. FURTHER EVIDENCE OF THE INOFFENSIVENESS OF THE APOSTLES MAY BE SEEN IN THEIR REACTION TO THE HATRED OF THE ENEMIES OF CHRIST AND HIS MESSAGE
“And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully, and to stone them, they were ware of it, and fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about: and there they preached the gospel,” Acts 14:5-7.
They sought to avoid confrontation, not only to preserve their own lives but I am sure they wished to avoid exasperating the situation to the hurt of the newly formed church in Iconium. That a church had been formed we can be sure about because we read that the apostles return to Iconium on their way home. “They returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed,” Acts 14:21-23.
Note please that Paul and Barnabas told the people that they “must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” Is this not what the Saviour had taught His disciples. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world,” John 16:33.
Tribulation, and the inescapable division that such caused, were but the reaction to our continuing on doing God’s will and witnessing for Christ. We must under no circumstances water down the gospel to suit men’s ears!
I always read with admiration the words of Peter on the day of Pentecost. “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain,” Acts 2:22-23.
These words were spoken to the very ones guilty of the crucifixion of Christ. There is no sign of ‘diplomacy’ here! Truth did not give way to ‘tact’! Peter boldly laid the blame of the death of Christ at his hearers’ feet. There was no attempt to soften the message, as is the habit of the ‘modern’ preacher.
When again facing the Jews a short time later, Peter was just as bold. “The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you,” Acts 3:13-14.
Such was the style of the apostles and we must seek to emulate them and not compromise in the face of the unavoidable opposition of men to God and His Word.
That is the challenge of the hour in today’s ‘ecumenical’, ’non-binary’ and ‘amoral’ society!
Sincerely in Christ’s name,
Rev Ivan Foster (Rtd)
Saturday, 14th January 2023