When Paul entered Lystra for the second time after being beaten and left for dead, it was no question as to why he was there. He had returned to the city to “strengthen the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
What is the message in the Church today regarding faith in Jesus, Christian suffering and perseverance through tribulation?
Strengthen the Souls of the Disciples
Souls need to be strengthened because souls get weak. That’s why Paul was there; to comfort the saints. But when they witnessed the horrible treatment of Paul by those who hated him for his faith, they grew discouraged. Just like when we hear of the slaughter and persecution of our brothers and sisters around the globe today, we feel a sense of weakness and helplessness; maybe even some defeat. Paul saw their weariness and returned to strengthen them.
What kind of message could he bring them that could possibly undo what they just saw? This is a man who was just stoned to death. The Scriptures tell us that as Paul laid there outside the city he was given a glimpse of the glory and splendor of Heaven. Though he never describes the details of his heavenly vision, his actions speak volumes. He returned to his feet knowing that the riches of all that is to come outweigh the sorrows of earth. Even the stoning he just experienced was worth it. He had to tell everyone. The message would be clear; die to self and bear your crosses daily. That is where true strength lies, in reliance on God in the midst of suffering. As they grew closer to the reality of Christ’s sufferings, and by witnessing the Apostle’s own willingness to suffer, they would be strengthened, and persevere.
Encourage Them to Continue in Faith
Christians are not exempt from feelings of discouragement. Sometimes we just need to be told, plain and simple, to get back in the game and run the race. But continuing in Christian faith is different than anything else we might be tempted to give up on. In a spiritual battle, spiritual measures are required. Paul knew that.
Can you imagine the brothers and sisters in Lystra looking at Paul’s disfigured face in horror? Not exactly the face of a motivational speaker. But really, who better to speak of perseverance in the faith than a man who is acquainted with grief, and yet, still remains steadfast? He didn’t care to take the time to challenge them towards political change in Lystra because that was not the focus. He did not speak a word about those who stoned him or how to retaliate against them because that was not his mission, nor theirs. His message was to keep their eyes on Jesus. The people could clearly see in his swollen face and hear in the sound of his quivering voice that following Christ was not about ease and comfort. That’s the message we need to be clear about today. If it is your goal to encourage the saints to continue in faith, whether you are a pastor, blue-collar worker or homemaker, then your message must be one of truth regarding hardship and hope regarding Christ, our great reward. There is a finish line and after we cross it there is eternity with Christ. Every hazard and hurdle along the way can be used by the enemy to bring you to a halt. That’s when you set your eyes on the joy of Jesus, and just as He did, endure the shame.
Through Many Tribulations We Must Enter the Kingdom of God
Telling the Church that harder times are ahead has the potential to scare a lot of people away. But to tell your people that on the other side of the pains of this world is a Kingdom without end, a Kingdom with no sin, and in which righteousness dwells, will strengthen the saints like nothing else ever could. That is why Paul’s message to them was so powerful. Not only did he suffer for the Gospel, but he lived every day to proclaim it. The more he lived for it, the more willing he was to die for it. The more he lived for it, the more he loved it, and the more he became aware of its promises.
If Acts 14:22 is any model for encouraging the Church today, then much of the American Church has it backwards. Christians flounder when their faith is based on the false notion that good should be right around the corner. When it doesn’t come they deflate. The Church cannot be built on the notion that following Jesus is easy. It must be built on words such as, “Count the cost”, and “Deny yourself”. We must become comfortable with the fact the storms will come, but if we are built upon Christ we will stand. Paul told them that through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God. Those who embrace this reality and still continue in the faith, despite the stoning, the beatings and the ridicule, are the true disciples of Jesus. To strengthen the soul of the Church and encourage the saints to continue in the faith we need to be people who bring the hard truth of Kingdom living to the weak and weary.
A Pastor’s Perspective
Today, we are so distracted by politics and presidents. I personally don’t care who makes President nearly as much as I care that the Church stays on this mission for the Gospel till the end. I’m not sure exactly what the disconnect is, but lots of professing Christians are not doing what the early followers of Jesus did in their day of difficulty and suffering. The situations are really not that different either. Evil rulers, corrupt governments, hypocritical religious leaders and a generally apathetic public are as prevalent today as they were then. Sure, there are faithful followers everywhere, but it doesn’t take long to see that the first century Church was more resilient and more committed to the mission.
Can we change this? Of course. We do not need the increase of earthly riches, American dreams or even constitutional rights. What we need is faith in God, courage in tribulation and perseverance by the power of the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead. Let’s keep our eyes on the Author and the Finisher of our faith; the one who called us into His glorious light.
“Severe trouble in a true believer has the effect of loosening the roots of his soul
earthward and tightening the anchor-hold of his heart heavenward.” – Spurgeon