How do you like the quote in the title? Agree? Disagree? Let’s talk about it.
In the previous post we looked at the question of whether or not Jesus is okay with various levels of commitment to him. As we study Acts, it seems that a guy like the Apostle Paul was radically committed to Jesus. Paul was nearly stoned to death one day, and the next day he is back out there preaching. But is that radical? Or is it normal? Today we continue studying Acts 14, as Paul and Barnabas address this very question. Let’s take a close look at this loaded sentence in Acts 14, verse 22, which is in the title of this post: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” What does it mean?
First the apostles say, “We MUST go through many hardships.” Really? Does this statement come with a guarantee? Must Christians go through hardship? Isn’t it at least theoretically possible that a Christian could go through their whole life without being persecuted for Christ? Or are Paul and Barnabas saying that if we don’t face persecution, then we’re not true Christians? Did the apostles mean that if Christians had true faith, bold faith, like Paul and Barnabas, we would be persecuted in some way or another? How are we American Christians to understand this, as we live in relative wealth and peace? Hang on, as we look at the rest of the sentence, we’ll try to answer this.
Next they say that the Christians will “go through MANY hardships.” Not just a few, but many. Is this just Paul and Barnabas speaking from their experience? If Paul and Barnabas could have seen American Christianity in the last couple hundred years would they say, “Oh…okay…you live in a wealthy country where there is freedom of religion, so you won’t suffer, and you’ll be able to experience a wonderful, peaceful life and still enter the kingdom of heaven”? Would they say that? Would they affirm the ease of what many of us see as American Christianity? Don’t you wish you could ask them? Let’s keep looking at this phrase.
It concludes with, “to enter the kingdom of God”. Wait…I thought that entering the kingdom of God was about believing in Jesus. So how do we enter the Kingdom of God? By believing in Jesus? OR as Paul & Barnabas say here, by going “through many hardships”?
It is both. Becoming and living as a disciple of Jesus includes both the simplicity of believing him, and the complexity of giving up our lives to follow his ways, to chase after the things that are important to him, as we see Paul and Barnabas doing in this passage.
Therefore Acts 14 is an example of how faithfully following the way of Jesus might bring you into conflict with people who disagree with you. Following the way of Jesus is not always a popular or desirable pattern of life to everyone in the world. Truth be told, following the way of Jesus might not be agreeable to all Christians, considering what Jesus meant when he talked about what it means to be his disciple, which he described as taking up your cross daily, dying to yourself and following him. Speaking up for the way of Jesus can get you in trouble in the community and in the church.
What I am getting at is that Paul and Barnabas’ statement in verse 22, that we must go through hardships to enter the kingdom of God, is a true statement. Our good news is not good news to everyone. But that doesn’t mean we should keep quiet about it The opposite is true. I am concerned that the statement in verse 22 is so true, and that we implicitly know it is true, that we might not share the story of Jesus as frequently as we could, because we don’t want to face hardships.
Sometimes those hardships might come from others who don’t know Jesus, and sometimes those hardships might come from those who claim to know Jesus but don’t have the same understanding of what Jesus stood for. Because of that, speaking up for the mission of Jesus (in a way that is flowing with the fruit of the Spirit) can cause hardship here in America. We do not at this point in time face persecution, and we should not characterize the hardships we face here the same as persecution that so many around the world do face.
But still I ask you to evaluate your interaction with people. How close are you to level of Paul and Barnabas in how they spoke up? Do you need to speak up more about the story of Jesus and who He is and what he stood for?
If you’d like, read how the story finishes in Acts 14, verses 23-28. To summarize, Paul and Barnabas travel back to each city they’ve visited, where they establish leaders in each of the churches, and then they finally return to their home base in Antioch. They gather the church together, reporting all God has done through them. Hear that? All God did through them. It was a work of co-creative partnership between both God and them. God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, and Paul and Barnabas also spoke up!
This means the speaking up we do is not something that God expects us to do all alone. Instead when we speak up and tell the story of Jesus and who he is and what his heart cares about, it is a speaking up that is in partnership with him. Jesus once said that the Spirit would give us words to say. We can pray for the Spirit to give us those words, to help us be creatively, lovingly, graciously bold.
And let’s remember, we can be passionate about telling the story, because the story of Jesus is the one true story. That means it is a better story than any other story out there. It is the true story of hope and healing and restoration with God and humanity. In saying this, I recognize the exclusivity of these claims, and that may cause some to wince. I mean no disrespect to adherents of other stories or religions, and I recognize that those other stories or religions have many wonderful doctrines and followers of those doctrines. So how can I say that the story of Jesus, otherwise known as the Christian gospel, is the one true story or the best story? To answer that, I would like to defer to a talk by Ravi Zacharias who passed away recently. You can listen here. I would be glad to talk further.
For Christians reading my blog post, I conclude by asking you to check back in to the next post, as I’ll talk further about how we can implement the principles we’ve learned from Acts 14.