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The Perils of the Imitation of Christ

Acts  14

It is the teacher's task to encourage his students to be the imitators of Christ. But this is not without its dangers, as we see in this week's passage:

(Acts 14 NIV) At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. {2} But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. {3} So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. {4} The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. {5} There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. {6} But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, {7} where they continued to preach the good news. {8} In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. {9} He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed {10} and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. {11} When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" {12} Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. {13} The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. {14} But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: {15} "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. {16} In the past, he let all nations go their own way. {17} Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." {18} Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. {19} Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. {20} But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. {21} They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, {22} strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said. {23} Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. {24} After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, {25} and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. {26} From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. {27} On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. {28} And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

The Peril of Persecution

It's going to get to be almost monotonous: the Apostles are going to face opposition everywhere they go. A friend of mine once confided that this was one way he could be sure he was in the right faith; after all, if your faith is useless, Satan doesn't need to bother with you.

Persecution is inevitable

"We must go through hardships." Evidently this particular set of hardships left a lasting impression on Paul. Years later, in writing to Timothy, he refers to it this way:

(2 Tim 3:10-13 NIV) You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, {11} persecutions, sufferings--what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. {12} In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, {13} while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

Paul knew what he was talking about. Remember those Jews who stirred up the crowd against him? Look again at the Scripture, and you will see they came from Antioch - the place where he started from. His persecutors followed him around.

Sometimes we think that this should not be. After all, we bring a Gospel of peace and good news. But our Lord tells us otherwise:

(Mat 10:34-36 NIV) "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. {35} For I have come to turn "'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-- {36} a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

We, if we are true to the person of Christ, will be a cause of division amongst our hearers. It has always been so.

Why the division?

Why does the Gospel divide the world?

·         We are the light of the world. Have you ever turned on the light and watched the cockroaches scatter? We are reminders of righteousness in a world that wants no such reminder.

·         To the proud - and our culture rewards the arrogant - we are reminders of what they are. Arrogance can put up with anything - except humility.

·         We are the ones who forgive - in a world that wants vengeance.

We force a division, for no one can be neutral in the face of the Gospel. A man must decide for or against him, and that is obviously divisive.

Our actions in persecution

Today we face no persecution like the Apostles - but we face our own form of it. After all, are we not "bigoted right wing fundamentalist blue nose puritans?" We can learn from the Apostles' examples:

·         We can see how they faced persecution. In reaction to the threat of persecution, they did not cower. Rather they asked God for boldness.[1]

·         As the Spirit commands, they return to the town that stones them (Lystra). Of even more courage is that they flee when persecuted.[2] Whether they appear courageous or not, they are obedient to the Lord's command. Sometimes it takes more courage to appear a coward than to be one.

·         We are commanded to pray for those who persecute us.[3] This is not, "Oh Lord, smite them dead." This is to pray for their genuine blessing, so that we may be children of our Father, who causes his rain on the just and the unjust.[4]

·         Most of all, we can rejoice in the face of persecution, for it means that we have been counted worthy to suffer for the name.

The Peril of Process

Process? Yes, the way we do things. There are great temptations here: the temptations to do God's things man's ways.

Temptation: Tell them the truth - when they can handle it.

A story is told of Captain Cook, the man who discovered the Hawaiian Islands. When he landed there, the natives (never having seen such a person before) treated him and his men like gods. He was considered to be the chief god. He and his men took full (and evidently wicked) advantage of this status. But when he made ready to leave the islands, one of the natives tried to stop him. As he did, Cook let out a groan. The native cried, "He groans! He is not a god!" The islanders killed Cook on the spot.

Think of the temptation here: to be gods, at least in the eyes of the people. It is the temptation to idolatry, rationalized by, "we'll tell them the truth later- when they can handle it." Instead, the Apostles tear their clothes (a sign of great distress in that culture). Why did they not "get along and go along?"

·         Because idolatry, whatever its justification (remember Aaron's golden calf?), is horribly offensive to God.

·         And it is terribly destructive to men, for it prevents them from knowing the one true God - and having eternal life.

Temptation: not gods - but definitely great men

"OK," you say, "maybe not gods - but definitely great men." Do you notice that the Apostles are quite emphatic on the point? Not only are they men, they are men like the rest of us. God will not honor dishonesty. Paul at least understands the point to utter clarity. God does not use "good men" to save "evil men." He uses any man to try to save every man. Paul remembers his days persecuting the church. He of all people has no right to stand and proclaim his goodness. He frequently makes reference to this - and uses it as an example that proves that anyone who will come to Christ can be saved.

We sometimes turn this on its head. The temptation to us is to think that the Apostles and others we read of in the Bible were somehow "a breed apart." The Bible makes it quite clear that they are not; Peter denied his Lord; Paul persecuted the church; David had Bathsheba - the list goes on and on. The Bible gives them to us, warts and all, for a reason. We need to know they are "men just like us." That also teaches us that we can be men like them.

Temptation: fire and brimstone

But the spirit of man is not quite through. There is also the temptation to say, "Yes, I'm no god; yes, I'm not super-saint. But you people are headed to hell!" Paul, however, takes the opposite approach. In a town filled with temple prostitution and idol worship he does not bring down fire and brimstone. Rather, he remembers that he is bring "good news" - we sometimes forget that this is the meaning of the word, "gospel." Indeed, he makes the point this way:

·         In times past, God let you go your own way. He provided you with plenty of evidence in the universe, but he did not come after you in wrath. He was waiting for this good news to be ready!

·         Now, however, the good news is come. Decision time is here. (There's that division again).

The Peril of Pride

If Satan cannot have you by means of the flesh, or by the world, there is always the deadliest weapon in his arsenal: pride.

Temptation: I'm the source of my goodness

Have you ever had anyone tell you that you're the finest Christian they've ever met? (In my case this usually means the person is either a hermit or possessed of very poor judgment.) Teachers and preachers must deal with the problem of praise. For if we are doing our tasks well, someone will eventually come up and say, "thank you."

Now, if you take this as a sign that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, and doing it well, this can be very encouraging (and I thank my students for it). But if you do not give God the glory - and here is the time to do it - the temptation is to begin to believe that you are the source of your own goodness. In short, I'm good and I've made myself that way. Now, just to identify this attitude will usually cure it. But if it doesn't, consider this: if someone is looking at me and seeing God, should I not step aside to show them the true, Living God? If I won't, I will soon cease to be good - and quickly cease to be thanked.

Temptation: I'm good, you're not

If you want the real definition of pride, it's this: I'm better than you are. It's an ugly attitude in everyone else (but feels good to me). It also tends to make you highly ineffective in personal evangelism.

The Apostles' example

In this passage the Apostles show the true position of the Christian worker;

·         Pride does not enter into their decision. If they are persecuted, they flee - and return later at the command of the Spirit, without fear.

·         They appoint elders with prayer and fasting. This shows that they know they are not indispensable. Someone else must carry on the work, and they must be confirmed in the humbling rite of prayer and fasting.

·         They return to Antioch - to report to the church. They are men under authority, like the centurion. They know their place; they know their task; they know their Lord.

Do we?

[1] Acts 4:25-29

[2] Matthew 10:23

[3] Matthew 5:43-44

[4] Matthew 5:45

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