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Difficulty and Dependency Go Hand in Hand

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 14

While sharing the gospel with those who desperately need to hear it is God-honoring and rewarding, it can also be dangerous. This is why we need to depend on the Lord and remind ourselves that serving Him is not about our comfort but about His glory.


Things often look different from the outside than they do on the inside. You discovered that truth when you volunteered to serve on a church committee or ministry team; once on the inside, you discovered the problems and challenges of ministry.

If you are facing those challenges today, let me encourage you with three suggestions. First, don’t deny that serving God brings unique heartaches and discouragements. It does! Second, don’t ignore the fact that pressure grows as you attempt to press on. The penalty of leadership, beloved, is pressure—internally, to see the Lord use that ministry; and externally, as you often take the blame when things do not go well. Third, don’t forget that God allows difficult times in ministry to create a greater sense of dependency.

For those who serve the Lord, there is a relationship between difficulty and development—and both are at work in you right now.

Listen to the greatest missionary team ever as they send back a report to the church in Corinth. How is this for an admission from Paul and Barnabas, as the apostle Paul is writing about their experiences in Asia?

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. (2 Corinthians 1:8)

Here is a great church leader who is absolutely honest about the ministry. I will tell you, I have not found many as honest as Paul.

Well now, we sail into Acts chapter 14, and the first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas have traveled into Asia Minor. And if you do not read past the first verse, it sounds like smooth sailing and sunny skies. They enter the synagogue in the city of Iconium to speak, and verse 1 says, “A great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.” There is immediate fruit!

But keep reading: “The unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers” (verse 2). In spite of mounting opposition, Paul and Barnabas refuse to leave. Verse 3 says they “remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord.”

The opposition eventually hardens into a murderous plot to stone them to death. And at this point they leave town—not so much out of fear as out of wisdom.

The next section of chapter 14 describes their ministry in Lystra. Though Lystra is not far south of Iconium, it is in a different district known as Lycaonia.

In Lystra they run into a different sort of problem. It is one thing to keep your chin up when you are persecuted; but it is another thing to keep your balance when you are popular. And these men immediately become popular in Lystra as a result of healing a lame man they come upon.

Paul looks down at him and then commands him in verse 10, “Stand upright on your feet.” The man immediately springs up and begins walking. This miracle is meant to authenticate the apostles as messengers of God.

The problem is, the people miss the point:

They lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes. (verses 11-12)

Two inscriptions found near Lystra identify these Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes, as being worshiped by the people in this region. An ancient legend that preceded Paul and Barnabas reported that Zeus and Hermes had actually visited this area before, disguised as mortal men, seeking a place to lodge. Everybody turned them away but one old couple, who were rewarded handsomely the next day, while the homes of everybody else were destroyed.[1] 

The people think Zeus and Hermes are back. So, they strike up the band and start planning a religious ceremony. But when the local priest of Zeus arrives to offer sacrifices to them, Paul and Barnabas are horrified and put a stop to this ceremony, pleading with them here in verse 15:

“We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should

turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the

sea and all that is in them.”

They are saying, “Don’t worship us; worship our creator God!”

A new threat soon arises when Jewish leaders suddenly arrive from Antioch of Pisidia as well as Iconium. They had driven Paul and Barnabas from their cities, and they have come to persuade Lystra to do the same thing.  

And they succeed. These same people who wanted to worship them as gods are now going to try to kill them. Verse 19 records, “They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.”

Talk about a roller coaster. One moment you are the god of the month, and the next moment you are being stoned to death.

But look at verse 20:

When the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.

This verb translated “rose up” is the same verb often used for resurrection from the dead. Now we do not know for sure if Paul is raised from the dead or from being as good as dead; but what we do know is that Paul is miraculously healed.

We know that because he immediately “rose up and entered the city.” He reenters Lystra; and when he does, he effectively shows them the power of God.

Next, Paul and Barnabas go on to the city of Derbe. Verse 21 summarizes their ministry there:

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.

They retrace their steps, even though it means going back into enemy territory. This time, we do not read of any further persecution. I would imagine the people are terrified of this man they had stoned to death, who is now walking their streets again.

Why did Paul and Barnabas return? We are told here in verse 22:

[They were] strengthening 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.

Now that does not mean you have to suffer in order to get into the kingdom; it means that you are going to suffer because you are getting into the kingdom of God. You are going to experience suffering and tribulation and discouragement and difficulty.

Paul is not denying the reality of difficulty; he is demonstrating trust in the face of difficulty. Paul was a realist. He knew that opportunity will always invite opposition.

We are also told in verse 23 that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church.” These disciples are now establishing local churches, and this missionary team is helping them get organized.

Now with that, the final verses in chapter 14 describe the missionaries’ return to their home church in Antioch of Syria. This was the church that had sent them out. I read verse 27 here and can just imagine the glorious time the church family had listening to Paul and Barnabas as they “declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”

Again, from a distance, it might have seemed like following the Lord was nothing short of glamorous. But up close, it was hard work. There were challenges and trials all along the way. And look at how this account reinforces our opening challenges as you serve the Lord. First, don’t deny that serving God can bring unique heartaches and discouragements—it does! Second, don’t ignore the fact that pressure grows as you attempt to press on. Expect it. And third, don’t forget that God allows difficulty in ministry to create a greater sense of dependency on Him.  

[1] Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Zondervan, 1981), 435.

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