They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 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. (verses 21-22)
“Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch” (verse 21). Such a short, seemingly throwaway, line. But it’s packed full of bravery, persistence and grace.
Bravery, because each of these places had been, at the very least, hostility-filled, with two of the three dealing Paul and Barnabas life-threatening encounters. In Lystra, Paul had been stoned nearly to death by a mob stirred up by hostile players from Iconium and Antioch. He was assumed dead and dragged outside the city, only to recover – miraculously – and immediately head right back into town, not choosing to leave until the following day. In Iconium, a plot had formed to stone both Paul and Barnabas together (later partially fulfilled in Lystra), but they were alerted and escaped. And in Antioch such persecution was stirred up against them that they were forcibly expelled from the region. Bravely, these two now systematically retrace their steps back through each of these centres of opposition, not put off by threat and danger.
What persistence! The reason they returned was because of their commitment to the forward movement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who had become followers of Jesus in each of these towns, in the midst of opposition, would need further grounding in truth, together with strength to persevere. So Paul and Barnabas went back, urging these young believers “to remain true to the faith”(verse 22). Their passion for health in these newly-birthed communities of faith drove their persistence.
And grace – such grace. How many of us would have shaken the dust off our feet and said, “Good riddance!”, never to return? Yes, Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust from their feet in protest” (Acts 13:51) in face of the stubborn hostility of Antioch, but then went back. In strengthening believers in each of these communities they were providing a beach-head for God’s kingdom, an outpost of salt and light, providing access to Jesus. They didn’t allow bitterness to take root, leading to avoidance; rather, they embraced grace and returned.
In so doing they provided a living example of the teaching they left with these newborn believers. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (verse 22). Of course all of it must be undergirded by the power of the Spirit. But there are steps we ourselves are called to take.
Bravery. Persistence. Grace.
Lord Jesus, I choose to embrace the example of Paul and Barnabas. Strengthen me with power by your Spirit in my inner being that I may bravely press forward in your work. Help me not to grow weary in doing good, but rather persist. And fill me with your own grace, that I may extend it to others, especially when they don’t deserve it, for that’s what grace is.
Pray: Take each of these words and pray them for yourself today. Bravery. Persistence. Grace. Anticipate any circumstance in which each will be most needed. Commit yourself to the Lord for today’s surprises that will specially call them forth.