Wednesday 4 October 2023

Paul 8

That collection of books we know as the Bible are a bit of a mystery to most people, and I think even as a regular church goer, when you are asked to consider even one of the more well-known titles in that collection of books like the Acts of the Apostles for example, written by Luke, it can still be a challenge.  I mean, who today, outside of the Christian church circles, could tell you in simple terms what that book called “The Acts of the Apostles” is all about?

And yet, the story of the Acts of the Apostle’s is fundamental to who we are today, where we came from and how the church began. After all, we are talking about the church of Jesus Christ. We know that Jesus lived on this earth, between 3 BC and 33 AD. Whilst he lived amongst us in mortal form, he healed the sick and he preached the word of God, he revealed God’s love to mankind and he died for our sins. After his resurrection he promised his followers, he promised his disciples, that they would not be alone, saying, ‘lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ And in the first chapter of the book of Acts, Jesus said to his disciples,

(5)   For John truly baptised with water – but ye shall be baptised with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.

 (8)   But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.

And so, as we know, according to the Acts of the Apostles it was on that day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, where the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, came upon those fearful disciples transforming them, so much so, that from then on, they would preach Christ boldly and fearlessly.  Thus, the arrival of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the beginnings of the Christian Church – this story, the Acts of the Apostles, gives witness to the power of the Holy Spirit, which is really the story of the early Church. In this sermon, we will find the apostle Paul, still on his first missionary journey between the years AD 47-49. Our text is taken from the first verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

And it came to pass in Iconium that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake that a great multitude, both of the Jews and also of the Greeks, believed.

Now, before this, Paul and the apostle Barnabas had been actively preaching at the Roman city or garrison town of Antioch in Pisidia, where, we are told, they had been driven out by the forces of opposition and so according to Acts 13:51, Paul and Barnabas shook off the dust of their feet and came unto Iconium.

Iconium, I know that some of you, quite naturally, as I would, might wonder what or where Iconium is?  We have a time scale now, we already know the period in which those events were taking place, that first missionary journey between AD 47 - 49, but in this text, in this episode where in the world are Paul and Barnabas?  Where is Iconium?

Let me answer that by saying that it’s in Turkey and these days Turkey is a popular foreign holiday destination and that’s where Iconium is, except that today it’s known as Konya. Konya is a major city in central Turkey and quite beautiful and that makes it a popular tourist spot.  We can get a glimpse of the importance of Konya or Iconium in Roman times, and the time of Paul, when we consider that even then, Iconium was the major town in the area and that running through it were the highways from Syria, to Ephesus and Rome, making Iconium a vast trading city.  If it were possible to have a tourist brochure for Iconium for those ancient times you might read something like this:

With its beautiful plains, made productive by the streams from the Pisidian Mountains, it was a centre of grain and fruit, known especially for its plum and apricot orchards, and its fields of wheat and flax, it was considered to be one of the most beautiful and fertile places in the world.  

Even then, Iconium was an ancient city, apparently so ancient that its inhabitants claim it to be even older than Damascus and Damascus according to archaeologists is estimated to be between 10,000 – 12,000 years old.

So, leaving Antioch, it was to this city of Iconium that Paul and Barnabas walked, a journey of 80 – 90 miles to the west of Antioch, and into the synagogue they went.  We should be reminded that this was always the pattern, it was always to the Jews, to the synagogue of the Jews and the gentiles who worshipped with the Jews that Paul visited and preached to first.  And again, we are to be left in doubt of the effectiveness of his

preaching. His ministry, his preaching at Iconium is dealt with rather briefly in the Biblical text; so briefly that it seems that it’s almost passed over, but I think we’ll see that this ministry is not such a brief interlude as we might allow ourselves to think. 

Paul and Barnabas going together into the synagogue in Iconium, not just as individuals, but as a team of two working together, speaking and preaching, not so that they would win one or two converts, it doesn’t say that in the text, does it? But rather it says that a great multitude of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed

‘The Greeks’ means the Greek speaking gentiles (Greek being the universal language of the time).  A great multitude – we’re not given any specific numbers here but the results of such preaching were tangible, self-evident in fact Paul and Barnabas were hugely successful.  We can say then that there was an impact – that ministry of Paul and Barnabas’ had a great effect.

Unlike the account of Paul’s sermon at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, we have no record of what was actually said, given the brevity of the text, but given Paul’s words in Antioch and the certainty that he was preaching the word of God in Iconium, salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, we can easily pass over this fact, this period at Iconium without considering what we should be considering – and what we should be considering is what the story of Paul and Barnabas, in Iconium,  in the Acts of the Apostles, has to say to us today, individually and to the church and to its leadership.

Today most of the Christian churches in Britain are either dead, dying, or deserted, the seed bed, the younger generation that should be carrying that light of faith into the future are not with us. Only this week, I heard that a minister at a certain church in Ashton is reported to have said when faced with row upon row of empty pews, he said he felt he was just preaching to wood. Often, I hear this kind of conversation, and then there’s an awkward silence because nobody knows what to say. And it’s the same wherever you go whichever denomination you discuss, even those once confident evangelical churches.

Whenever we get lost on a journey it is often better to consider the problem by going back to the beginning to see where we started from. Where we started from and if we want to know where we started from, we must go back to the Acts of the Apostles, back to that very beginning of the Christian church. And it’s through that story, through that very early account that we are shown, the necessary preconditions required for a true church, the necessary preconditions as much as fuel, heat and oxygen are the essential preconditions for fire.

I’m not surprised that I’ve been led to speak of fire in relation to the early Church or the beginnings of the early Church because you will know, and I remind you that early beginning was heralded by ‘a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, as it says in the second chapter of Acts, and there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as fire and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. 

Those words, they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, such men became the foundation of the Church.  They were the rock on which the Church was built, they were its energy, its truth, its love, its driving force and its fire  But perhaps to some that might not really give any meaning in terms of addressing the problems of today until we put the answer into some context and the context is simply this: if the Spirit-filled Church of the apostles and disciples was essential to the founding, the growth and the survival of the church in those days, then it is just as essential now.

But what we hear today - and it often seems that this is the message wherever you go, is that the Church must become more relevant, more in step with the world it has got to be where people are in the world, it must get up to date because the times have changed. Did Christ ever preach such a message? Did Paul? Can you imagine that? I hardly need to tell you that the answer to this is an emphatic, ‘no!’ They would have recognised immediately that this is just the old choice dressed up as the new – the choice between the Spirit or the flesh. The choice between God or mammon.

This question in any case is answered by Jesus who said to his disciples “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  This answer stands today as a rebuke to the Church to all the churches that have grown worldly and are dying as a result.  This answer stands today also as a testament, as a witness to the Spirit inspired leadership of the early church. 

The 18th century preacher, Matthew Henry, in his commentary on Paul and Barnabas in Iconium wrote:

There seems to have been something remarkable in the manner of the apostles then which contributed to their success. 

He went on to say of Paul and Barnabas, of their preaching at Iconium that:

They spoke so earnestly, and so seriously, so boldly and courageously that those who heard them could not but say that God was with them of a truth.  Yet the success was not to be attributed to the manner of their preaching, but to the spirit of God who made use of that means.

The question that we have to ask today, that one crucial question is – Is God with us?  Is God REALLY with us?  And I think that question can be answered by asking what it is that we are hearing in our churches?  Does the preaching we hear conform to scripture?  Does the preaching we hear conform to the word of God?  Because without that Christ-centred, spirit-led preaching, there can ultimately be no Church.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, God must be with those preachers, you might like to think that leadership comes from a committee, or from a panel of marketing or managerial experts, but it doesn’t – leadership comes from the pulpit.  Listen to these words:

And how shall they preach except they are sent?  How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things!  (Romans 10: 15)

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10: 17)

And so it was that multitudes came to faith at Iconium because they heard the word of God and those who preached. Paul and Barnabas, could only preach because they had been sent by God, they walked with God, they walked in the Spirit and in their preaching, they exhibited the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.  We must pray for such God centred, Christ centred leadership for our churches today.



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