“When they had preached the gospel to that city (Derbe) and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch (in Pisidia), 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. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, and from there they sailed to Antioch (in Syria), where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples.”
They say that first impressions are important, and I would agree, but far too often a first impression is based on someone’s outward appearance and not their true self. Someone’s outward appearance can actually be be very deceptive or outright misleading. I’ve met folks who put on a great first impression, but once you spend time together their true character begins to be revealed. What is true of looks can also be true of words. People often say one thing while hiding their true intentions and only time and circumstances reveal their core beliefs, life choices, actions and words.
I often use the word “believer” to describe someone who has expressed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Word choice is important. I use the word believer to contrast with an unbeliever. I know that our core beliefs define who we are, what we believe and how we will react to and interact with the world around us. I also know that our beliefs are more, so much more, than just the words we say. As I mentioned, our core beliefs will eventually and naturally show up in our life choices, actions and words.
Ok, so what does all of this have to do with today’s focal passage? Notice that Luke tells us how Paul and Barnabas made their way through these towns preaching the gospel and saw many come to faith in Christ. Then he goes on to tell us that Paul and Barnabas make their way back through the same cities and towns strengthening their souls, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and teaching them that tribulation will define their journey into God’s Kingdom. The word “tribulation” (Greek – thlipsis) literally means pressure, being constricted, or the friction of two things rubbing together and is often used to describe being hemmed in on all sides, or being trapped in a box canyon with no escape route.
But why would Paul and Barnabas need to do this? Because FAITH is so much more than just intellectual knowledge; it is more than belief or personal agreement with a religious or philosophical statement. In other words, faith in Jesus is SO much more than just acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord and God is real and alive. Consider these words from James:
“You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” (James 2:19 NLT)
Luke uses the word “disciple” throughout this passage. The word disciple carries a much broader meaning and history than the word “believer” does. While I tend to use the word believer to contrast with an unbeliever, the word disciple really deals with the idea of learning, following, emulating and obeying. In many ways, I think it is a richer word with deep meaning and implication. While believer is a good word and is fitting on many occasions and in many ways, the word disciple has deep meaning in this passage and is tied to Paul’s actions of strengthening, encouraging and teaching them that their faith is not devoid of decisive action and personal struggles. In other words, faith in Jesus involves discipline and obedience.
There’s a modern trend in America to join a local gymnasium to improve our physical fitness. However, it is a well known fact that over 80% of the gym memberships go mostly unused. The highest activity at these gyms is during the first three weeks of the year and then it quickly tapers off to the normal usage of about 20% or less of the total membership. I even find it fascinating and eye opening that one of the national chains who has a local gym in our town that uses this slogan: the judgement free zone. Their intent is to draw members who are like me, overweight and not in fit physical shape and to assure them that nobody at this gym will judge them while they try and get physically fit.
Again, what does this have to do with our focal passage? Paul and Barnabas go back through these churches encouraging these new “believers” to become disciples. In other words, use that “church membership” to get spiritually fit and into “Jesus” shape or image. Too many of our church members are about like gym members. They have a “church” membership, but they never use it. They don’t come and “work out” spiritually and get into shape so that they can imitate Jesus. Remember, disciples are characterized by learning, following, emulating and obeying our teacher – Jesus Christ. You wouldn’t look at an overweight, unfit slob and say: “Wow, he looks just like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.” You also wouldn’t look at someone who gossips to their friends, cheats on their taxes, sleeps around on their spouse, bullies their children, mistreats their employees, is bigoted towards their neighbor or ignores someone who is need of food, clothing or medical care and say: “Wow, he acts just like Jesus.”
The world knows that Christians ought to act like Jesus. That’s what it means to be a Christian disciple or believer in Jesus. Now, I recognize that statement is loaded with misinformation and misunderstanding by many in our culture, but it doesn’t change the fact that we OUGHT to look and act like our Lord. That’s what Paul and Barnabas were doing in each of these churches in Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Iconium and Derbe. They were making disciples, not just converts.
So, what does strengthening and encouraging these disciples really mean? How can we be strengthened and encouraged to endure the challenges of tribulation as we seek to build the Kingdom? Let’s start with strengthening…
Physical strength comes from physical exercise which involves challenging physical activity and resistance training. Spiritual strength comes from similar exercise in the spiritual realm. Physical fitness for those who have become weak, overweight and out of shape often starts with changes to our diet and changes to our daily routines. We must change what we eat, how much we eat and how our daily routines impact our physical condition. To improve our spiritual fitness we must also change what we consume, how much we consume and how our daily routines impact our spiritual condition. Hard? Challenging? Of course, it is. But as they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
To change your spiritual condition you must get up and begin to make specific and intentional changes to your choices and actions. Begin with scripture and prayer, but be intentional. Don’t just start reading at Genesis and then try and wade through the hard and laborious books of Leviticus and Numbers. Those are books you ought to read, but start with the Gospel of John or Paul’s letter to the Romans. You can find several good and instructional reading plans at https://bible.com or the Bible app (or similar apps).
Prayer is an often neglected aspect of a Christian’s spiritual growth but even the apostles asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Prayer is NOT one-sided and should never be just telling God what you need or want. There’s an acronym that can provide helpful insight into the process of prayer: ACTS.
A is for adoration and involves stating our adoration of and love for God (see Ps. 138:2). You should always begin prayer with statements of adoration for God.
C is for confession and involves our confession of known sin and seeking forgiveness from our Savior for our failures at obedience (see 1 John 1:9). It can also include a request for God to reveal unknown or hidden sin in our lives.
T is for thanksgiving and involves thanking God for His goodness, grace and blessings. We all have more to be thankful for than we often realize (see Col. 4:3).
S is for supplication or making our needs and requests known to God, especially on behalf of others. This is where we plead with God for ourselves, our family and others and should involve our cries for God’s grace and salvation on those around us (see Eph. 6:18 and Phil 4:6)
While scripture and prayer are not the only areas we need improvement, they are certainly areas of priority. Begin getting these areas of obedience in line with God’s desires for you and other areas of spiritual obedience will most certainly follow along.
Finally, let me end with thoughts on encouragement. Luke specifically points out that Paul encouraged these new believers to “continue in the faith.” It means to remain faithful to and to persevere in the truth and the Christian faith as Paul had taught it to them (see Gal. 1:6-10 as an example). In other words, Paul was telling these folks to “hang in there” with Jesus and His teachings regardless of the cultural challenges and personal tribulations they might face. This is a challenge in every generation and every culture and we need to hear Paul’s words.
We often operate under the mistaken notion that people want to know and follow the truth and that’s simply not the case. They want to be affirmed, not changed. The local gym that I mentioned above has a billboard that states: “You’re 👍🏼 just the way you are.” While I think they intend to say, “we won’t judge your current condition while you work to improve it,” that’s not what it implies. It implies that you don’t need to change, you’re OK just like you are. If that’s true, then why would you need a gym membership? Some in our modern culture imply this about the Christian faith, you’re 👍🏼 just the way you are. Jesus loves you just as you are, you have no need to change. If that were true, then you wouldn’t really need Jesus. Let me explain…
Jesus does love you and He loves you even while you are in your sinful condition.
“…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV)
However, He doesn’t intend to leave you in that condition. While Jesus loves you in your present state, His grace transforms us so that we begin to resemble Him. Remember those steps I mentioned earlier? Being a disciple means learning, following, emulating and obeying Jesus in EVERY area and aspect of our lives. It means that our present lives are in a state of transformation from the old self into the new self that looks more and more like Him, each day.
If God didn’t intend to transform you and change you and your thoughts, beliefs, actions, and words then Jesus death was completely unnecessary. True faith in Jesus is to recognize and agree with God regarding human sin and, more specifically, your personal sin.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21 ESV)
True faith then moves to confession and true repentance of that sin while humbly coming before God while seeking His grace and forgiveness through Jesus, the unique, perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin. This spiritual transformation results in a deep, life changing and abiding love for God and a desire to know Him more fully. As Jesus puts it: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him… If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:20-21, 23 ESV)
So, mere words are not enough. It’s not enough to say you have faith. Real faith results in actions. Real faith results in obedience. Real faith results in a transformed life. Real faith is changing us from what we were to what we are meant to be. Real faith takes us down that path of becoming like Christ, not staying like we were. Real faith challenges us and really changes us!