Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
A Hard Word for New Believers
Throughout our study in Acts, one theme we have seen is that God loves to overcome seemingly impenetrable odds—or obstacles—for his people. A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon titled “doing missions when the odds are against us”. The odds are always appearing to stand against us, as God’s people. In Acts alone, the church was imprisoned and beaten—even as it was experiencing inward sin, and economic troubles, and cultural complications between Jews and gentiles. These aren’t small hurdles.
Now, we can look at the church’s opposition—or the odds—as just that: opposition or odds. The focus, there, is on the church’s mission. We can ask, “what opposition does the church face in her mission?”—and, there’s value to asking that question. We’re supposed to see the odds so that we can see God’s powerful hand overcoming the odds.
However, we can also look at the church’s opposition from a different, more personal perspective. Consider our passage for this morning. As Paul goes from Iconium to Lystra, then to Derbe (briefly mentioned in verse 20)—and he encountered all sorts of trouble in these towns. Quite literally, Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra.
How did Paul describe these experiences in our passage? Look in verse 22. What does he say there? As he’s encouraging the churches in these towns that just rejected him and beat him up, he says very hard word for us to consider this morning—“through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”. How does Paul describe these experiences? He doesn’t say they’re opposition, or “odds” against the church. He describes them as tribulations that we must endure, in order to enter the kingdom of God. He’s describing these experiences from the Christian’s perspective, rather than the missionary’s perspective. These experiences aren’t some strategic opposition against the church’s mission. They’re real trials that every Christian “must” experience to “enter the kingdom of God”.
Imagine how that landed on these brand new believers, who had just watched Paul get beaten up and almost killed. Put yourself in their shoes—imagine coming to the Lord through a preacher who came into town—and, after you received the Lord that preacher was beaten by your community, and your community left that preacher for dead. There you are, left with the few believers, in that community. What are you thinking in that moment?
These believers were totally new to the faith, and they were born into a world that was very hostile toward the faith. They needed perspective. They needed to know how to understand those beatings. Are they signs of defeat? Are they to be regarded as serious opposition, or odds, against the church that we should be concerned about? Are we going to experience them—or is that just a “Paul thing”? Paul, like a wise shepherd, sought to encourage these churches, and he told them how they should process these experiences. Verse 22 says that he strengthened “the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith”—and it’s with that spirit of encouragement that he warns them of how difficult the Christian life can be.
Three Questions to Help Us Understand Tribulations
This is a humbling passage, brothers and sisters. That verse—that statement in verse 22—is the unifying anthem that brings Paul’s experiences in all these cities directly home to us this morning. Paul—who just experienced tribulations, and who is speaking to baby churches seeking to process what happened to Paul—that Paul tells us in that situation, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”. I want to take some time this morning to unpack exactly what he means by that, lest we misapply that verse, along with Paul’s experiences, to ourselves this morning. So, we’re going to answer three questions—
First, what does Paul mean in verse 22 when he says we enter the kingdom through many tribulations?
Second, what can we learn from Paul’s tribulations?
Third, what encouragement do these stories leave us with?
1. What Does Paul Mean by Verse 22?
So the first question we need to consider this morning is—exactly what did Paul mean in verse 22 when he said “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom”? This is an important question. If we misunderstand this, we can run into two problems. First, we could think that we earn our entrance into the kingdom “through many tribulations”. That’s not what Paul is saying, and we need to understand that very clearly. Second, if we misunderstand verse 22, we could lay guilt upon ourselves when we aren’t being persecuted like Paul was. Those are two misunderstandings of this verse—and, we need to set them straight before we move on.
Paul Doesn’t Mean “Meritorious Suffering”
For one thing, Paul isn’t saying that we earn our entrance into the kingdom through tribulations. There’s no reference to meriting a badge of entrance, here. We don’t enter the kingdom of Christ based on the number of lashes we’ve received in Christ’s name. We don’t enter the kingdom based on the number of insults we’ve earned. We enter the kingdom based on the insults and lashings Christ received on our behalf. That’s the gospel. That’s what Paul was constantly preaching. He was preaching “the word of his grace” in verse 3. Think Ephesians 2:8— “By grace you have been saved, through faith, this is not of your own doing, it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no man can boast”. Nobody—not even Paul—is going to be boasting in heaven for the number of lashings they earned in Christ’s name. We’re saved by grace—entrance into the kingdom is fundamentally a matter of receiving Christ’s righteousness, and his perfect sacrifice for sins.
So, what does Paul mean then? “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom”—what does he mean? You have to define the word “we”. Who is the “we” he is talking about, there? It’s all there, in verse 22. Who was he talking to in this passage? He was saying this as he was “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith.” He’s talking to blood-bought, redeemed disciples of Christ, here—men and women of the faith. He’s talking to Christians who have already been purchased into the kingdom through Christ’s blood. These men and women have already received the king and his kingdom by faith—they are now pilgrims to his country. And Paul is saying to them, the journey is ripe with tribulations.
“Long is the Journey, Good is the King”
In our house, we’ve recently read through a beautiful children’s version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Before each reading every evening, I taught my boys to say with me a little mantra that I found in the book’s dedication: “Long is the Journey, Good is the King”. I love that. It’s a good mantra to adopt into your own life. Long is the journey, good is the king. As you read Pilgrim’s Progress—the famous allegory of the Christian faith—you quickly realize why the king is good. The king provides everything necessary for entrance into his kingdom. His pilgrims simply must trust him through thick and thin as they journey to his country.
So, I mentioned that we face two problems if we misunderstand Paul’s statement in verse 22. We might think Paul is saying that we earn our entrance into the kingdom through our tribulations. That’s false. Paul is describing our journey to glory, not our fitness for glory. The thief on the cross who suffered little for Christ was just as fit for glory than Paul, who suffered a lot. Christ’s sufferings qualify us for glory, not our own.
Paul Doesn’t Mean “Feel Guilty”
Now, the other temptation is to feel guilty for not experiencing the tribulations that Paul received. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom”—exactly what does Paul mean by many tribulations?
Perhaps this verse has troubled you with a certain guilt or uneasiness in the past, if you’re already familiar with it. I remember that it troubled me when I was younger in the faith. I’ve never been stoned. I’ve never been beaten for the faith. In fact if we’re comparing ourselves to Paul, I’ve hardly been mocked or mistreated in our American context—and, this verse says “we must enter the kingdom of God through tribulations”. This opens up all kinds of questions—are we living complacency if we aren’t experiencing what Paul experienced? Is Paul only referring to the sort of tribulations he experienced? Should I go out on the streets with provocative statements about sinners and hell in order to stir up persecution?
Our Laziness Needs Pricks
I think there are a few ways we can answer this, Biblically. For one thing, Paul certainly does have beatings, and painful mockery in view for us. There’s no doubt about that. While we may not experience it, we should always be ready for it. John Calvin said of this passage, “our laziness needs pricks, and are coldness must be warmed”. That’s spot on. The ever-present possibility of being beaten or mocked for our faith ought to be an ever-annoying prick in your side. It should always be a flame that keeps your simmering spirit from growing cold. Just as God’s wrath might warn us from sin, God’s tribulations ought to warn us from coldness. If you’re cold in your affections, complacent in your faith—you’re not going to respond well if you’re unexpectedly given the opportunity to suffer for his name. One question I often ask myself is this—“if a man put a gun to my head one minute from now, and told me to renounce Christ or die, would I have it in me?”. If my answer is “definitely not”, then I’d do well to stir the pot of Christian affections and warmth in my soul.
While Paul’s statement should always be a prick to keep us alert—or a flame to keep us warm—we must acknowledge that we aren’t all called to suffer like Paul. We’re called to be ready for it, but it may never come. If it doesn’t, we do not need to feel guilty or complacent. Many unnecessary guilt-trips have been laid on God’s people with this verse. A preacher might say, “if you’re not personally being mocked, then you’re not living the Christian life faithfully!”. Really? Reconcile that with 1 Timothy 2:2, where Paul desires “that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life, godly and dignified in every way”. That’s what Paul says we should pray for—that’s the ideal situation for Christians!
Or, you could also think of First Peter. One of my professors once called First Peter “Peter’s dissertation on suffering”—almost all of First Peter is an instruction manual for what it means to suffer. In that letter, Peter doesn’t tell us to go out into the world and “poke the beast”, so to speak. He doesn’t say “pursue suffering and tribulation.” Peter says the opposite. He calls us to bless our enemies (3:9), to pursue peace (3:11), and to keep our lips from deceit (3:10). In perhaps the simplest of terms, he says in 3:13, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?”—I think Peter’s answer, there, is hopefully, nobody will bother you if you’re pursuing good! Then he continues, “but even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed”. Be ready for it. Let it be a prick in your side to keep you alert. Don’t be surprised when it comes—but, don’t poke the beast if it’s not necessary. If it’s necessary, or wise to—then so be it. Invite the mockery and shame, and wear it like a badge of honor.
Paul’s Unique Calling to Suffering
Let me give you one more example on this point. I’m reminded of what Paul said in Colossians 1:24. Listen to what he said, there—
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…
Do you hear what Paul is saying, there? That’s a passage that raises a lot of eyebrows. He’s explaining how he viewed his sufferings—his beatings and imprisonments, and such. “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”, he says. What was lacking in Christ’s afflictions? It wasn’t a matter of salvation, I can tell you that much. It was the power of testimony. Paul’s afflictions testified to the power of Christ’s afflictions. “I can die, because Christ died and defeated death! Bring on the persecutions! To live is Christ, and to die is gain!”. That statement, that testimony is missing without Paul’s afflictions. So, Jesus uniquely ensured that his apostles—including Paul—would serve that purpose through a unique calling to suffering and death. Jesus told his disciples they’d be matyred. Jesus told Paul he’d be beaten. They were called to “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”—and as Paul continues in that verse in Colossians 1:24, “for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Paul’s sufferings were “for the sake of… the church”. His sufferings testified to the power of Christ’s sufferings in order to strengthen the whole church in whatever sufferings they might face.
So—in one sense, Paul isn’t saying that we must suffer like he did to enter the kingdom of God. Paul was uniquely called to it, along with the other apostles. We, however, aren’t promised to be martyred. We may not be called to that—but, we are called to be ready. And, we can look to the way God sustained Paul, and how God sustains believers today across the world—and we’re supposed to be encouraged by their testimony.
Picking Up Our Cross Daily
Now, I want to be clear. I don’t say all this to excuse us from suffering. We are called to suffer—to “pick up our cross daily and follow” Jesus. That means that with whatever troubles a day might have for us, we must endure the troubles faithfully. When Paul says “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom”, he means “many tribulations”! The word “tribulation”, there in verse 22, can mean any afflictions common to man. In John 16:21, it’s referring to the affliction—or pain—of childbirth. In Acts 7:11, it’s referring to not having food to eat. In 1 Corinthians 7:28, it’s referring to the affliction of marital trouble. In 2 Corinthians 2:4, it’s referring to what essentially sounds like a broken heart—emotional distress. Life is full of trouble, full of afflictions—of “many tribulations”. But remember—“Long is the journey, good is the king.” If you ever doubt it, look to how God has sustained and saved countless men from severe afflictions, and know that the power of his forgiveness and Spirit can free you to endure any affliction we might face today.
So, this is all answering that first question for us, this morning. What did Paul mean when he said “through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom of God”? He didn’t mean we merit the kingdom of God through many afflictions. He meant, “long is the journey, and good is the king”. He meant that we must be ready to endure all the hardships of the Christian life as we pursue the kingdom of Christ in all it’s glory.
Now, the second question for us this morning intends to look at what Paul experienced in Lystra and Iconium and ask, what can we learn from Paul’s tribulations? That’s our second question for this morning.
2. What Tribulations Did Paul Face?
What can we learn from Paul’s tribulations? It’s not simply, “be ready to be stoned”. There’s more to it than that. What I want to see in these stories is what was underneath the violence. I think we’ll identify with Paul’s experiences a lot more, there.
First, look in verses 1 and 2. Paul and Barnabas enter a synagogue, and we’re told that they “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed”. I love that—they spoke in such a way that brought people to the faith (that is, persuasively). They were persuasive, and God used their persuasiveness. Then in verse 2, we meet the opposition. “But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” That’s where it all began. Jews “poisoned” the gentile minds “against the brothers”. What does that mean? I can’t think of any other word, but to assume that this the old, classic, run-of-the-mill slander.
We don’t know how they did it, or what was said to poison these vulnerable minds. I almost have to wonder if it wasn’t something similar to what the Jews said about Jesus when he was performing miracles. Remember, verse 3 tells us that the Lord gave them signs and wonders to be done. Healings and miracles were displayed as a testimony to their word—this is from the Lord, from God! How do you poison that? Well, say what the Pharisees said about Jesus. “By the prince of demons he casts out demons!” (Mark 3:22). That’s really all you can say in that situation—“this is dark magic. It’s demonic.” I don’t know what else they could have said in order to poison the minds of these gentiles. Either way, it teaches us a lesson about what tribulations we should expect as Christians. We should expect to be slandered, or misrepresented.
The devil has always been at work to misrepresent and slander God’s people. The rumor in the early church was that Christians were cannibals. (They ate Jesus’s body and drank his blood, you know). Today, we’re misrepresented and slandered as misogynists and homophobic because we don’t agree with the liberals. So, we’re full of hatred and bigotry. Or perhaps a particular church in town gets a certain reputation that isn’t quite accurate, and it harms their witness. Perhaps these sorts of things have brought fear into your life. You’re afraid of having a conversation about a sensitive, cultural topic because you don’t want to be misrepresented. You don’t want to be slandered. In all these thing—I remind you, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”. While we don’t want to unnecessarily poke the beat, we do want to stand for truth plainly and openly.
The Jews in Iconium “poisoned” the people’s mind through misrepresenting them, or slandering them in one way or another.
How did Paul respond to this first development? Verse 3 gives us Paul’s response. “Therefore they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord”. Don’t you love that? Peoples’ minds get poisoned against Paul, “therefore” he stays as long as he can to clear the record about Christ. That’s patience in tribulation, there. He’s not just bold, unmoved by the slander. He’s patient to stick around “for a long time”—possibly months. There’s a lesson in tribulation for us. When we’re misrepresented, slandered, misunderstood—take time to patiently endure and set the record straight. Do it prayerfully. Paul says in Romans 12:12, “rejoice in hope, patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer”. Hope, patience, and prayer are three antidotes to fear at the face of this kind of tribulation.
Now, notice that Paul didn’t just face slander or misrepresentation in Iconium—but also division. Division always ups the ante, doesn’t it? Divided people fight. They bicker and argue—and, things escalate. That’s classic, demonic antics. Lies lead to divisions, which leads to destruction. That’s what happened in Iconium. As the town continued to divide over this new movement, a hit was made on Paul and Barnabas. That’s when they left town, at the last possible second.
Just to be clear—this was a cultural division, not a division in the church. When culture gets more divided and polarized, violence increases. We’re seeing that today, aren’t we? That was Iconium, I gather. Notice that verse 5 says that “an attempt was made by gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat and stone” Paul. The unbelieving Jews and gentiles worked together, here, even though they normally hated one another. “An enemy of my enemy is my friend”. When that sort of thing begins to develop against the church, you know it’s time to expect heavier persecution.
So, that was Iconium. Paul saw slander and misrepresentation lead to division, and that led to a hit on his life. So, he left to Lystra. What did he face there?
Look again at this story with me. This is a captivating story, isn’t it? Paul heals a man who was crippled from birth, thinking it would give him a solid platform to proclaim the gospel. Only, it created a solid platform for a serious misunderstanding. The people didn’t take the healing to be a sign that Paul’s words were from God. They took it as a sign that Paul and Barnabas were gods! Verse 11—
11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.
How discouraging this must have been. Paul and Barnabas literally tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd to quickly proclaim truth into the situation. They preached with torn garments.
In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas seem to have been slandered, or misrepresented. Here, they’re downright misunderstood. That’s a tribulation, folks. It’s hard to be misunderstood when you’re telling people about Jesus. It’s humiliating, saddening, frustrating. You could look to the Old Testament prophets who were constantly misunderstood. Israel, like these gentiles in Lystra, simply wouldn’t listen to the prophets. Their hearts were too hard and distracted by other gods! It drove Jeremiah mad—he was literally called the “weeping prophet”. Yet, we’re called to “rejoice in hope, endure patiently, and be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12). When we’re misunderstood, and people stuck in their blindness are unmoved by the gospel, we must persist prayerfully and joyfully.
So, Paul has been slandered (or misrepresented), he’s seen crowds teaming up and dividing against him, and he’s been misunderstood. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back, here?
Pursued to the Death
Verse 19, “but Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul.” Here in Lystra, Paul was pursued by enemies of Christ. These Jews who poisoned the gentile minds in Iconium pursued Paul to Lystra, to poison more minds—even to kill Paul. The enemies of Christ will go through great lengths to tear us down, folks. We may not be followed from town to town as Paul was, but it’s very common for certain people to go out of their way to harm a church’s witness or ministry—or, to harm a Christian in the workplace. When I was church planting in Arizona, there was a lady who we strongly suspected of trying to oppose our church plant’s ministry. She didn’t appreciate our conservative message, and she didn’t appreciate that we stayed open to the public without masks during COVID. So, she plotted a malicious plan to get us kicked out of the place we were worshipping.
When we stand up for truth, we can expect those who are slandering us to pursue us, and try to cut us down. In Paul’s situation, that’s exactly what happened. The same Jews from Iconium who “poisoned” the gentiles’ minds followed Paul to poison the minds of the gentiles in Lystra, and it almost got Paul killed. The Lord, however, sustained him.
Paul was slandered, he saw crowds divide against him, he was misunderstood, and he was pursued and beaten (left for dead). Such are the tribulations we can expect as God’s people. We’d do well to be ready for them—and in the meantime, to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).
So we’ve answered our first two questions about this passage on tribulations. (1) what did Paul mean by verse 22?, and (2) what lessons can we learn from Paul’s tribulation? Now, for the last question—what encouragement do these stories leave us with?
3. Were is Our Strength and Encouragement?
Two very simple, to-the-point answers for this one.
First, look at verse 3. It’s possibly the most powerful verse in this whole passage. Paul remained in Iconium, “speaking boldly for the Lord who [himself] bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders…”. Here, we see the encouragement that the Lord is always with us.
Do you see the risen Lord supporting and empowering Paul, there? As Paul was speaking, the Lord himself was bearing witness to “the word of his grace”. Paul spoke grace, Christ bestowed grace—and, of the undeniable sort. The Lord was with Paul, and so he’s also with us in all our troubles. I’m reminded of 1 Pet 4:14, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” He’s there, resting upon you, strengthening you and empowering your words as he pleases.
The Lord is always with us. You could also look to verse 9, and see the same point. There, you get a beautiful insight into one of the most precious moments in a preacher’s life. What moved Paul to heal the man who was born crippled? Verse 9—“looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well” as he was listening to Paul preach. That’s beautiful. That’s the Lord’s work. As a man is preaching to unbelievers, he sees a lot of blank stares unmoved by the word of grace. I’m reminded of my first experience with this, back in high school. I did a bible study with my swim team—all unbelievers. When I told them all the gospel, each of us with a bible in hand, I was shocked for the first time at how little they cared. It was just a religious idea to them—nothing more. It was the first time I felt completely helpless without Christ in my witness. It was the first time I really saw spiritual blindness. Yet here, Paul saw faith in this man’s eyes—the sort of faith that only comes when Christ softens a hard heart, and opens blind eyes. Christ was with Paul—and that sort of thing will motivate any Christian to endure any trial.
Not only was Christ with Paul, but so were Christ’s people. That’s the second, to-the-point answer to our third question. Paul was always in good company. For one thing, he had Barnabas—the “son of encouragement” with him. Then, when Paul woke up after being stoned nearly to death, who was there to pick him up? Verse 20, “when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up.”
We need one another. That’s why Paul appointed elders in these churches in verse 23—to ensure that godly leaders were leading these vulnerable churches through what was likely a season of persecution.
We have Christ with us, and we have Christ’s people with us. Those are two very simply, to-the-point blessings and encouragements that no doubt encouraged Paul through all this, in addition to what we’ve already talked about.
Answering The Three Questions
So our questions for this morning—
What does Paul mean in verse 22, when he says we enter the kingdom through many tribulations? He means “long is the journey, good is the king”. He’s earned our entrance through his blood and Spirit, we simply must endure.
Second, what can we learn from Paul’s tribulations? In this life we can expect to be slandered and misrepresented, misunderstood, pursued and beaten. Nonetheless, we stand strong when necessary as we “rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, and be constant in prayer.”
Third, what encouragement do these stories leave us with? Christ is always with us, and he’s given us his people as yet another resource for our endurance.