I think it was Bobby Knight, the mercurial coach of Indiana men’s basketball for many years, who spoke about the player who shows up on game day saying, “I’ll do whatever it takes to win the game today.” He said that was good but who he really wanted was the player who shows up for practice every day saying, “I’ll do whatever it takes to prepare myself to win on game day.” Knight pointed out that difference is that the first player had the commitment but lacked preparation while the second player had both and commitment alone wasn’t enough to win games—you needed the preparation of knowing what to do. The will to win was wonderful but it needed to be accompanied by the willingness to prepare to win.
As Paul and Barnabas make their way through Asia Minor on what is commonly referred to as the first missionary journey, their message receives a mixed response. There is always interest—there are people who become followers and churches (communities of disciples) that are established. But there is also significant opposition.
At Iconium plans are made to stone Paul and Barnabas who get wind of the plot and head for Lystra. Certain Jews, displaying Saul-like zeal, travel from Iconium (a little less than 20 miles from Lystra) and Antioch (close to 100 miles) and this time Paul is stoned and left for dead. He will later reference this in 2 Timothy 3:10-11 and I believe when he speaks of being caught up to heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 he is referencing this event. But God isn’t finished with Paul so the next day he and Barnabas leave for Derbe and after winning “a large number of disciples” there (v. 21), they go back through the cities where they were persecuted. It’s an understatement to say that neither Paul nor Barnabas was easily intimidated. We can only imagine how inspiring it must have been for the disciples in those cities to see the faith under fire displayed by these two. May their tribe increase.
Their message to the disciples in these cities is instructive. Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas strengthened the disciples (v. 22). We’re not given details of what it must have been like for the disciples in these places but it couldn’t have been easy. Paul and Barnabas knew this and in the face of anxiety and fearfulness helped them to be stronger. How did they do this? They pointed them to the Lord (v. 23). This is the same kind of thing that Jonathan does for David in 1 Samuel 23:16 where we’re told he “helped him find strength in God.” Thank God for people like this!
They also tell them “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 22). This is important because it is likely that that some were suggesting that their hardships were due to the fact that they weren’t following God and they are assured that this is not the case. What has happened to them is to be expected. While there are disciples in our world today who can relate to this, most of us can’t. We make a decision for Jesus, get baptized, and settle down in a church of like-minded people. Although acceptance and respect for Christians are in decline in America, it doesn’t begin to approach what we see in Acts. The truth is, we’re more challenged by our prosperity than our adversity.
Despite this and the overall “appearance” of things, we’d make a serious mistake to think we’re not living in a war zone. While we obviously don’t face certain hardships that our first century family faced, it is not without reason that the NT writers employ the language of warfare when they speak of the internal struggles we’re all confronted with (1 Peter 2:11), or the challenge of fleshing out a life of faith, hope and love in a world that loves darkness (1 Thessalonians 5:8). And Paul is adamant in reminding us of our conflict with “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
In light of this, are we preparing ourselves and others for these realities or are we waiting until the day of the game to get serious? Are we preparing our children to one day live outside the bubble of their family, their home church and their youth group? We’re ready for them to live three blocks from us but what if God calls them to live three states away or three countries away? Let’s not let our “soft” surroundings seduce us into a soft life.