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Each year in the United States, an average of about seven million acres of land are devastated by forest fires. That’s a swath of land roughly 100 miles by 100 miles.
A lot of money and effort goes into preventing and putting out forest fires. Firefighting agencies guard our national parks and other important resources. They seek to protect homes and fields that may be destroyed by unchecked burning.
It’s a sad thing to see a home gutted by a wildfire. But even so, it has been long recognized that wildfires do have some benefits. Wildfires clear out exhausted stands of timber and sweep away the clutter of dead wood that litters the forest floor. They allow sunlight to reach ground level plants which serve as a food source for many animals. Some animals even prefer freshly burned areas. Plants thrive on the nutrient rich soil left in the wake of a wildfire. Some trees even have cones that only open after intense heat has melted away the resin that seals them.
Just days after a blaze roars through an area, the green of new life can be seen peeking up through the charred remains of the forest.
The Word of the Lord is like a wildfire. When the Holy Spirit sweeps through a place with the Gospel, along His path is found a trail of new life which sprouts up to grow. We’ll see this in our sermon reading for today.
After Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter, He sent out men and women to tell people what He had done. That He had suffered for their sins on the cross. That the punishment for their sins had now been erased. That through faith in Jesus, they were invited into the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of sinners forgiven through the work of God’s Son.
Paul and Barnabas were two men sent out with this message. In our reading for today we hear what happened when they took the word of the Lord to a city called Pisidian Antioch.
Acts 13:44-52 (ESV)
44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
“ ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ”
48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of Christ is unlike any other religious message. Most religions outline what humans must do in order to work their way into God’s good favor. But the Gospel tells us what God has done FOR US to free us from the punishment that our sins deserve.
When Paul was introduced to the Gospel, at first he struggled against it. But when he was finally won over by Christ, he began to tell everyone He could about the source of forgiveness and peace he had come to know.
Outwardly speaking the Gospel didn’t get Paul much. Once greatly respected by his people, he was now disowned. Any hope of advancement and wealth was swept away. When he first started preaching in Damascus, they tried to kill him and he only escaped by being let down the city wall in a basket! Often when Paul preached the Gospel he was met with opposition, and even death threats. And this was odd since his message wasn’t about getting something from people, it was about what God had given them in Christ! Forgiveness, eternal life, and a new relationship with their Creator.
But even with the opposition and death threats, Paul was not dissuaded. In a letter to the Roman Christians Paul wrote…
“…I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16 ESV).
It was this “power of God for salvation” that drew the crowds to Paul in the city of Pisidian Antioch. Paul wasn’t an eloquent speaker, it was the word of the Lord that intrigued these people.
The most important task that God has given to modern day Christians is to speak the word of the Lord. How comforting it is to know that it is the word of the Lord that convinces people to trust in Jesus. It is God’s power which does this, not the polished presentation of the speaker. Our words may be stumbling and bumbling, but if we convey the Lord’s message, they will be effective—just like in Antioch. Be encouraged, dear Christians. In the Gospel of Christ there is power—speak it!
Now, wherever a person succeeds, there are always others who are jealous. People who try to tear down where others are building up. Paul and Barnabas found this to be true in Antioch. While many heard of the grace of God and were filled with peace and joy, there were others who rejected the Gospel and violently opposed it.
Jesus had told His disciples that this would be the case. He told them to expect persecution. In Antioch Paul faced people who didn’t just argue against the Gospel, they also attacked the character of Paul. Our text says that the Jews of Antioch “reviled” him. That is, they attempted to damage his reputation by what they said.
When Paul turned away from the Jews and began to appeal to the non-Jews, their anger remained. They even went so far as to use the influential people of the city to have Paul and Barnabas expelled.
If you read on after our text, you’ll find that the Jews of Antioch followed Paul and Barnabas to the city of Iconium, and then to the cities of Lystra and Derbe. There they incited the crowds enough that Paul was stoned and left for dead outside the city gates. But by the Lord’s hand, Paul clung to life, and went on to preach the Gospel in other places.
You see, persecution can’t stop the Gospel. Even when persecution leads to the death of God’s messengers, there are always more to pick up the work and continue giving sinners hope through the cross of Christ.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have found it an honor to suffer, and even to die, in service to the Savior who purchased their souls from hell.
A second century church father named Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christian church”.
Earlier I said that the word of the Lord is like a wildfire. But persecution too is like a great fire. One that enemies of Christ think will burn the church to the ground. But in the ashes they find countless fine threads of new life springing up as people believe the message of Christ and are changed forever.
Dear Christians, we shouldn’t seek persecution in the way that we present the word of the Lord. But if through faithfully proclaiming the Gospel we find persecution, we aught not fear it. Persecution can only go on as far as God allows, and it can never stamp out or nullify the eternal Gospel of peace. If suffering for the message of Christ comes our way, we should count it a great honor like the apostles did.
Soon after Christ ascended back to the Father’s side in heaven, the apostles were rounded up by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. They were then beaten, and commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. Acts chapter five says…
“41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:41-42 ESV).
When the governmental authorities finally expelled Paul and Barnabas from Pisidian Antioch, they went on to preach the message in other places. But before they left, we’re told a curious detail, that they…
“…shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium” (Acts 13:51 ESV).
This wasn’t a petty gesture by Paul and Barnabas. It wasn’t them saying, “We don’t even want the dirt of your city to continue with us”. This gesture was more serious than that, and more fitting for a messenger of the Gospel. The dust was left as a witness that the feet of men bearing the saving Gospel had been there. They had brought the message of God’s free gift of forgiveness HERE, and it had been rejected. (see Matthew 10:15, Mark 6:11, and Luke 10:11)
During His ministry, Jesus sent out large numbers of His disciples to bring the Gospel to the cities of Judea. He told them to do this same gesture of leaving the dust when a city rejected the message. And Jesus added this solemn warning,
“…it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city.” (Luke 10:12 NKJV).
But even with this stark gesture of God’s judgment, there were still those in Antioch who had received Jesus into their hearts through the message of the Gospel. The last line of our reading says…
“And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52 ).
Paul and Barnabas moved on to new fields of labor. But where the word of the Lord had swept through, a trail of believers had sprung to life. Those chosen before the foundation of the world had heard the sweet message of the Gospel and found freedom from guilt and sin in Christ Jesus their Savior. And while the Holy Spirit went on with Paul and Barnabas, He also stayed with those in Antioch to preserve their trust in Christ.
This is how the infant church was born. Where the Lord’s word went, it grew. And today we can take home a few solid teaching points from this story.
First of all, the Gospel message is the power of God which leads people to trust in Christ. So, let’s be sure to watch for opportunities to speak that precious message.
Second, let’s expect persecution to arise when we faithfully speak the word of the Lord. But, let’s not be afraid of it. The Lord promises to work through persecution and to be with us even while we endure the heat of persecution.
Third, let’s remember that God is in control here. He sends His word out in our mouths, and promises that word will not fail. So, like those followers of Christ that were left in Antioch, let’s also be filled with joy, for we have been redeemed. The gift of full forgiveness has been handed to us in Christ. And let’s continue to help each other drink in the Holy Spirit by returning to His word together.
The Word of the Lord is like a wildfire. When the Holy Spirit sweeps through a place with the Gospel, along His path is found a trail of new life which sprouts up to grow. How long the Gospel will remain in this particular place, we can’t know. But as long as it is here, let’s continue to grow in Christ, tell of His deeds, and give others the gift of eternal life.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.