The mission work of Paul and Barnabas sounds a lot like a roller coaster to me. Sometimes, many people responded with faith, and there was much rejoicing. Other times, many people resisted and drove the apostles out of the city.
Maybe a better metaphor would be to say that the mission work of Paul and Barnabas was a war, a spiritual war. This metaphor might be taken the wrong way, and it might seem to suggest that the good guys won the battle when people believed and lost the battle when they were resisted or persecuted. I guess they had a lot of draws, because many times there was a mixed response.
But that would be to judge by human and external criteria. If this were the case, we would expect to see joy when people converted and weeping when there was resistance or persecution.
But this isn’t the case. We might, naturally, expect to find joy in “success.” Even the pagans can rejoice when they win and things go well. But as is so often the case, the real test of the character of men is when things don’t apparently go well.
What response do we find from Paul and Barnabas when things don’t go well? I’d like to know, because I live a life in which things often don’t go well.
Beginning in verse 44, we find the apostles proclaiming the Word of God before almost the entire city. But when the Jews were filled with envy (have you ever noticed how often this happens in Acts, as it did during the Gospels?) they contradicted, blasphemed, and opposed the things spoken by Paul.
In response, Paul tells the Jews that He and Barnabas will no longer preach to them but will go to the Gentiles. This might seem like a retreat. It might seem like an admitting of defeat. But it isn’t. Far from wimping out, in response to the Jews opposition, Paul and Barnabas grew bold (verse 46). Their telling the Jews that they would now turn to the Gentiles is portrayed by Luke not as an act of cowardice but as an act of courage.
The response of Paul and Barnabas to opposition from the Enemy was to grow bold, en-couraged by the Holy Spirit.
In verses 49 and following, the word of God is spread again, this time throughout the whole region. This time, the Jews work behind the scenes to stir up the devout and prominent women and chief men of the city to raise up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas. The result was that they were expelled from the region. Another defeat. Another reason for weeping and discouragement.
But wait! That’s not the way it happened. Even as they shook off the dust from their feet and moved on to Iconium, something miraculous happens: the disciples they had left behind were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. Even though Paul and Barnabas were driven out, the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. It sounds as if they learned not only about the gospel from Paul and Barnabas but also how to respond to trials and tribulations: with joy and the Holy Spirit.
Having heard and believed the gospel message of Paul and Barnabas, I too want to learn how to have joy in adversity and to be filled with the Holy Spirit in response to difficulties. This is often not the case in my life. Adversity stalks me and finds me, and I quickly become discouraged, wanting to retreat and lick my wounds.
Worse yet, the Spirit seems to blow where He will, and He doesn’t always seem to come to me to encourage me and fill me with joy.
How can this be? What am I doing wrong? What did Paul and Barnabas do that I am not? It’s a dangerous thing to think that one can control the Holy Spirit, and I get a little worried when Christians speak as if the Spirit is governable by them. And yet I also believe that there are things one can do that tend toward receiving more of the fruits of the Spirit, including joy.
One thing I notice is that the Christians, such as Paul and Barnabas, who are persecuted and opposed are never alone. Paul and Barnabas not only have each other but also other Christians with them, including some joyful recent converts. When I feel discouraged and opposed, do I seek out Christian fellowship, encouragement, and joy?
Something else I notice is that Paul, Barnabas, and the disciples appear to be looking not at the external responses but at two other things instead. Had they chosen to focus on the external response, being driven out of two places might seem like defeat.
But they chose to focus first on what God had been doing, and not what they themselves had done. They had faithfully proclaimed the gospel, regardless of whether or not anyone converted. Luke himself emphasizes this focus on the work that God is doing when he records that “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (verse 48).
What did Paul and Barnabas do differently from city to city or region to region that accounted for the different responses they received? Nothing. But God appointed different responses, and Paul and Barnabas weren’t responsible for the number of people who believed, just as they weren’t responsible for the number of people who didn’t believe. When I first came to St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas, the parish didn’t seem to be moving forward. Nine months later, when many people found us to be an ark of salvation, fleeing from The Episcopal Church, new life was breathed into St. Chrys. I used to tell people that it wasn’t necessarily my fault that people didn’t come to St. Chrys earlier, and it wasn’t my doing that made them come eventually.
What I was responsible for and what the apostles were responsible for was to faithfully execute the will of the Lord in their lives, which was to preach the gospel in truth, no matter who believed or didn’t. And this is the second thing that Paul and Barnabas focus on instead of external results: their own faithfulness to God.
The same is true for all of my life, although often I can’t see it. I’m responsible for faithfully doing what God has commissioned me to do, and not for particular results. Now if God’s fruit never seems to develop in my labors for Him, a good case could be made for reconsidering how I go about His business.
This attitude of looking at what God has done, having confidence that you are doing God’s will, when combined with the communion of the saints in the kingdom of God, results in joy. It results in joy, even in difficult time or persecution, because the Holy Spirit moves in such circumstances, when His people faithfully work together to do God’s will.
And so, as I consider how to find joy and the Spirit, rather than simply waiting for them to randomly find me, I will go out and look for them, by sharing my life with other Christians, by seeking God and enjoying what He is doing, and by renewing my vows to serve Him faithfully in all that He has called me to.
Prayer: Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Point for Meditation: In what ways have I been experiencing joy and the Holy Spirit? In what ways have I not? What might I do to better seek joy and the Spirit in difficulty?
Resolution: I resolve to rejoice in God’s work in my life or to better seek that joy today.