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Measuring Success in the Christian Mission

July 30, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 14:1–21

Measuring Success in the Christian Mission – Acts 14:1–21

INTRO - What if we asked ourselves this question at the end of a short season, or at the end of a day? How successful was I today in the mission Jesus has given to his followers—belonging to him and being used by him, set apart to him and sent as his representative? (And for me and others in any capacity of servant leadership: How successful was I at unifying believers around these central tenets and striving together toward this goal?)

Perhaps we’re willing to ask these evaluative questions, but how do we measure success? How do we think that Jesus would measure “success”… or is measuring success? The question isn’t, how do we measure success from the world’s perspective or even our perspective? The question is, how does God measure it in our lives?

*PRAY*

I’m going to argue from the text today in Acts 14 that Luke is writing about the success of this mission as Paul and Barnabas are in the midst of their first missionary journey. But that success isn’t measured by popular acceptance, or personal accolades, or ability to evade persecution; Paul and Barnabas are successful by faithfully living and proclaiming the gospel—in the midst of opposition, religious confusion, and persecution. 

This is the second half of their first missionary journey, and they have now moved on to Iconium. There we catch up with Paul & Barnabas to see that there is success in the mission from heaven’s perspective, but much less success in the world’s eyes.

Acts 14:1–7 ESV

1 Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. 5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel.

I want us to take note, from Paul & Barnabas’s ministry here, that…

Christian success is measured not by popular  acceptance  but by faithfully living and proclaiming the gospel.

Now again, I think there is no question that Luke portrays this first missionary endeavor as a success. But we might lose perspective and think that when he says “a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” would be the measure of success from a worldly perspective. No, that anyone believes is a huge success from a heavenly perspective because people are trusting Christ (all glory to God because it’s all his grace and doing). But from a worldly perspective we should see that what happens in Iconium, as it did in Pisidian Antioch, isn’t good enough.

There are hardhearted, unbelieving Jews willing to team up with unlikely Gentile allies (who worship pagan deities of all shapes and sizes). They do this by poisoning their minds against the followers of Christ. (No doubt twisting what P&B believe and how they behave to make them sound like a threat of some kind.)

Therefore they stayed for a long time. Wait, what? When it looks (from the outside) like things are going south as they did in the last city, they keep speaking boldly for the Lord. The door isn’t shut, so they keep faithfully proclaiming the gospel.

And God reinforces this word of his grace they are speaking, bearing witness in the power of his Spirit by granting signs and wonders to be done at their hands. Again, heavenly perspective = any amazing display of God’s power is a massive success. The angels are like, do it again, God!

The earthly perspective is that although people might be impressed by these displays of power, yet they are divided, some siding with the Jews and some with the Apostles. And once again, the opposition coalition unites and pushes them out with threats of mistreating and stoning them. Paul & Barnabas are wise enough not to stand around a wait for a stoning, so they flee Iconium to another region (around Lystra and Derbe).

And what will they do there? Continue to preach the gospel.

How should Paul and Barnabas view the success of their Christian life and mission in Iconium? Was it a grand success? We’re tempted to hear the numbers and say yes. That’s only partially the right answer. For P&B, without a right perspective, they would have been tempted to see Iconium (and Antioch before that) as a failure.

I’m afraid that even a rousing, motivating church vision that is about “changing our city” is dangerously close to this kind of worldly ideal and perspective. No doubt Christians should live for Christ in every sphere and aim to have the light of God’s truth shine into every and all situations. But what is the goal, and what is the measurement of success?

Let’s focus our measurement of success on regularly evaluating, how am I doing in living like Jesus, and how am I doing in building His Church?

By God’s own working, individual hearts will submit in faith to Jesus. But this is not something within our power to manipulate or control, nor should it be, so we measure success by obedience to Christ.

We should see something similar as the mission moves into the region of Lystra and Derbe in Lycaonia.

Acts 14:8–18 ESV

8 Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. 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. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.

Here, Paul preaches Christ and heals a crippled man in Lystra, providing a specific example of God testifying to the word of his grace by the signs and wonders he allows these Apostles to perform. Combined with the Gentile audience’s reaction to it, and then Paul & Barnabas responding to that, this forms the central event in chapter 14.

Again, I believe that the author is still presenting this as mission success, but we ought to be able to distinguish what merely appears as success in the world’s eyes versus that which is successful from heaven’s eyes.

Christian success is measured not by personal  accolades  but by faithfully living and proclaiming the gospel.

In this situation, Paul and Barnabas do this by clearly elevating Jesus as the only means to know the true and living God, when the people would elevate them instead.

First, there is great success here in Lystra as this man, crippled from birth, responds in faith to Jesus. - The text says that Paul looks intently at the man and sees that he has faith to be made well or to be saved. Sozo, to be saved (rescued or delivered from imprisonment or other affliction), certainly can also refer to the idea of being made well, healed. I agree with Eckhard Schabel’s conclusion here: “Since Luke’s readers know that Paul’s message connects faith with Jesus the Savior, with forgiveness of sins, and with eternal life (13:12, 39, 48), the faith of the lame man probably includes [both aspects].” [faith to be forgiven and granted eternal life in Jesus and faith to be cured as well] (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 606.)

Like all similar accounts in the NT of healing people who are plainly and irreversibly crippled, the result of Paul calling out loudly for him to arise on his feet results in God’s power to immediately, completely, and astonishingly restore this man’s health. He leaps/jumps up and begins walking around—plain evidence of instantaneous healing.

I picture the angels praising God for the salvation of another soul, plus high-fiving and fist-bumping at another miraculous healing. - Heaven isn’t the only place viewing this as success. The world is also drawn to things that astonish, and the religious in this world are particularly drawn to the miraculous.

An important part of this episode is the reaction of these Gentiles who worship Greek pagan deities. - There is regional tradition that says, from a previous legend, that Zeus and Hermes had once come in human form before, but almost no one acknowledged them or provided them with hospitality. If that is the case, these people would not want to make the same mistake again, ready to show their receptiveness if “the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.”

Zeus would have been the chief of gods, highest and strongest, whom this enthusiastic crowd associates with Barnabas (yet another hint to us that he was likely the elder statesman). Hermes was Zeus’s messenger and mouthpiece, so they associate him with Paul as the chief speaker.

Now because this audience has this reaction in their local dialect of Lycaonian, it seems Paul and Barnabas do not realize immediately what is happening. It even gets to the point where the pagan priest of the temple of Zeus in that city is planning to offer a sacrifice of oxen in honor of these “deities.”

Paul and Barnabas do NOT consider this elevation of their position as a success. In fact, it is entirely inappropriate and blasphemous to the only true God… which is why they respond in the Jewish fashion of tearing their clothing to display their repulsion of such blasphemy. They beg the crowd not to do these things and explain that they are simply people of a normal human nature.

But they also do not let this opportunity go to waste. They are indeed proclaimers of good news, as Paul had already been preaching to many if not most of these same people (v. 9) about Christ. In this situation Paul and Barnabas come at this from the angle that this good news means that from these vain things (useless, empty, worthless [powerless and lacking truth] —all idolatry and worship of false gods, including elevating P & B to god-like status, when they are simply messengers of the good news… they are not the message). But by this proclamation of good news there is opportunity to turn from these vain things to the living God (again, to contrast that these other gods of our own making are empty and useless). This living God in fact created all things—the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.

Paul, probably the one speaking, goes further (vv. 16-17). This one true living God has been patient with the nations for all this time (in past generations), permitting them to walk in their own wayward paths. Even so, he has been bearing witness to his existence and even his character by doing good to all people by his sustaining and provision on the earth. Paul, himself a Jew, knew that God had uniquely selected the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, and did not allow them specifically to simply go their own way.

To Israel God uniquely revealed himself and gave them his law. But even to everyone, Paul says, he has not been silent (without testimony, v. 17):

Acts 14:17 ESV

17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Zeus is not the god of fertility; the living God is Lord of all fruitful seasons that ever have been and ever will be. Any and all filling of your hearts with food and gladness has always been from him, and no other.

Paul is trying to say, we did not come to pretend to be Zeus and Hermes and gain a following for ourselves. We are messengers of the one true living God and the message we proclaim is his Savior Jesus, God’s offer to forgive sin and grant eternal life.

We don’t know how specific Paul is able to get in circling back to this central point about Jesus. We are just told that even with these words they scarcely restrain the people from offering sacrifice to them.

So what are we seeing in this section about mission success? Some people believing in Jesus is a great success, and this crippled man’s faith and healing is a success, but elevation and acclamation for Paul & Barnabas would is not a success. Elevating God instead is a success.

Is success in following Jesus measured by trophy size and number of instagram followers, or by faithfulness to be like Jesus and build his church? - Many a heart, even ones that began with faithfulness as the goal, has been lured into sin by this wrong measurement of success, either numerical following or personal recognition. And such is even a key feature of false teachers; careful examination betrays an underlying motivation for and acceptance of acclaim and wealth for themselves. - This is not to say that there cannot be such a thing as a faithful Christ follower who has become well-known, but such is not their primary goal nor their litmus test for success.

Paul & Barnabas, and Luke, would have us know that success is measured not by popular acceptance, nor by personal accolades, but by faithfully living and proclaiming the gospel.

Ok. We’re seeing how these missionaries handle various situations: opposition to Christ, in the face of religious confusion, and even when persecution hits its mark.

Acts 14:19–21 ESV

19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,

In a situation such as this, what does success look like for these missionaries? When something like this happens, how do we define the success of God’s mission? - Has God failed in his mission? Has God failed Paul?

God’s success is measured not by  averting  all persecution for his people but by enabling us to faithfully live and proclaim the gospel.

At Lystra Paul & Barnabas’s bold proclamation in past locations literally catches up with them. Opponents from Antioch and Iconium (especially Jews who view this as a threat—we have been told they are motivated by jealousy) convince the crowds to turn against them (who were not long before wanting to sacrifice an offering to them—sound familiar? From “Hosanna!” to “Crucify! Crucify!”).

Paul is stoned (the practice of executing a person by throwing stones at them) and dragged out of the city. They suppose he is dead, so they evidently leave him there. But God preserved his life at this juncture, and he is able to get up and return with the disciples back into the city for one more night, to leave the following day with Barnabas for Derbe.

So Paul leaves beaten and battered (nearly dead!). If we do not view this through heaven’s eyes, there’s no question that we would not call this a success. But God has allowed them to faithfully proclaim Christ, and in each place he has used that word to bring people to saving faith in Jesus.

Not only has God empowered that, but he grants them strength to preach in Derbe and make many disciples there, and he grants them courage to return to these cities to strengthen and encourage the saints.

So we do not give in to discouragement because of persecution, and we do not give into discouragement about what we might perceive as failure, or even discouragement because of our sin or the sin of others. Jesus didn’t say this would be easy, but he did promise that it would succeed. We just have to make sure we know what success looks like.

Success is this:

Christ is building his church. And therefore success for us is that we are His, and Him we proclaim.

We measure success by obedience to Christ.

Let’s focus our measurement of success on regularly evaluating, how am I doing in knowing God through Jesus and submitting to his way of seeing things? And how am I doing in faithfully proclaiming Christ to others?

We will never do this perfectly, so we must measure success by trusting God to use his own truth in people’s lives and by trusting God to keep maturing us as well.

But we’ll have to be like Paul & Barnabas: we must keep coming back to measuring success not by numerical impact, nor by the attention we’ve garnered (positively or negatively), but by simple faithfulness to live like Jesus and to proclaim Jesus. 

I challenge us, therefore, to close each day and each week by asking: How did I do today, this week, in living like Jesus and proclaiming Jesus? (That’s going to lead to confession and repentance, without a doubt. But then we will lie down and sleep in peace, knowing forgiveness, and trust, and God’s continued work in us.)

I challenge us also to begin each day and each week by praying dependently, and planning intentionally, to pursue faithfulness in living and proclaiming the gospel.

PRAY

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