Faithful Servants of Christ
Sermon Text: Acts 14:1-28
Sermon Theme: No matter the personal cost, be a faithful servant of Christ.
The apostles spoke so plainly, with such evidence and proof of the Spirit, and with such power; so warmly, and with such concern for the souls of men; that those who heard them could not but say, God was with them of a truth. Yet the success was not to be reckoned to the manner of their preaching, but to the Spirit of God who used that means. Perseverance in doing good, amidst dangers and hardships, is a blessed evidence of grace. Wherever God’s servants are driven, they should seek to declare the truth. When they went on in Christ’s name and strength, he failed not to give testimony to the word of his grace. He has assured us it is the word of God, and that we may venture our souls upon it. The Gentiles and Jews were at enmity with one another, yet united against Christians. If the church’s enemies join to destroy it, shall not its friends unite for its preservation? God has a shelter for his people in a storm; he is, and will be their Hiding-place. In times of persecution, believers may see cause to quit a spot, though they do not quit their Master’s work.
All things are possible to those that believe. When we have faith, that most precious gift of God, we shall be delivered from the spiritual helplessness in which we were born, and from the dominion of sinful habits since formed; we shall be made able to stand upright and walk cheerfully in the ways of the Lord. When Christ, the Son of God, appeared in the likeness of men, and did many miracles, men were so far from doing sacrifice to him, that they made him a sacrifice to their pride and malice; but Paul and Barnabas, upon their working one miracle, were treated as gods. The same power of the god of this world, which closes the carnal mind against truth, makes errors and mistakes find easy admission. We do not learn that they rent their clothes when the people spoke of stoning them; but when they spoke of worshipping them; they could not bear it, being more concerned for God’s honor than their own. God’s truth needs not the services of man’s falsehood. The servants of God might easily obtain undue honors if they would wink at men’s errors and vices; but they must dread and detest such respect more than any reproach. When the apostles preached to the Jews, who hated idolatry, they had only to preach the grace of God in Christ; but when they had to do with the Gentiles, they must set right their mistakes in natural religion. Compare their conduct and declaration with the false opinions of those who think the worship of a God, under any name, or in any manner, is equally acceptable to the Lord Almighty. The most powerful arguments, the most earnest and affectionate addresses, even with miracles, are scarcely enough to keep men from absurdities and abominations; much less can they, without special grace, turn the hearts of sinners to God and to holiness.
See how restless the rage of the Jews was against the gospel of Christ. The people stoned Paul, in a popular tumult. So strong is the bent of the corrupt and carnal heart, that as it is with great difficulty that men are kept back from evil on one side, so it is with great ease they are persuaded to evil on the other side. If Paul would have been Mercury, he might have been worshipped; but if he will be a faithful minister of Christ, he shall be stoned, and thrown out of the city. Thus men who easily submit to strong delusions, hate to receive the truth in the love of it. All who are converted need to be confirmed in the faith; all who are planted need to be rooted. Ministers’ work is to establish saints as well as to awaken sinners. The grace of God, and nothing less, effectually establishes the souls of the disciples. It is true, we must count upon much tribulation, but it is encouragement that we shall not be lost and perish in it. The Person to whose power and grace the converts and the newly-established churches are commended, clearly was the Lord Jesus, “on whom they had believed.” It was an act of worship. The praise of all the little good we do at any time, must be ascribed to God; for it is He who not only works in us both to will and to do, but also works with us to make what we do successful. All who love the Lord Jesus, will rejoice to hear that he has opened the door of faith wide, to those who were strangers to him and to his salvation. And let us, like the apostles, abide with those who know and love the Lord.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Do we truly believe that to continuing preach the gospel of grace, no matter the personal cost, is necessary? The word of His grace is what is so offensive to self-righteous people. Note the designation of the Gospel as the word of His grace. It has for its great theme the giving love of Jesus. Its subject is grace; its origin is grace; its gift is grace. The normal course of events was pursued by Paul. Faithful preaching provoked hostility, which led to the alliance of discordant elements, fused for a moment by a common hatred. For that enmity to God’s truth should be often a more potent bond of union than love and then to a wise withdrawal from danger. Sometimes it is needful to give your life for Jesus; but if it can be preserved without shirking duty, it is better to flee than to die. An unnecessary martyr is a suicide. The Christian readiness to be offered has nothing in common with fanatical carelessness of life, and still less with the morbid longing for martyrdom which disfigures some pages of Church history. Paul living to preach in the regions beyond was more useful than Paul dead in a street riot in Iconium. A heroic prudence should ever accompany a trustful daring and both are best learned in communion with Jesus.
- Is not the rejected disciples who proclaimed a rejected Lord represented the New Testament standard? We shall continue to see in Acts the early Christians’ unwillingness to compromise the “one-way” gospel they preached. The generous Romans made room for everybody else’s religion within the vast ideology of the empire. The Greeks lined up gods one right after another and even built altars to unknown gods, just in case they might have missed one. Christians preached Jesus only. As Criswell put it, “You do not stitch the Christian faith to some old dirty rag of paganism or heathenism or atheism. Christianity is a seamless robe. You do not add to it, you do not take away from it, and you do not rend it. It is woven one throughout.”
- Paul anticipates an objection from his audience: “We have served what you call ‘vain idols’ for centuries, and life has not been so bad. Why should we now turn from them to this God that you call ‘the living God’?” Paul explains that in the generations gone by, God permitted the nations to go their own ways. In His patience, God did not destroy them in their sin. Although God did not give them His written revelation, as He did with the Jews, yet He did not leave Himself without a witness. He did good towards them, giving them rain and fruitful seasons, satisfying their hearts with food and gladness. However, the testimony of creation is only sufficient to condemn people for their rebellion against God, but it is not sufficient to save them. To be saved, people need to hear the gospel, which tells of God’s provision of a Savior, Jesus Christ, who offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who will put their trust in Him. But, Paul’s words raise the thorny questions: “Will God judge the heathen who have never heard the gospel? Why did God let all of these nations go for centuries without hearing the gospel?” Let us now consider the following. First, God does not owe mercy to any nation or human being. We all have rebelled against God’s rightful rule and we all deserve His judgment. He is perfectly just in letting the nations go their own ways without giving them the revelation of the gospel, since they all have suppressed in unrighteousness the truth of creation. Second, God in His wisdom knows how people would have responded if they had had the revelation that others have had, and He will judge each person according to His wise justice. In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus reproached the cities where He had performed miracles, but they did not repent. How much light from God do you need before you respond? If you do not repent of your sins and trust in Christ, God will judge you according to the light that He has shown you!
- Are we taking the glory from God when we take the offense out of the gospel? Are we making the gospel a safe, palatable message that would offend no one? Are we being faithful servants who point people to the living God, not to ourselves? “If you’re unhappy in life, try Jesus. He will make you happy. You don’t have to worry about your sin — no repentance required. Just believe and live as you’ve always lived!” That is not the gospel. Augustine pointed out, “If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” The gospel confronts every sinner with his sin. It confronts the religious sinner with his pride. It confronts the immoral sinner with his immorality. It confronts the greedy sinner with his love of money. It convicts every sinner of his guilt before the holy God. Then it offers to every sinner the free grace of God, who sacrificed His own Son as the just substitute for sinners. It shows that no sinner can save himself, but that God will save everyone who casts himself on Jesus alone. If we are saved, it is because God chose to save us, and all the glory goes to Him. If we are lost, it is because of our stubborn pride and disobedience. That message is divisive because it confronts human pride and glorifies God alone. It is the only message that we are to proclaim.
- The story of Lystra exposes one of our weaknesses: We find it easy to exalt the messenger instead of the message. We want to make men and women, rather than God, our sense of security. So we have our own Christian pantheon — our own Christian matinee idols. We must, with God’s help, honestly examine our hearts to see whom we are truly worshiping. Ourselves? Our favorite preacher or writer or Christian entertainer? Or do we worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ?
- How do your deal with criticism when you attempt to serve the Lord? Most of us have never known any persecution that compares to what Paul and Barnabas went through. But consider how you respond to criticism being a test of whether you are a faithful servant of Christ or not. If you’re prone to get hurt and quit, you need to learn the lesson of courageous persistence from these two servants of the Lord. That’s why Peter warns: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:8-10). Being faithful, not necessarily being outwardly successful, is the important thing. The victory is not to those who start. It is to those who finish. To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping. For Paul wrote: “We are hard-pressed on all sides, but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled, but never in despair. We are persecuted, but we are never deserted; we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
- Are you seeing disciples submit to and participate in the life of the local church? Paul and Barnabas continued to encourage the disciples to gather, pray, fast, strengthen, teach, and make disciples together. Church life can be messy. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it because Jesus shed His blood for the church (cf. Acts 20:28). The church is dear to Him. And it’s worth it because the church is how we grow, how we know we are truly following Jesus. It’s easy to say you’re a Christian when no one tests you. It’s easy to be deceived into thinking you’re patient or kind or mature when you’re alone. But in the church you experience constant opportunities to show you are patient, kind, generous, or selfless. That is, you don’t get to decide when you’ll be patient or kind or caring — the experiences of the fellowship determine when. And therein is the real test. For we have a corporate or mutual responsibility as the words in Hebrews 4:1 state: “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” The Greek text literally says, “Let us be afraid.” The point is to say: “Therefore, let us be alarmed at the prospect, given this decisive age of opportunity and testing, that any of you should not press on to salvation.” Notice that the subject of the sentence is plural — it is “us” who must be careful — while the object is singular — lest anyone fall away. This is the attitude we need in the church today, one that says: “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I have a stake in the spiritual affairs of others here and a responsibility not merely for my own salvation, but for theirs as well.”
1) APPROVAL THROUGH TRIBULATION [By Basil the Great]: “And he snatched me from all my tribulations” (Psalm 34:4). The just person’s entire life is tribulation (cf. Job 7:1), “both straight and narrow the way,” (Matthew 7:14) and “many are the tribulations of the just ones” (Acts 14:22). Therefore, the apostle elsewhere says that he has been “afflicted in every way” (2 Corinthians 4:8) and here, that “we must enter the kingdom of God through many afflictions” (Romans 5:3-4). God does rescue the holy from affliction, but he does so not by rendering them untested but by blessing them with endurance. For if “affliction brings about endurance, then endurance brings about an approved character” (Romans 5:3-4). Whoever rejects affliction deprives himself of approval. Just as none is crowned who has no rival, so none can be pronounced worthy except through tribulations. Therefore, “he snatched me from all my tribulations,” not by allowing me not to be afflicted but by granting with the test a way out, in order to be able to endure (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13).
[From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture]
2) What is Common Grace?
The doctrine of common grace pertains to the sovereign grace of God bestowed upon all of mankind regardless of their election. In other words, God has always bestowed His graciousness on all people in all parts of the earth at all times… summarized in three points of common grace:
The first point pertains to the favorable attitude of God toward all His creatures, not only toward the elect. “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9). Jesus said God causes “his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). Barnabas and Paul would later say the same thing: “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). In addition to His compassion, goodness, and kindness, God also sheds His patience upon both the elect and the non-elect. While God’s patience for His own is undoubtedly different from His patience with those whom He has not chosen, God still exercises “longsuffering” toward those whom He has not chosen (Nahum 1:3). Every breath that the wicked man takes is an example of the mercy of our holy God.
The second point of common grace is the restraint of sin in the life of the individual and in society. Scripture records God directly intervening and restraining individuals from sinning. In Genesis 20, God restrained Abimelech from touching Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and affirmed it to him in a dream by saying, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6). Another example of God restraining the wicked hearts of evil men is seen in God’s protection of the land of Israel from being invaded by the pagan nations on their border. God commanded the men of Israel that three times a year they would leave their plot of land to go and appear before Him (Exodus 34:23). To ensure the protection of God’s people from invasion during these times, even though the pagan nations surrounding them desired their land year-round, God promised that “no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God” (Exodus 34:24). God also restrained David from taking revenge on Nabal for scorning the messengers that David sent to greet Nabal (1 Samuel 25:14). Abigail, Nabal’s wife, recognized God’s grace when she pleaded with David not to seek vengeance against her husband, “since the Lord has kept you, my master, from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands…” (1 Samuel 25:26). David acknowledged this truth by responding, “As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you…” (1 Samuel 25:34).
This second point of common grace not only includes God’s restraining of evil, but also His sovereignly releasing it for His purposes. When God hardens the hearts of individuals (Exodus 4:21; Joshua 11:20; Isaiah 63:17), He does so by releasing His restraint on their hearts, thereby giving them over to the sin that resides there. In His punishment of Israel for their rebellion, God gave “them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (Psalm 81:11-12). The passage of Scripture best known for speaking of God’s releasing of restraint is found in Romans 1 where Paul describes those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. God “gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans 1:28).
The third point of common grace pertains to “civic righteousness by the unregenerate.” This means that God, without renewing the heart, exercises such influence that even the unsaved man is enabled to perform good deeds toward his fellow man. As Paul said of a group of unregenerate Gentiles, they “do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Romans 2:14). The necessity of God restraining the hearts of the unredeemed becomes clear when we understand the biblical doctrine of total depravity. If God did not restrain the evil that resides in the hearts of all men, hearts which are “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), humanity would have destroyed itself centuries ago. But because He works through common grace given to all men, God’s sovereign plan for history is not thwarted by their evil hearts. In the doctrine of common grace, we see God’s purposes stand, His people blessed, and His glory magnified.
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