If you were an early evangelist, what would you do in dealing with a city where the people tried to kill you? Understand, when I say this, I’m not using hyperbolic language. Paul had been stoned and left for dead in the town of Lystra. So, what we see Paul do afterward is somewhat fascinating.
To set the stage, Paul had come to Lystra to preach. There he healed a man, and it got the attention of a crowd. IN fact, it got so much attention that the lost people of Lystra thought that the gods had come to them, and a priest from the temple of Zeus wanted to sacrifice to them. OF course, Paul and his companions would have none of that. But when they identified themselves as mere men and not the gods, when they called the crowd to stop what they were doing, the crowds turned against them and attempted to kill Paul.
Acts 14:19-23 – 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, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
It still stuns me every time I read this passage that, when Paul dug out from under the stones that the crowds had thrown at him, he got up and returned to Lystra. How could you go back? How could you ever walk through the gates of a town where the people had tried to kill you? Paul knew that his mission was not finished. HE knew that the gospel going forth was worth his own life.
As a fun side note, we will learn in Acts 16:1-3 that, when Paul returns to Lystra in a few years, he meets a young man named timothy there who will become a student and follower of his. Is Paul’s faithfulness to return to Lystra what God used to convert Timothy and give the church one of the greatest leaders of the first century?
Next, Paul goes to preach at a couple of other cities, returns to Lystra again, and does a couple of things before returning to his home church of Antioch. Look at the things that Paul did. These are the acts of a faithful apostle even in a city where the people had tried to kill him.
In verse 22, we see that Paul gave himself to strengthening the brothers in Lystra and the surrounding cities. Even when the people had tried to kill Paul, it was worth it to Paul under the leadership of God to strengthen the believers in that town. Paul knew that the church in that city was worth it. The followers of Jesus needed teaching. They needed strengthening. So Paul went back. Even though he’d had a bad experience there in his past, he returned for the good of the church, to encourage them to continue in the faith.
Notice as well that Paul said to the believers, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” How true is this? How perfect are those words from the swollen lips of a man who had been stoned and left for dead not too long before? Paul knew. Believers need to know. God does not promise us an easy road from initial faith to heaven. The joy of salvation is real. The joy of worship and family and Christian living is real. And the truth is, the road from salvation to the gates of heaven is still full of hardships, trials, and tribulations. If you do not understand this, you will be shocked when you think that your Christian life is not working out. But God has always told us that there will be pain and sorrow amid our joy until we are in his presence forever.
Note one final thing Paul did. This is clearly a priority. And it is a thing still neglected by many churches. Paul appointed for the churches elders. The text says in verse 23, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” In every church (singular) they appointed elders (plural). God intends that the church have multiple pastors, multiple qualified men who will share in the responsibility of leadership, teaching, and care. Paul did not appoint one pastor and some administrative board to keep him in check. He appointed multiple men to serve the church as elders, which is a role we also call pastors or overseers. It was worth it for Paul to go back to Lystra, clearly risking his life, to help make sure that the local church there had a plurality of elders.
How important is the local church? What should your commitment to your local church look like? Paul went back into Lystra, even after people had tried to kill him, for the good of the local church. He returned to strengthen the believers, warn them of the genuine hardships that believers face, and appoint for them elders in their church. He wanted them to not lose heart. HE wanted them prepared for persecution. HE wanted their church to have a biblical model of leadership, a plurality of elders. And he thought all this was important enough to be worth the risk of his safety.
IF that work was worth it to Paul, then you too should be powerfully committed to your local church. Your church needs strengthening in the word. Your church needs someone who is willing to help the body know that this life will be hard, but serving the Lord is still worth it. Your church needs someone who will call for godly men to serve as elders. Your church needs the burden to be off the shoulders of a solo pastor and shared with others who can faithfully preach and teach and care and lead. Your church needs people who will not run at the first hard experience, but who will return to help other believers serve the Lord.
Now, there are times when it is time to leave a church. If the leadership is corrupt to the point that they will accept sin and not correct it, you might need to go. If the leadership will not faithfully handle the word of God, you might need to go. But in many a case, you should stay. You should work with the elders. If they will let you help, you should help to encourage the body. And you should make it a major part of your life to be about the strengthening of the local church.