Have you ever read a passage of Scripture that you have read countless times, and all of a sudden something jumps off the page to you that you’ve never noticed before? This happened to me recently, and it taught me something that I pray will stick with me forever.
In our teenage Bible class, we are walking through the books of I & II Timothy. Because the class is small, we’ve taken the approach of going verse-by-verse through the books to try and gain a deeper understanding of Paul’s encouraging words to Timothy. In chapter 3 of II Timothy, Paul begins by explaining to Timothy the kinds of people he can expect to encounter in his preaching. Honestly, it seems pretty bleak. I try to picture myself in Timothy’s shoes as he reads those words.
Then Paul gets to what we know as verses 10 and 11 of chapter 3. He lists some of the things he has been through as a preacher. In verse 11, he says:
“…which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra – what persecutions I endured.”
Apparently something bad happened to Paul in these towns, and they would have been instances that Timothy would have known about. Otherwise, this wouldn’t have meant much to Timothy. So, what exactly happened to Paul?
To answer that, let’s go back to read about Paul’s first missionary journey in Acts. Paul arrives in Antioch in Acts 13:14. Toward the end of the chapter, mainly due to jealousy, the Jews of the city rose up and drove Paul and Barnabas out of Antioch. In verse 51, we are told that they shook off the dust from their feet and moved on to Iconium.
In chapter 14, it didn’t get any better in Iconium. Again, due to jealousy, the unbelieving Jews banded together against them. But this time they didn’t just run them out of the city. It became much more sinister. Verse 5 says:
“…a violent attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them…”
In other words, things just got taken to another level. Paul and Barnabas find out about the plot, and they leave Iconium for Lystra. In Lystra, the mobs finally caught up to them. In 14:19, we read:
“Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.”
This wasn’t just a whole new group of people that didn’t like Paul. These people hated him so much that they followed him to the next town, brutally beat him with stones to the point of death, and then drug him out of the city. He was so badly beaten that the ones dragging him away thought he was dead. Paul, though, is a resilient man. He survived the attack, made his way to the next town, and continued to preach.
But you remember when I said that a verse jumped out at me in a way I had never noticed. Here it is in Acts 14:21:
“And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.”
Come again? Did I read that right? He did what? Surely he at least waited until it was night and passed through the cities as quickly as possible so he could get home. Oh no. Not Paul. This was where Paul was when it says they appointed elders in every city. He spent some time in these three cities again. Do you think the ones who had tried to kill him knew he was back? I can’t imagine they didn’t.
What kind of message do you think this sent to the Jews and Gentiles who tried to kill him? What kind of message do you think this sent to the Christians in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra? What kind of message do you think this sent to Timothy? More importantly, what kind of a message does this send to me?
Life is going to persecute us. It may not be physical, and it may not involve a stoning. However, at some point, life will hit me between the eyes and try to take me out of the game. I may feel like I’ve been left in a bloody heap to die. The question is, how will I respond? Will I allow it to kill my spirit? Will I allow it to take me out of the race? Will I throw in the towel and admit that I never knew it would be like this? Or will I look the enemy right back in the eyes and vow that I refuse to be defeated.
Make no doubt about it. We are at war, and our enemy the devil has had millennia to prepare for us. Just like Job, he may take from us everything we have, but he has no power over us. The only power he has is the power I give him. He will try his best to break me and convince me that the life of a Christian is too hard.
But not me. I vow to return to my Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What about you?