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"After proclaiming the Message in Derbe and establishing a strong core of disciples, they retraced their steps to Lystra, then Iconium, then Antioch, putting muscle and sinew into the disciples, urging them to stick with what they had begun to believe and not to quit, making it clear to them that it wouldn't be easy. 'Anyone signing up for the kingdom of God has to go through plenty of hard times.'" Acts 14:21-22 (The Message).
How would you tackle the mammoth task of penetrating a completely pagan society with a message that made no sense and was being actively opposed by unruly mobs of fanatically religious Jews who were out to kill you? Call it a day and go home, probably!
What guarantee did Paul and Barnabas have that the converts would not quit the moment their backs were turned? Why should these people stick with believing a story about a Jew who said and did some extraordinary things, was executed as a criminal and then came back to life again? What proof did they have that this was all true?
Unlike religions, which are man-made belief systems, Paul and Barnabas were in partnership with God Himself. When people received the Message, something supernatural happened: their unresponsive spirits were made alive to God; their minds were enlightened by the truth and they were joined to Jesus by the Holy Spirit. God Himself took up residence in their spirits and they were in direct communication with Him.
They may not have had the written Word of God in their hands as we have today, but they had the Living Word in their hearts. Paul and Barnabas had a limitless confidence in the power of God to sustain every believer and keep them following the Master. It was their task to teach, exhort and encourage them to persevere, and those who were truly made new by God's Spirit stuck with their new faith and passed it on to those around them.
Jesus gave His disciples the assurance that He would build His church. Their commission was to make disciples, not converts, by passing on everything they had learned from Jesus. For Paul and Barnabas to evangelise was only half the task. It was imperative that they thoroughly ground their converts in God's Word -- the Law and the Prophets -- to ensure that their faith had a firm foundation in truth, not fantasy.
Paul and Barnabas did their best to imprint that Word into the new disciples and, to their delight, as they retraced their steps from town to town, they found people who were committed to the Faith they had received, regardless of the price they had to pay. They learned that the grace of God is free but it is not cheap. They had received the free gift of eternal life but with it came the refining process of hardship and trouble which would prepare them for lives that bore witness to the power of Jesus at work in them.
Those of us who have a shepherding role to play in the church have an example to follow in these two stalwart missionaries who never gave up, no matter how tough the way, and who faithfully taught the Word of God to the converts until they became disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, committed to Him as their Rabbi to stick with Him, learn from Him and imitate Him so that others, in turn, would also follow.
Our role is not to propagate a religion but to invite people to become followers of Jesus, to be united to Him and to navigate this life with Him as He takes us to the Father.
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