The Painful Path (Acts 14:19-23)
I. Worth the Climb
Abuna Yemata Guh is a 6th century church hewn out of the rock, 8400 feet up, in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. It's been called the least accessible place of worship on the planet. This is how one website describes the path up:
The entrance is reached by a steep and hazardous ascent with hand and footholds in the rock. Visitors have to cross a natural stone bridge with a sheer drop of approximately 820 feet either side, and thereafter a final narrow wooden footbridge. A strenuous ascent is followed by a climb up a vertical rock wall depending entirely on hand grips and foot holds (without additional support) crowned with a walk over a 50 cm wide ledge facing a cliff of 300 metres (980 ft) sheer drop. (Wikipedia)
Can imagine making that two-hour trip every Sunday morning? The physicality of it. The danger of it. Now, it should be said, although it is not a very large space, the view is absolutely stunning. And the original fresco paintings (1500 year-old frescoes!) are still clear and vibrant. What a place to worship! For those who regularly gather at the Abuna Yemata Guh, it is very much worth climb.
This morning, I'd like to tell you about another path up, one that could also be described as difficult, even... painful. Turn with me to the book of Acts, chapter 14.
II. The Passage: “Through Many Tribulations” (14:19-23)
Listen to what Luke tells us about the closing days of what is often referred to as Paul's first missionary journey. You can read about the whole trip in Acts 13 and 14. According to these chapters, the majority of Paul's trip is spent preaching in three cities of ancient Phrygia, which today is central Turkey. Those cities were Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. We pick up the story in Lystra, where Paul has just healed a man who was crippled from birth. The Greek crowds are so amazed, they believe these two men are gods. But it's important to note that in the first two cities, Paul had encountered serious resistance from many of the Jews. Look at v. 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.  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.  When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,  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.  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.
Let me do this: let me point out just three key ideas that I believe God wouldn't want us to miss in this passage. Ready? Here they are:
First, notice that Paul and Barnabas are fully committed to God's way and God's work, in spite of their suffering. Do you see that? They are not wavering in faith, are they. Not only do they not stay silent after trouble in Antioch and Iconium, but Paul even returns to Lystra after being dragged outside and stoned and left for dead. According to verse 20, after this they continue preaching in yet another town, a fourth town in this same region. And then, amazingly, as we read in verse 21, these men go right back to all three of the cities in which they faced persecution. They are undeterred for the cause of Christ!
But as verse 22 reveals, they ultimately returned to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch for the sake of the new disciples who had been made in these cities. That leads us to another idea.
Second, for Paul and Barnabas, God's work includes teaching believers about the prominent place of suffering in a life of discipleship to Jesus. I find it absolutely fascinating and highly significant that what is emphasized in verse 22 about the 'content' of the missionaries' strengthening ministry is this: new believers are encouraged to continue in their faith, understanding that suffering is an essential aspect of entering the kingdom of God.
Paul doesn't simply mention “tribulations” as an aside. No. He speaks of “many tribulations”, and how they should be expected, as Jesus himself made clear. What an important lesson, especially as these new Christians grappled with how these men were being persecuted, simply for proclaiming Christ. Look back again to verse 22 and listen to what it tells us about their ministry: [they were] 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. Strengthened through encouragement in light of the truth about suffering.
Finally, third, Paul and Barnabas recognize that, in spite of the suffering they will face, these disciples are safe in the hands of Christ. Don't you love that closing line our passage? Verse 23... with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Not only did they appoint elders to continue that strengthening work, but they prayed to God, the very One who had opened their hearts in the first place. As is clear, these new disciples had not placed their faith in Paul or Barnabas. They had placed their faith in Jesus Christ. These servants of God understood that, and so take time, through prayer and fasting, to acknowledge that incredible, and incredibly comforting, truth: though the path to God's eternal kingdom is a painful one, when it comes to the journey, the King of kings is always present and powerful.
Does that encourage you this morning? It may not sound like it, but this is the second lesson in our series entitled, “Safe”. Someone might ask, “Safe? It sounds like you're describing exactly the opposite. Didn't you just talk about the dangers of discipleship and the painfulness of the path?” Yes, I did. So why are these realities so important when it comes to a biblically-informed and God-glorifying perspective on safety? Because if we expect a certain kind of safety from God, and then don't experience it, we might eventually find ourselves on a very different path: one of discouragement, then doubt, then despair.
But someone else may ask, “Isn't Paul talking about persecution when he talks about 'tribulations' with the Phrygian churches? Isn't that what he just experienced?”
Well, undoubtedly, that was a big part of what he had in mind. But just listen to how Paul would later describe the “many tribulations” he experienced as he served Christ...
...with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.  Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned [we know where that happened]. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;  on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (II Corinthians 11:23–28)
You see, when Paul talks about “tribulations”, he has more in mind than just persecution. He described for the Corinthians a variety of dangers and hardships...everything he endured as he served Christ. James, the half brother of Jesus, also spoke about the many kinds of suffering when he wrote... Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds... “Of various kinds”. Why joy? Because God has a purpose for this painful path...
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,  for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)
Do you remember the repeated refrain for last week's passage, Psalm 115? You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! [here it is...] He is their help and their shield. But what does that mean? What does it actually mean that God is our “help” and our “shield”? How many of us have wrongly believed that this big, beautiful, biblical affirmation is, in fact, God's promise to keep us from tribulation... or at least certain “tribulations”?
Remember what I said a few minutes ago: if we expect a certain kind of safety from God, and then don't experience it, we might eventually find ourselves on a very different path: one of discouragement, then doubt, then despair.
Brothers and sisters, friends, please don't misunderstand glorious and God-breathed words like rescue, deliverance, freedom, victory, glory, peace, and power. These are not promises of comfort and ease and respect and worldly success in this life. Consider this: a right understanding of safety, a biblical understand of what it means to be safe, goes hand in hand with the expectation of suffering.
And with that ancient rock-hewn church in Ethiopia in mind as a 'shadow' of sorts, I think we can say that suffering, the suffering we are called to expect, is THE painful path that will lead us upward to that place of incomparable worship... the eternal kingdom of God. Let's take a few minutes to talk about what this means practically.
First, if you belong to God through faith in Jesus, then please know that ALL of your suffering is part of that painful path upward.
Now, you might think, “You're talking about expecting and experiencing suffering while in the service of Christ, right?” Yes. But it's bigger than that. In between the “predestined” and “called” of Romans 8:30 is the handiwork of God in both our sufferings and success, his handiwork of preparing your heart for the day you will meet Jesus. These “tribulations” are not typically the direct hand of God. But they are the hand of God, at work in the “many tribulations” of this life, to use what was intended for evil for our eternal good.
With that in mind, how might your perspective change as you look back on those painful days of distress and seasons of suffering? What if in those times when God seemed so far away, and maybe the god-less seemed to have the upper hand, what if God was there all along?
Second, be honest about what you expect from God. There are many of us who will shake our heads in the affirmative when we hear a sound theological explanation of suffering and God's sovereignty... but... deep down... we still expect that God will bless us in all the right ways, at all the right times. We enjoy good gifts from God, but foolishly use them as some kind of unchanging metric of what's to come. Sure, we should expect suffering... but 'someday'... some other day; and when it does come, we're sure that we'll march through it faithfully and triumphantly. Thus, we simply are not honest about the pain of that painful path.
Third, if you presently feel unsafe, as you grapple with today's tribulation, remember that your perspective on God is more important than feeling safe. While the current danger might feel like the greatest danger, it isn't. The greatest danger any one of us faces in the midst of suffering is not the suffering itself, but how the suffering might twist our thinking about or harden our hearts toward God. This is especially true when we have a different view of what it means to be safe.
The other temptation when feeling safe becomes most important is that we will choose earthly solutions in order to experience a certain kind of safety. Money, romance, medicine, technology, firearms, insider information, a robust social network; and the list goes on. Brothers and sisters, friends, how are you tempted when your ideas about safety are being challenged by hard times?
A last thought: fourth, though you can expect “many tribulations”, wonderfully, you can also expect many mercies in the midst of that suffering. Listen to the reassurance that only Jesus can give:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
There is peace that only Jesus Christ makes available to us in a world full of tribulation. Even on this painful path we can “take heart”. How? Why? Because Christ has overcome. When you feel defeated, remember, Christ has overcome. When you feel like the world is squeezing the life out of you, remember, Christ has overcome. When life feels very, very unsafe, remember, Christ has overcome. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has overcome.
We are never alone on this painful path. And as we've seen, this path has a destination: the kingdom of God; the all-encompassing, unchallenged, perfect reign of our God and of his Christ. Brothers and sisters, “take heart”. You are safe in the hands of God. Let his promised peace wash over you even now. Let's pray for that very thing.