Not everybody in the first century wanted to hear what the apostle Paul had to say. Many, in fact, were in such opposition to the gospel that they went out of their way to hinder its proclamation. Persecution, in its various forms, often followed Paul’s evangelistic endeavors. For instance, when he and Barnabas preached in Antioch on their first missionary tour, Scripture says, “…The Jews…were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 14:45). Of course this antagonism didn’t stop here; verbal opposition was followed by physical expulsion. “But the Jews stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city, raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region” (Acts 14:50).
From Antioch, the two men made their way to Iconium, but once again they were met with strong resistance. “…The unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren…But the multitude of the city was divided: part sided with the Jews, and part with the apostles. And when a violent attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them, they became aware of it and fled …” (Acts 14:3,4,5).
When the pair started their work in Lystra, persecution took a decidedly brutal form. “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” (Acts 14:19). In his commentary to young Timothy, Paul recalled his experiences during those trying days. He spoke of, “Persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra — what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me” (2 Timothy 3:11). Indeed, had it not been for the Lord’s providential care, Paul would have perished at the hands of his Jewish antagonists.
Derbe was next on their mission route. Thankfully, the team was spared any difficulty there and their efforts proved fruitful (cf. Acts 20:4). But then, Paul and Barnabas made a curious “turnaround” and went right back to those very cities where they had encountered such intense opposition. Luke records, “And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch” (Acts 14:21). They what?! Returned?! The first time I read that sentence I had to stifle a laugh. Why would Paul and Barnabas deliberately retrace their steps in lieu of the hostile Jews and the painful experiences they had faced in those three cities?! (Had they simply pushed forward, in a week or so they could have arrived in Paul’s home town of Tarsus. That would have certainly been a much safer and more pleasant environment for these missionaries).
The answer is found in the following verse. Don’t miss it. “Strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God'” (Acts 14:22). Based on their reception in the aforementioned cities, Paul and Barnabas knew what their fellow saints would, no doubt, be facing. With that in mind, they went back for the purpose of enhancing the faith of those new converts. Despite the danger of further reprisal, the team went back to strengthen and exhort the disciples. The Greek word for strengthening means “to make firm”./1 Likewise, the original word for exhorting means “to encourage” and was used of exhorting troops who were about to go into battle./2 Lenski comments:
“Beginners who have not been made firm as yet are in danger of falling away (cf. Matthew 13:20,21-mb). A good beginning is a great achievement, but a good continuation is its normal and essential result. Conversion must pass on to preservation.”/3
He’s correct. If new Christians are to mature in the faith and endure the inherit hardships associated with kingdom living, they MUST continue to receive steady, sound, personal instruction. Paul knew this and willingly faced the possibility of bodily harm in the interest of spiritual development.
But did you notice the apostolic methodology? Paul and Barnabas didn’t simply teach and baptize. They taught, baptized, and then taught again (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:17a; 2 Timothy 2:2). If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because that was the Lord’s commission (Matthew 28:19,20). The team recognized that to be effective personal workers, they couldn’t simply “dunk” disciples and then desert them for new prospects. They couldn’t just “love ’em and leave ’em.” They had to strengthen and exhort those saints through a prolonged and methodical study of the Word.
It has been my observation over the years that many times we communicate, at least by our actions, that we believe in only the first two elements of the Great Commission — 1) teach and 2) baptize. For instance, a mission team I am acquainted with went on a two-week “island hopping” tour along the coast of another country. As the men arrived at each new island, they would immediately set up personal Bible studies and often within hours immersion would follow. This process was repeated on a daily basis. When the workers returned to their home congregation back in the states, they reported that there had been “x” number of baptisms. But a year later, when these men returned to the same islands in order to check on the progress of those whom they had brought to Christ during their initial campaign, they discovered that no church existed. No “babes in the faith” could be located. “Why not?” you ask. The answer is obvious. These well-intending brethren had only carried out the first two elements of the gospel. They had taught and baptized, but they had left out the last, but essential part of the discipling process. They didn’t continue to teach afterwards. They failed to strengthen and exhort. Not surprisingly, without any means of biblical follow-up, all of the new converts fell away and that once proud “x” was now an “o”.
Beloved, when individuals are baptized, our work has just begun. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you?” Jesus said it’s three steps, not just two. Let’s go teach–again!
“If [new converts] are neglected … a starved and nominal membership can be confidently expected.” [But] “if new congregations are nurtured with imagination and faithfulness, in ways that lead their members to a genuine advance in Christian living, solid congregations of sound Christians will result./4
1 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Acts of the Apostles, 584.
2 Cleon L. Rogers Jr. & Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, 264.
3 Lenski, Ibid.
4 Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, third edition revised, 247-248.