By looking at the Apostle Paul as an example, how do we remain flexible in our faith when life opens up old wounds or presents new conflicts?
Acts 16:1 is in your hand out. If you have your Bible or Bible app, you can go that route as well. But I’m going to start by reading the first phrase from Acts 16, Acts 16:1 says, “Paul went first to Derbe and then to Lystra.” Let’s stop right there. First to Derbe, and then to Lystra. These are city towns that were real places. In fact, I’m always going back and forth around this. Is it helpful to use a map or not? But I personally lean to the fact that it is, because it reminds us that we’re not just reading about made-up places. They are real places and they happened in the real world. In fact, these places are located in some of the parts of the world right now that are extremely active and in the news. I’m going to go ahead and have them put up a map to give us a sense of context. You see where the Mediterranean Sea and Jerusalem is. That’s where Israel is. This is back in Paul’s day though.
These places are in the news now all the time. If you were to go up from Jerusalem, you would run into Lebanon, Syria. If you then were to go as they went on their journey, westward, you come into this huge swath, this huge area, this landmass we call Turkey. Turkey is in the news, it’s been in the news a lot these last few days. The release of the passer there, the whole issue with the journalist that’s going on in Saudi Arabia, tremendous amount of activity happening right there in what used to be called Asia Minor in the Bible days is now modern-day Turkey. In fact, you can see where the GNC is, that’s Greece. That is a very significant part of the world. It’s always been one of those places where it’s partly Europe, partly Asia. Turkey has its own identity, but that’s where the early churches were established after they left the Jerusalem region.
Do you see the area of Antioch in Syria, this is an important place. It’s where the first two journeys for planting churches started. The first journey that Paul went on with his ministry partner, Barnabas. They took a ship and sailed to Cyprus. They went the other direction, like a fish hook around to those cities of Iconium, Derbe and Lystra. They had gone the opposite way. They took a ship and then they traveled eastward. Their last stop was Derbe. Paul is on the second missionary journey. He is being sent from Antioch, but they’re going to go by land. They go through the mountain passes of Tarsus. They’re going to go through there and they’re going to hit Derbe coming from the east. So they’re going westward.
I’m only saying that because these are real and important places. If you were to go back and read the book of Acts, you realize that the first time around when they planted these churches, they didn’t know what kind of reception they were going to get. About two to three years earlier, they had gone on this first journey. They brought the message of Jesus. Churches just sprouted up in those cities. Now, two to three years later, Paul’s thinking, “I want to go back. I think God wants us to go back and see how they’re doing.”
The believers in Antioch of Syria, became a very important place because for the first time the church had an equal number of Jewish believers in Jesus, and also Gentile non-Jewish believers in Jesus. They had come together to form a church that was becoming very prominent. It was in Antioch of Syria that people who follow Jesus were first called Christians. That was the place where it first started happening.
They send Paul off. Paul and his teammate, Silas, head towards these cities; Derbe, Lystra, Iconium. Derbe was the last stop on their first journey. They went back and retraced their steps. It’s the first place they go. Derbe had been the place of peace. We don’t know much about what happened there, and it seemed like very little happened, besides the fact that there was a group of people who actually believed in Jesus. Some of them were Jewish, some of them were Greek. They believed in Jesus and accepted Him. The Jewish believers believed Him to be Messiah as He preached, the promised one.
The Gentile believers were told they had direct access to God and didn’t actually have to become Jewish to follow the God of Israel; the God of Israel had come to them in the form of Jesus. It was a very different message. They could come and be baptized as well. It was a very expansive open message.
Derbe was a place where not much happened. Derbe was Paul’s first stop, but then they went to Lystra. Some of us may remember this, some of us may not, but Lystra, if Derby was a place of peace, Lystra was a place of utter trauma and horror. The first time Paul went there, the people of Lystra got so mad at him. If you read about it in the book of Acts, I think in the 14th chapter, a mob sprung up and surrounded Paul. The mob started beating him and tearing his clothes. Eventually, they picked up stones. This is the one and only time in Paul’s life people pelted him with rocks. They thought he was dead. He was bloody and unconscious. Some people even thought he had died. They drug him out of the city and left him like a piece of garbage. The believers who were there were stunned and just watched, but Paul revived. Months later, he came back there again, his wounds still healing. Now, he’s coming back to Lystra. It’s been two or three years. He’s going to see the believers. He’s going into the very place where he was stoned.
In your handout, you’ll see a passage from Corinthians, second Corinthians 11. Paul is writing to the church at Corinth. He’s telling them about the things that he suffered on behalf of Jesus. Paul is running through this list and I want you to see it. I’m going to read through it. Paul’s saying, “These are the things that I’ve suffered on behalf of Jesus.” He’s looking back through the tunnel of years. He says, “Three times I was beaten with rods.” There was a particular kind of judgment that could be made on someone with rods, he was beaten. “Once I was stoned, pelted with rocks. Three times, I was shipwrecked. A night and a day I was adrift at sea.” Paul waxes poetic, “On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, dangers 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 in thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from all other things, there is this daily pressure on me, of my anxiety for all the churches,” which is something that pastors do understand.
Paul said, “I carry all this.” He looks back on his life and all the things he suffered. He can list one time when he was stoned with the rocks. “Once I was,” and instantaneously, he’s going right back to Lystra. That’s where it happened. The city that he is now returning to is the very place that stands out in a singular way in his memory. We read it and think, “Oh yeah. Paul got beat up with some rocks that were thrown at him.
Some of us know trauma. Some of us have experienced things that scared us to death. Some of us have had things that honestly, are so intense, very few people know about it. We have never forgotten them. Just for a moment, remember that Paul is going back into a place where he has been utterly traumatized, and he just gets into it. If you even get into a fight or some type of verbal disagreement, driving a vehicle, riding a bike, or any type of confrontation with anyone, it could be anywhere, it does something to your system. Immediately it does. The idea of being beaten, literally just to the point of unconsciousness. To have the rocks being thrown at you, to have your clothes torn apart. You don’t forget that. He had scars on him. I’ve always been impressed and amazed at how Paul walks back. I look at it and think, “Oh my goodness.” Look what it says in Acts 16:1, “Paul went first to Derbe, and then to Lystra where there was a young disciple named Timothy, and his mother was a Jewish believer.”
It’s so casually noted, “Oh yeah, Paul decided to go back to Lystra.” Think about a traumatic event that we may have some post-traumatic stress syndrome. There could be some PTSD. Literally, there’re elements of that that could easily affect someone. When we go back into a place where we have felt extraordinarily anxious or stressed or victimized. That’s what he’s doing. But Paul goes back to the city. One of the things that’s remarkable and noted here is that this is where he meets a young disciple who is going to affect his life. Do you know what? He’s going to meet a young man whose name is Timothy. You never know when a relationship is going to change your life forever. A friendship that you weren’t expecting. It alters it and becomes a gift to you.
Timothy is, of course, destined to become a great leader and a pastor in the early church. His bond with Paul will become so strong that we see it in Paul’s letters to Timothy, that we call first and second Timothy in the New Testament. It’s clear that Timothy holds a singular place in the heart of the great apostle. His friendship, loyalty, character, and the purity that Paul sees in this young man, the sincerity and genuineness of his faith, the authenticity of his confession, the genuine heart that he has for God are so, so impressive to Paul. Paul says, “I have no one like this young man. I have no one like him.” Paul says, “You are like a son.” He calls him his son in the faith. He says, “You’re like my son, you’re a son to me in the faith. I love you.” What are we told here about Timothy? We’re told something interesting. It wasn’t a coincidence it’s thrown in there.
Timothy had a mother who was Jewish. She was a Jewish believer and she believed in Jesus as the Messiah. She was of Jewish descent and ethnicity, but Timothy had a father who was a Gentile non-Jewish, he was a Greek. Timothy’s father did not appear to have been a believer. Timothy is raised in an environment where he has a mother and grandmother who were believers. They genuinely believed in God and had received Jesus. His father apparently was uninterested or not a believer at all.
It’s an interesting context because when we look at this we think, “Timothy becomes for Paul the embodiment of his mission and ministry.” Paul says, “I was a Pharisee of Pharisees, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” Basically, he’s saying, “No one’s been more Jewish than more Jewish than me.” He says, “I was a Pharisee. I was trained under the Great Gamaliel.” That would be like saying that you were trained at the highest levels in the faith. You have to remember, Paul, when he was known earlier as Saul, utterly despised the way of Jesus and hated those who followed Him. Paul hated them and was capable of violence and actually separated families, and persecuted the church.
Paul was the first in a long line of persecutors, but he had been radically altered by an incident that the Bible records. He tells about it at least three times in the book of Acts, he says, “I had this confrontation with the living Jesus. I saw a vision of Him, but it was so real. It was real, he met me.” There’s this whole interaction. It changed Paul radically, from a fierce opponent to the greatest advocate for Christ this world has ever known. Paul though, interestingly enough, gets blinded in that incident. He’s told, “I’ve called you.” God says, “I’ve called you and I’m going to show you how many things you’re going to suffer for me,” which you just read a list of, that it was true. “But I’m going to take you into the world of the Gentiles, and you are going to proclaim this message on my behalf, into the places of the Gentile world, where my message has to go. I’m appointing you to go and take it there.”
We have this unique person in Paul. He is a former Pharisee, trained at the deepest levels in the ways of his people. He knows duty, he understands it deeply. He loves his people and wants to see them accept Jesus as the Messiah. He says, “I give my life for Israel. I give my life for my people. I would, if they would come to know Him,” Paul also has this calling on his life to reach the Gentile world, the non-Jewish world, the Greek world, the Greco-Roman world, that the church has been planted in. He knows that’s his primary calling.
When Paul meets Timothy, not only does he love this young man’s character, but he sees in him the embodiment of the two great passions he has. On one hand, Timothy is half Jewish. He’s got that connection there. Timothy is also Greek and has that connection. Bringing it all together, and this is a unique combination. Where was Timothy? How does Paul get connected to Timothy? Where was it? It was in Lystra. The place of his worst beating is the place of his greatest gift. Out of the worst came the wonderful. Out of the stones came the gem. Let it speak, let it speak.
What God can do in the worst chapters of our lives, the worst places of our life, out of that place, the place of stones, came the gift, the gift of a person. A young man who meant so much to Paul. Now watch what happens in their relationship. In verse 2 it says, “Timothy was well thought of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium.” Paul wanted him to join them on their journey, but in deference to the Jews of the area, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised before they left, for everyone knew that his father was a Greek.
Paul is highly adaptive. He’s a pragmatist and an idealist. Paul is a very interesting person who is totally committed yet has a high degree of flexibility. He had core principles that could never be compromised. He would not violate the scripture. There were certain things that he would not do to grieve the spirit. After that, everything was open. He would adapt to whatever culture he had to if it meant that he could create an opening to bring the message of Jesus. Understand what we’re about to read. Because most of us know what circumcision is. Circumcision was something that was planted. It’s the removal of the male foreskin. It was something that went back all the way to the beginning with Abraham for the Jewish people when God made a covenant with Abraham. That was one of the unique characteristics of the covenant. There would be circumcision of the males. It was carried out for generations. Clearly, Timothy saw himself more through the lens of his father who was a Greek Gentile, and he wasn’t circumcised.
Paul says, “Timothy, I would love for you to come with us on this journey. I think you need to be there. But there is one thing that you need to do. There’s good news and bad news.” Okay. “Ah, give me the good news first.” “We want you to come.” “What’s the bad news?” “You tell them, Silas.” “You’re going to need to get circumcised.” You’re joking, right?” “No, I’m serious. You’re going to need to get circumcised.” But I’m a man right now.” “Yeah, you’re going to need to get circumcised, and here’s why.” “Why?” “Because wherever we go, we go to the synagogue first in every community and town we go to. The place where I know I can meet people who are open to talking about the scriptures is the synagogue. The Jewish leaders are there. There are also believers who are Gentiles. They haven’t crossed the line themselves to become Jewish. They haven’t been circumcised, but they believe everything about the message of God to Israel. They believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s in these places where we were able to talk first about the scriptures. We are able to present Jesus as the promised one. We are able to present him, and I am able to tell my story.”
“Here’s the problem though, the Jewish leaders in the synagogue, they will not allow for a person who has not been circumcised to come in and share that sacred space in that way. What that means is if I want to take you on the team with me and have the ability to maneuver, I need you not because I believe it’s necessary for your salvation by any means, but because I have to have the flexibility to be able to get a hearing with them. The only way that’ll happen is if I have you circumcised.” Timothy does it. It took a while to heal. Again, it shows us Paul’s flexibility. He says, “I will do all things that I might win some to Christ. He was extraordinarily nimble. He understood Greek culture, it wasn’t foreign to him. He was deeply entrenched in the training of the scripture.
A Pharisee of Pharisees trained under the premiere teacher of his day. Yet at the same time, fully capable of interacting with people around Greek poetry and philosophy. Pau understood culture. It didn’t seem weird to him. Of course, he understood his limits. He was extraordinarily nimble and he wanted Timothy to do the same thing. In verse four, “Then they went from town to town instructing believers to follow the decisions made by the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem.” Then verse five, “The churches were strengthened in their faith.” They grew larger every day actually, because of it. So that’s the teaching, now I want to apply it for us.
What I want to do in the few minutes we have left is take what we’ve just shared and apply it to our own lives. Apply it to give us a little bit more equipment to maneuver through things that are going to be tough when they hit us. Some of us may be in them right now. First, I want to suggest that we need to have a short memory. It’s something Paul models. Short memory and a long faith. Short memory and a long faith. Again, I see Paul walking back into Lystra and I think, “Oh my goodness.” But he’s choosing to set it back. When I saw this, I kept thinking about him walking back into the place where he was traumatized, beaten, and how much courage it took for him to go back into that same place after he had experienced the trauma. There are going to be times when we hit walls or experience tremendous setbacks. Things in our lives that may be extraordinarily devastating, painful, and we may suffer. Some of us have known suffering. When you know it, you join a fellowship. It’s the fellowship of suffering. When you know it, it changes you when you know it truly deeply.
Paul, in his case, the first time he returned to Lystra, was still nursing his wounds. The second time, he had scars, but in both cases, he had to bring his fear into submission to his faith. He had to bring his fear into submission to his faith. He had to trust the Lord and move in courage. I’m confident that when certain things crossed his mind, it was indelibly printed that he had to keep going. I can imagine him walking back into the very place and he’s thinking these things. He can remember it so vividly, but he has to bring his fear into submission to his faith and keep falling forward. Paul walks right back into the very place where part of him didn’t want to be. We’re all different. There might be something that you could walk through, but maybe for me, it is a very hard thing. There are all kinds of things that could be triggered by trauma. You might have something and think “For me, this is brutal.” Someone else might say, “What’s the big deal? Come on.” But it’s connected to something, and it has power. It has power.
I can remember back to a period where I had something happen to me. It was the first time I really felt so scared. I had to go back and face something that the last time I had been there, it had damaged and hurt me. I probably shouldn’t have even been in it. I’m speaking in vague terms, but the fact is that I experienced something that I was already hurting and I pushed myself beyond wisdom, and I hurt myself deeply. At a certain point, I had to come back around and walk back into that place. I remember how hard it was. Some of us can relate to this. You have areas in your life where it is so hard to move forward, it takes so much courage. I can still remember talking to myself, and the Lord saying, “Lord help me. I could feel my body. I feel it.”
I could feel panic, that stress kicked in and reconnected me back to that moment. It’s an interesting dynamic, when you feel it, you know it, those of who know, you know. I’m saying, “Lord, I need you to help me right now, to be courageous. This is so hard for me.” Knowing that for someone else, it may have been nothing, but I knew how hard it was for me. It was connecting me back to something that I had not done well with, and I felt damaged. I’m going back into that place. I remember at that moment, what I did. I got myself up to the spot and was all by myself. I was alone in basically a closet. I got down on my knee, I can still remember it. “Lord, I need you to help me right now to be courageous, to help me. Help me.”
One of the things we can do is pray. We’re in that place, we can pray. There are a lot of times where having a passage of scripture can be really helpful in a certain season, that you claim as your own. If you’re going through a season where it’s really hard and having to face things that connect back to stuff that scares us, or triggers us back to places and reminds us of things that, “This is so hard for me right now.” A lot of times what we can do is pull back into a passage of scripture. It can hold us. Then we claim that word for the season that we’re in, which is what I was doing. Just reminding myself of the promise that God had given. The next thing we do is move forward, but we keep that positive attitude.
We move, we keep moving. I call it falling forward in faith. Basically, faith is falling forward. It’s putting feet to our faith. If you think about walking, it’s just falling forward. A lot of times, God just wants us to walk into it with courage. Some of us may be finding ourselves in situations where tremendous courage is required. I’m going to suggest that in those places we need to be stubbornly resilient. Remember that the more we step into our fear, the more that fear will weaken, and the stronger we will grow. I guarantee you, the second time that Paul returned to Lystra, it was easier than the first time.
If you can get past that first time and do it in faith, you start to grow. That fear begins to lose its grip over us. We’re able to move forward into it by faith. We know what happens as our strength grows. If we stay with it, don’t run from it, and ask God to help us to face things courageously, then over time, the fear no longer can claim us. It can no longer claim us. Paul gets to the point where he is at ease in the place of his greatest physical devastation, trauma. He can be there and be strong in the Lord, and love, and move forward. It’s an amazing model for us.
I’ll leave it with this; I really think the Lord wants to teach us how to be adaptable. He wants us to practice adaptability. I’m going to explain what I mean by that as we sort of come around the closing bend. I mentioned how Paul was not only stubborn, he was flexible. He had Timothy circumcised because he had a higher purpose in mind. He didn’t try to change reality, he adapted to reality. One of the things that happen when we face certain things in our lives that are hard, is we fight them. Do not fight life. Don’t fight life. “What are you talking about?”
We come into a situation and think, “I don’t like this. What am I going to do about it?” We start to tighten up. We start fighting it on the inside. It starts to define us. We’re struggling, we’re angry. “Why is this happening to me? This is not fair. This is not right. I’m going to find my way through it.” The first move, commit ourselves to the unchanging one. I can’t change certain things. There might be certain things where I think, “Man, I wish I could change that, I can’t.” Some things we can say, “I’m going to try to fight. I’m going to try to take a stance,” but there are some things we get hit with and think, “I can’t change it. Maybe I can change it later. I can’t change it, and even if I could, maybe I can change it later, but I know I can’t change it now.” What do I do about that?
Paul’s thing was, “Instead of fighting that, I’m going to find an alternative route. I’m going to ask God to show me a different way to go at this thing.” I’m going to suggest that when we try to fight a problem in our life, and we just keep hunkering down over it, it starts to define us. Do you know what that does? It squeezes out all our creativity. It squeezes out all our capacity to problem solve. It begins to squish out faith, as fear begins to set in. We just tighten everything up. We start fighting ourselves on the inside. It starts showing up physically. Don’t fight life. Paul says, “Hey, Timothy. This is the way it is. I wish it wasn’t the way it is, but you know what? We’re just going to work with it. We’ll do this, now fight life.”
The peace of God. A lot of times, when I know I’m moving in the wrong direction, it is because I’m getting tighter and tighter, and tighter. I’m afraid, I’m scared. “Got to get rid of this thing. What if this happens? What if I don’t get out of this thing?” That’s fighting. Where they don’t change. I can’t change another person, you know what I’m saying? I can’t change. Don’t fight, yield. Stay in peace, stay in promise, stay positive as much as possible. “I’m not going to fight this situation. I’m going to accept it at some level. I’m going to ask God to give me creative problem solving, and I’m going to make the best of it. Who knows? Out of the worst, may come the wonderful. Out of the stones, may come the gem.”
Let’s pray. Lord, I want to ask you to help all of us to continue to not be defined by the problems, the hurts, and the pain of life, which are real. Some of them are real and they’re not all the same. Sometimes they’re connected to stuff that other people may have no idea of. It has such a hold on us. It could even drive us into addictive patterns, or it can get us beginning to question even you. It can shake our confidence at core levels. It can get us to be very destructive in our panic, to try to solve things that we just tighten everything up. Lord, whatever it is, help us to trust you, that even in the worst places, the Lystra places of our lives can actually become gifts too. I know it sounds unbelievable, but those places can become gifts to us because they deepen us. We become far more empathetic and humble. We become more grateful, and then all of a sudden, sometimes we see that it’s a promise. I want to pray over everyone, including myself. We see the grace of God show up, and out of that place comes Timothy. I pray for your blessing over the remaining minutes that we have here, let the word settle in the song that we close with. It’s trying to remind us to find our voice in you through difficult places. So bless our time of giving, bless this song we close with. Our hearts are soft before you, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.