Week of Feb. 7

How to See Beyond the Next Hilltop

Read: Leviticus 4-6; Acts 14
“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.”
Acts 14:21-22, ESV


Open doors lead both to expected and unexpected results, so make certain to step forward with the Spirit’s guidance and help. Now, that opening sentence holds some significant implications. If you are like me, you will often open a package and lay the instructions aside because you are eager to enjoy the contents. We quite often open the package of new life in Christ but fail to read carefully the instructions. Let me expand on this thought today.

Let's See What the Bible Says

The record of the first missionary journey begins in 13:1-14:28. The Antioch church had been led of the Lord to expand its outreach, so Barnabas and Saul were commissioned and sent on their journey (13:1-3). They returned home and delivered their mission report to the church. They shared that God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles (14:27). One may have expected similar results to those that Peter had encountered with Cornelius, but they also were confronted with severe opposition from Jewish antagonists (13:45, 50; 14:2-5, 19). Does a bell go off inside your head (Matthew 24:9; Acts 8:1; 9:16)?

Our gospel witness will indeed bear expected results, as I state in the introduction. We may expect that the Spirit will convict people (2:37), move them to repentance, forgiveness, and salvation (2:42), then take up residence in their lives (10:44-47; see John 16:7-11). After all, Christ’s authority carries with it the expectation that there would be results (Matthew 28:18-20; “all authority,” “make disciples of all nations,” and “baptizing them”; Acts 1:8a). There was plenty of visual proof that the gospel worked (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7).

Our gospel ministry will also lead to unexpected, even surprising results. Sometimes partners in mission will choose to take a different path. John left Saul and Barnabas on their journey and returned to Jerusalem (13:13). At times, there will be an unexpected turn of events (14:11 then 14:19). Frankly, people and crowds are fickle. Gospel heralds may be faced with intrigue (14:6, “they learned of it”). This we know, but there is one further possibility.

The work of the gospel is a long-distance race and not a short sprint (14:21-22). The missionary team returned to the cities where they had left new believers in order to strengthen the disciples, and to encourage them to remain true to the faith, and to alert them to the many hardships they might encounter as Christ-followers (14:22). The word used for “hardship” means to be “pressed,” “squashed,” “rubbed,” and “hemmed in” (TDNT). Frankly, we need to grasp this message because the body of Christ in the world today is being harassed, afflicted, and oppressed. Here is the big point: Such hardship is often necessary (cf. John 16:33; see esp. 1 Thessalonians 3:3, “destined for this”). Let me stress the importance of being ready to endure affliction for the name of Christ.

“In the New Testament, these necessary afflictions of the Church and the apostle are regarded as the sufferings of Christ which are not yet filled up” (Colossians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 4:10; TDNT). These hardships are for the sake of the gospel. “The martyrs before the throne of God, whom the divine sees coming out of great tribulation, have also suffered the sufferings of Christ. They are the host of those who in the tribulation of the last time have been washed, not in their own blood, but in the blood of the Lamb, i.e., who in their own suffering for Jesus Christ have borne witness to the sufferings which He Himself endured” (TDNT). Now, let me make application to our lives.

Let's Deepen Our Walk

Understanding the full spectrum of gospel living comes with maturity. I had to learn this lesson, and I was not always a great student! Thankfully, I had patient life guides. For example, I recall a conversation that I had as a young pastor with one of my mentors. I had encountered a challenge in ministry, and I did the best that I could to anticipate future outcomes from the several possible courses of action. He listened carefully to my reasoning, but his reply caused me to think in a way that I had not considered. After we had explored all the possible risks and rewards, as well as foreseen consequences, he told me, “Larry, imagine that your ministry is a road. You are traveling in a certain direction but there is a hilltop before you beyond which you cannot see. God, however, does see where that road leads.” His point? Follow God because he will safely guide you to his desired end.

Here is a thought for our spiritual formation. Christ left us with his mandate to go and make disciples. This fact we know; however, we sometimes do not ponder the full realities of “teach them to obey everything.” My study Bible terms this “the Great Omission” in many churches (LWGB). Consider how important the faithful struggle is for your growth in Christ and the witness to him. Our own sufferings for Christ bear witness to the sufferings he endured on behalf of the world. Mature believers know this truth and embrace it.

Let's Think and Discuss

1. Are you suffering hardship in your Christian life as a result of your gospel lifestyle? If so, how may the Lord be using the “unexpected” to further advance the kingdom?

2. For families: Prepare a small box with a lid in advance of the dinner hour. Place inside the box a slip of paper that asks two questions: (1) “Was your high or low a surprise? (2) If the surprise was your low, how can God turn this unexpected low into something positive for you or someone else?” Keep the box as a surprise. During supper, ask your family members to share one “high” and one “low” experience of their day. Listen carefully to each other's answers. Then, pull out your box and ask the questions. See how your family answers the questions, especially about God turning their sorrows or unpleasant surprises into something good. Remind them that when we follow God, sometimes things happen that we did not expect, even hard things. Yet we can trust God to make good come from even bad circumstances if we love him and faithfully obey him.

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock