The Signs and Suffering of an Apostle


We have come to the second stage of Paul’s first missionary journey which lasted from A. D. 46-48. Already they had seen the hostility that could develop over the message that they taught and proclaimed. Jews were able to incite both men and women against their message with such ferocity that they were driven out of the city of Antioch. They left Antioch of Pisidia and traveled to Iconium. While they came with a fresh experience of hostile opposition, they also came under the full persuasion of the power of the gospel and the purpose of God to call his people effectually. They were “continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52).


I. Signs and suffering in Iconium. The greatest evidence of the power of the Spirit accompanying the apostolic ministry is the reality that people believed. This is nothing less than being raised from death to life in the soul and manifests the same power of both omnipotence and spiritual irresistible spiritual purpose that was involved in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-21). In order to give external evidence of the reality of divine favor on their message, God granted that they could perform miracles. We are not told of all of these but are given examples from time to time (e.g. 14:9, 10: 16:18; 19:11, 12).

A. They first went to the synagogue. This was normal procedure. See 13: 5, 14 and 17:1, 2. This seemed to be a natural entrée for the preaching of the gospel even among the Gentiles, for there always were some God-fearing Gentiles among those who attended synagogue. This became a bridge for proclamation to the pagan Gentiles. Paul, however, did not rely on this method unalterably but was willing to begin discussions on these issues in the marketplace (17:17).

B. Many people believed. “They spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed.” When recording conversion at different points in the book of Acts, Luke looks at the experience from different standpoints giving the reader a mature picture of the saving work of the triune God.

  1. In Acts 2: we see that salvation is a work of joy and steadfastness. “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; . . . And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and of prayers. In Colossians 1:11, Paul noted these two aspects of true salvation in praying for their being “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy.” Writing to the Thessalonians (1:6), Paul observed “you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit.”
  2. In Acts 13:48, we see that belief comes to those who have been “appointed to eternal life,” and that to them God “opened the door of faith” (Acts 14:27).
  3. Belief comes upon a convincing presentation of the message, as in this text. All of the means by which God draws sinners into a belief of the gospel are consistent both with his nature and with ours. It calls for cognitive assent to the facts of the incarnation and the death and resurrection. We must consent to the vital truth that Christ’s work is the only remedy for our need. It must be seen, also, as consistent with prior revelation and prophecy. This verse emphasizes the part of the messenger in making the message “clear and plain” that “Christ receiveth sinful men.”
  4. Beyond that, however, the change of heart necessary for a trust in the Christ of the gospel for salvation must be brought about by the Spirit of God. According to Acts 16:14, as Paul spoke his message to Lydia, “The Lord opened her heart.”

C. They did signs and wonders. This served a specific purpose in the apostles and among the churches while both the spoken and written authority of the gospel message was being developed, matured, and completed in the new covenant community.

  1. Signs and wonders served to verify the authority of the messenger even as their careful presentation of Scripture as consistent with the events of Christ’s life served to verify their message. Acts 2:43 records, “Many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.”
  2. This was a fulfillment of one aspect of Acts 1:8, the promise “You shall receive power.” The signs and wonders were peculiar operations of the Spirit exhibiting externally that power that also operated internally in those who believed. The internal power producing regeneration (John 3: 3, 5, 8) was the “exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his mighty power” (Ephesians 1:19). The external power of signs and wonders showed that God had set aside these messengers as bearers of truth whose message would bring new life. Even the deacon Philip was given this power to accompany his preaching (Acts 8:5-8, 12, 13).
  3. The apostles also were given power, both authority the display of phenomena, to grant the external evidence of the presence of the saving work of the Holy Spirit to new sets of believers. So it was with John and Peter in Samaria (Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6).
  4. The writer of Hebrews pointed to the combination of content and signs when he urged the Hebrew Christians not to drift from the faith. “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Hebrews 2:3, 4).
  5. Some evangelicals say that the same phenomena should accompany the preaching of the gospel today and should regularly be practiced in the church. They argue that the power spoken of so frequently necessarily includes in perpetuity the signs and wonders, gifts of tongues and prophecy that were present in the first-century church. The verification that the Apostles and New Testament prophets received through their truthful preaching and their special gifting (“word and deed”) was sufficient to give evidentiary status to their preaching and canonical status to their writings (Romans 15:15-20). That has now been established. None of the accompanying signs are needed for the revelatory work of establishing an authoritative narrative.
  6. The New Covenant has been fully explicated in the writing of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:19, 20: 3:5), fully verified both by moral change and by external accompaniment of divine action. The New Testament churches needed both prophetic utterances given by the Spirit and the settled writings of the apostles (1 Corinthians 14:30, 31, 37); 1 Thessalonians 5:19, 27). Those utterances needed to be guarded carefully against the Spirit of error (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1-6). Revelatory truth on the basis of prophetic utterance continued in the churches until the end of the time of the apostles when that which was to be revealed had been revealed (1 Corinthians 2:10-13 [When the things “freely given to us by God” have been fully explicated, the purpose of revelation ceases and thus its operations in the church. Thus end tongues, words of knowledge, and prophecies]). No further evidence is needed of the revelatory origin of Scripture nor of its having been secured by inspiration. Prophets were under the immediate authority of the apostles; so with the death of the apostles also ended the necessity of the prophets (1 Corinthians ; Revelation 22:10, 18, 19).

D. They dealt with opposition. While a large number believed, the Jews who disbelieved stirred up opposition. The city became divided between believers and the opposition party who plotted to stone the apostles. Becoming aware of this, they fled to other cities where they repeated their mission of preaching the gospel.


II. Signs and Suffering in Lystra – The summary statement of their work in Lystra and Derbe is “There they continued to preach the gospel” (7). Luke recorded the event that showed how grossly the pagan mind misinterpreted the sign of healing performed by Paul. When this led to even greater opportunity for the gospel, their former opponents showed up and led in another uprising, this time almost fatal to Paul.

A. Paul healed a lame man who heard Paul preach. Paul could see that God had given the man faith (9), and called on him to stand to his feet. Even as Peter saw that Simon did not have faith (Acts 8:21), Paul could see that this man had truly believed, had seen that the God of redemption was also the God of creation, and, should he so will, could restore strength to his legs. We know that the connection between creation and salvation was a staple of Paul’s message (see verse 15 and Acts 17:22-26). Also see where Paul begins his systematic presentation of the gospel in Romans 1:18-20.

B. The pagans, knowing that such an event indicated divine power, immediately assumed that Paul and Barnabas were gods among them, Zeus and Hermes. Perhaps Barnabas was the more imposing figure and Paul the more loquacious. The priest of Zeus began to organize a sacrificial event for the two men.

C. When Paul and Barnabas heard of this, they acted quickly and with overwhelming intensity to stop this act of worship toward them. The tearing of the robe meant that they found this intention to worship deeply disturbing and blasphemous (cf. Mark 14:63, 64).

D. Paul and Barnabas used the occasion to preach.

  1. They assumed their position as men of the same nature as these men of Lystra. Such a statement, of course, was based on their commitment to the unity of the race in Adam and that, therefore, different nations and ethnicities have not arisen from different sources.
  2. He affirmed that their preaching of the gospel was to produce repentance from such idolatrous vanity in order to come to a knowledge of the true and living God. There is no god but one God and the very act of seeing in these two men the presence of two gods showed that their perception of God was miserably deficient. The very idea of God is that he alone is the supreme being and he is the one than whom nothing greater can be conceived.
  3. The God he preached is the one who created heaven and earth and all that inhabits both spheres.
  4. Though God could very well have brought down severe manifestations of his wrath on these pagan nations, he showed patience and maintained a witness to his intrinsic goodness and a propensity toward mercy in giving them lives and hearts filled with “food and gladness.”
  5. All peoples throughout all the world are dependent on the goodness of God for provision of physical sustenance and any joys that punctuate their lives. The entire world was made by him but did not know him, presently lives in darkness, walks in darkness, will not come to the light, and lies placidly in the condition of condemnation under the dominance of the evil one. The quickness with which God sometimes removes large numbers of this world’s inhabitants shows that none of us can lay claim to tomorrow before we are summoned to give an account to the Creator: “Fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear him! (Luke 12:5).
  6. They were able, though with great difficulty, to keep them from sacrificing to them as gods.

E. The enemies of Paul and Barnabas came from Antioch and Iconium, won over the crowd that only recently had been willing to attribute deity to the apostles, so that they stoned Paul to the point of believing him to be dead. Those who had believed his message stood around him where he had been dragged outside the city; Paul revived and walked back into Lystra (!), and soon departed with Barnabas to Derbe.

F. In Derbe also they made many disciples; they went back through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia encouraging them in the truth of the gospel, urging them to perseverance in spite of tribulation, and setting the churches in those cities in proper order (23).


III. Persevering through the Assignment. This is one of the mysteries of divine providence and God’s purpose of salvation—He does not allow his truth to go unopposed nor his messengers to go unpersecuted. Manifestations of invincible power often are followed by strategic flight from harm, brutal treatment, misrepresentation, and the success of power cooperatives of the world.

A. Jesus was God in the flesh, performed many mighty miracles and could have asked for angels to deliver him, but he suffered both as a substitute for us in light of our wrath-deserving sins and also on account of the sinful blindness of the world.

B. The apostles could perform signs and wonders but were not shielded from the opposition of the world. They suffered greatly (2 Corinthians 11:22-33; Acts 12:1-4; et al.).

C. Paul, who had been promised that he would suffer great things for the sake of Jesus’ name (Acts 9:16) incorporated this as a part of his message, indicating that the testing of one’s faith was elemental to the possessing of it (Acts 14;22). He invited Timothy to join him in “suffering for the gospel” and instructed him to “endure afflictions” (2 Timothy 1:8; 4:5). Paul knew that to know Christ meant not only knowing him in the power of his resurrection but also in “the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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