The early followers of Christ were not ones to avoid confrontation with authority, especially when that authority sought to supplant the sovereignty of God and contradict his moral principles.
When Peter and John were severely threatened by the Jewish religious leaders and commanded not to speak at all or teach in the name of Jesus, they replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts. 4:17-20).
Upon returning to their companions, they raised their voice with one accord to God: “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word, by stretching out your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
This pattern continued in ensuing years as the gospel spread throughout the Roman world and churches were established in key population centres. When the unlikely convert Paul and his colleague Barnabas were thrown out of Antioch, they simply shook the dust off of their feet and moved on to the next city, Iconium.
Preaching in the synagogue of Iconium, they “so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1). But as usual, the “unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.” How did Paul and Barnabas react to yet another hostile reception … yet another apparent rejection … yet more conflict and controversy?
The writer of Acts says, “they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord.” Faced with violent opposition, they didn’t cut and run, but held their ground. Like the Christian soldier described in Ephesians chapter six, they stood fast against the schemes of the devil. They resisted the resistance. Interestingly, the word anthistemi, translated ‘withstand’, means to vigorously oppose and bravely resist, and depicts a soldier standing his ground face to face against an adversary!
What did the Lord think of the stalwart resistance of his servants? He must have been pleased because he “bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). And therein lies a lesson for us all.
Perseverance, in the midst of difficult and discouraging circumstances, will eventually issue in a breakthrough – a demonstration of the supernatural power of God. Call it a turn around, a change of fortune, a shift in momentum, a turning of the tide, call it whatever. But one thing is certain: the blessing of God comes to those who wait – those who keep on keeping on in courage and faith (Psalm 27:13-14; 37:34).
Returning some months later to Iconium, the apostles realized that they needed to put things in perspective, lest certain members of the church began to think that the difficulties they were experiencing were an aberration resulting from a lack of faith. “They returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, 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 14:21-22).
Likewise, Peter admonished his readers: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). Suffering and glory, trials and triumphs, conflict and victory, are reoccurring themes in the New Testament, and indeed, constitute the landscape of a normal Christian life. But those who keep Christ’s command to persevere will see his power revealed in their lives and circumstances!