In Acts chapter fourteen, the apostle Paul is embarked with Barnabas on the first of his three missionary journeys. Paul and Barnabas are in the region of Lycaonia, an area in Asia Minor to the north of the Taurus Mountains. There they are preaching in the cities of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. If you look at a map of the Mediterranean Sea, this region is just north of the belly-bump on the southern shoreline of what is modern-day Turkey.The work conducted by Paul and Barnabas in the Galatian province met with remarkable success among both Jews and Greeks, and this success proved to be a bit of a problem, especially for Paul.
But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren. – Acts 14:2, NASB
The jealousy of the Jews grew beyond the adrenaline burn in their chests, and from that burn, they took decisive action.
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. – Acts 14:19, NASB
These men were intelligent enough to know when a human being was or was not dead. If Paul was not clinically dead, he was undoubtedly inches from it. Let there be no question in your mind that God performed a mighty miracle in the very next verse.
But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city. – Acts 14:20a, NASB
One does not go from being presumed dead, to getting up and walking as though nothing had happened, without divine intervention.
There are times when, as a detached observer, it is difficult to distinguish between courage and stupidity. Having just been stoned and left for dead by the people of Lystra, if God in His mercy and grace heals me of that abusive beating, the last place I want to go is back into the city of Lystra. Yet, according to Acts 14:20, back into Lystra is exactly where Paul and Barnabas went.
The next day Paul and Barnabas went to Derbe, preached there for a while, and then in verse twenty-one, we are told that they went to Lystra yet again. Either Paul is daft, or he knows something of the courage of Jesus. The indwelling Spirit of God compelled him to do what human sense judges to be foolish.
One of my favorite television commercials is a Geico commercial depicting a group of teenagers in a horror film, standing outside a very unsafe looking old house, trying to decide where they should hide. Should they hide in the attic? What about the cellar? At one point, the young blond woman (smartest one in the group) sobs out the question, “Why can’t we just get into that running car?”
Everyone except the brilliant blonde agrees that getting into the running car is a stupid idea, and ultimately, the group decides to hide behind the wall of hanging chainsaws, because that is the safest option for them. It is laughably absurd, and that is precisely the point being made in the commercial. People in horror films make bad decisions. Do not be like them when you select your auto insurance carrier.
It would not be difficult to construct a persuasive argument that Paul and Barnabas returning to Lystra was a move similar to hiding behind the wall of chainsaws in a horror film. There were innumerable safer options. What is it in the life of a Christ-follower that allows them to face courageously that from which others shrink in fear? I believe the answer to that question can be found at the beginning of Acts chapter fourteen.
The Source of Courage
Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. – Acts 14:3, NASB
It is only reliance upon the Lord that will infuse us with the boldness to stare down grave dangers.
I chose the New American Standard Bible’s translation of Acts 14:3 specifically because of their handling of the preposition ἐπί (epi). The italicized phrase “with reliance” in the verse above, is not literally part of the text, but it is implied, and the translators have spelled out that implication. The preposition, epi, can be translated as ‘over’, ‘against’, ‘before’, but in some cases (four in the NASB ) it is used to denote the basis of the relationship it describes. In the case of Acts 14:3, I believe the translators have done us a great service by showing that the basis of the boldness of the disciples is nothing other than their reliance upon the Lord.
Paul confirms the source of his boldness when writing to the church at Corinth.
I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:3, NASB
When selecting classmates for the kickball team, I am disinclined to choose one who self-describes with terms like weakness, fear, and trembling. Yet these very attributes in Paul shout out the glory of God who uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise, so that no man may boast before God.
Courage comes most readily when we realize where the power comes from, and where our strength lies. Our courage melts when we imagine the power is somewhere within us, because we recognize that our response to opposition must be faced down and conquered by what we are able to muster up, rather than by standing firm in who God is. Courage is emboldened when we stop focusing on ourselves, our fears, our needs, and become passionate about, and overwhelmed by the glory of God.
Do not mistake me for saying we should not have fear. I am not saying we are never afraid, because we are! What I am interested in is how we respond to that fear. Do we employ Fight, or Flight? The way we answer that question is wholly determined by how well we understand and accept the truth from the paragraph above.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to square our shoulders and march with boldness into the very heart of the thing that terrifies us. I would go so far as to say that if we are not afraid, it is not courage that emboldens us. It is courage only when we are afraid and we engage the agent of our fear regardless. As Emma Donoghue puts it, “Scared is what you’re feeling … but brave is what you’re doing.”
The Outcome of Courage
The common image of courage in modern society is that of a soldier, and make no mistake about it, the courage of a soldier is an impressive reality. Courage is the emergency responders running into the World Trade Center buildings as everyone inside is running out. Courage is the nerves in your stomach causing you to vomit on the floor of the landing craft, yet when the door drops, running onto Omaha Beach as thousands of bullets are propelled toward you. These images of courage inspire us, but they are realities many of us will never face.
What does courage look like for the rest of us?
Courage is a family pulling together to battle cancer. Courage is a single parent summoning up the strength to raise a family without a mate. Courage is a widow who presses on when she abruptly finds herself alone through the untimely and unexpected death of her husband. Courage is a couple willing to lose their business rather than violate their principles and their faith. Courage is a coach praying with young men after a football game, even though he knows doing so will cost him his job. Courage is the willingness to keep an open Bible on your desk in a hostile work environment. Courage is the willingness to do what is right when everyone around you is doing what is wrong.
The instinct to draw back or flee is not an instinct that comes from God. We can say with confidence that “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? – Psalm 27:1, NIV-1978
Rather than live defeated, the Christ-follower knows these things to be true, and marches boldly into the midst of that which is otherwise terrifying. One of my favorite verses in all of scripture is Joshua 1:9 where God says to Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. – Psalm 19:13, NIV-1978