“But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 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. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:19–23 ESV)
One has said that the lives of the saints are like bells the harder you hit them, the better they sound. So it was with the apostle Paul. His life was like a brass bell hit by the stones of his persecutors, and he thus goes back into the city which stoned him and continued in ministry. He sets before us really what faithful ministry looks like. Suffering drives faithful ministry to continue making converts, confirming them, and constituting churches.
First, He is said to make converts in v.21. That is, by the gospel preached, people are made disciples. The instrumental means is the message of the crucified, dead, buried, but risen Christ. He preached the gospel which he knew of his Lord and which he experienced most literally with his ilife. This leads to the next matter…
Second, he is said to confirm them in v.22. He returns where there are existing converts and strengthens their souls. It appears this to be so because when the soul is strengthened, it may be harder than the stones that are throne at it! We get a peak into how specifically this strengthening occurred, namely, by encouraging them to continue in the faith, and specifically by saying “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God here may be seen as not merely heaven, but the joy the believer enters after suffering. We see in Romans 14 that the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 6:33 it is that we are to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and the things we often worry about will be taken care of by this priority of trust in God. Paul is in fact speaking in relation to what he has already experienced himself. It is through the suffering by stones that he experienced the joy of the new life. Now, this only increases on the way to glory, but it is not that he is speaking of something far off. We are passing through suffering to glory not merely to heaven, but to greater glory on earth as we obey Jesus.
Third, he is said to constitute them as a church in v.23, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” This indicates that for the church to become harder than the stones the world may throw at it, it must be constituted (not merely converted, and confirmed). There must be a church to attend and covenant with. This takes spiritually mature leaders to be put in place. It is put in place by godly men, and done with prayer and fasting showing the serious nature, and lastly a committing them to the Lord in whom presumedly the church believed. The picture is like that of a mother embracing her child in her arms, a child with an ailment that cannot be fixed without surgery. She then commits the child to the surgeon to be healed. So, the apostles have confidence and faith in the Lord so as to commit the elders to the Lord whom they believed. Their faith was not in the elders, but in the Lord who would do the necessary surgery on the elders for the sake of the church. So faithful ministry is built on the work of Christ tending to the bodies and souls of ministers.
Let us put this together then: faithful ministry or missions for that matter must make converts by means of the gospel of Jesus Christ, preaching it; second it must confirm the souls of believers with encouragement and preparation for suffering with hope for glory in their lives; and lastly it must be made fully to last by constituting them as a church with qualified leadership. There is no such thing as faithful ministry without converts, confirmation, and constitution of a church. It won’t last without these things. But with these things, we may be assurred to have ministry like that of the apostle—made stronger than stones by the Lord!
The devil throws stones at our faith, but when we are converted by gospel preaching, and confirmed in gospel faith, and constituted as gospel churches, our bodies and souls become harder than the stones.
Let’s draw some applications here from Gouge on Whole Armor,
1. Faith in the strength of the Lord removes causeless fear like Nehemiah’s building the walls around the City, refusing to be like Solomon who said of people scared to go out because someone says a lion is out there.
2. Faith in the strength of the Lord emboldens us like lions, Davids against Goliaths
3. Faith in the strength of the Lord recovers our spirits like the Israelites in battle