by Roger McCay
3 May 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 14:1-18
Link to Audio Version
What looked like a weed turned out to be a blessing—our dewberries.
This year, in the natural areas of our property, where I’m trying to regrow some woods, we had an invasion of briars. My wife and I spent quite a bit of time trying to pull these things out, but we were only partly successful in keeping them back. Anyway, it was pointed out to me by Pete Coats that those were dewberry plants, and that he preferred dewberries over blackberries. I also noted that the bees liked the white flowers on them in the early spring. So, over time, our view of them has changed.
We’ve lately had several weeks of ripe dewberries—more than we can even begin to pick by ourselves. I made some paths around them, making it easy to pick them, and several friends have come over and picked berries for themselves. From these surprise blessings, my talented wife has made dewberry cobbler, dewberry jam, and dewberry gelato. She’s also flash frozen a lot of them, which have proven handy to use on breakfast oatmeal or cereal, also in yogurt, and blending in shakes. I’ve come to learn that there is a whole lot of great things you can do with dewberries. One of my favorites is just eating them freshly picked off their thorny vines. So, lately, when I’m hungry for a sweet snack, I take a walk out along the trails, picking dewberries and munching on them to my heart’s content.
We could attribute these blessings of dewberries to mother nature, coincidence, birds, or what have you. However, we know better. These things are straight up blessings from God. The land, the dewberries, this beautiful spring, the rain, the sun—all of it is God’s work.
And, isn’t it interesting that these berries have come at such a providential time with this coronavirus thing going on? We didn’t have them, or, at least, notice them due to busyness, last year. Yet, this year the Lord provided them for food and an outlet to engage in the soul-soothing labor of picking the berries. He also provided a means to bless our friends who have been coming over to enjoy the same. All glory to God!
Now, a definition of “means” is “an action or system by which a result is brought about; a method.” This helps us to understand a theological truth: God uses means of all kinds in order to accomplish his ends. This includes the doctrines of providence and common grace.
How that ties into the dewberries is that God used the means of my selection of that particular land for the regrowth of woods in order to accomplish his blessing by growing dewberry plants. The dewberries are a blessing which I did not plant and, ironically, even spent days vainly trying to root out.
There is a tendency to credit God’s work to the means rather than to God. Sometimes this is simply a confusing of the means with the cause, but it is still an injustice towards God. In our passage today, we have a picture of God using means to accomplish his ends within the context of gospel ministry and spiritual warfare.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, in chapter 5, speaks to the Lord’s providence, clarifying in paragraph III:
God, in his ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.
In the ordinary course of things, the Lord actively uses means, whether it be circumstances or people, even anything whatsoever he chooses (visible or invisible) to accomplish his will. As the Almighty, he can bypass means and just do it directly if he likes. He can work against means to accomplish his ends (I think particularly of the means Satan puts to work against God, considering the context of our passage here). He can also work against what would be the ordinary course of things in such a way to accomplish his will—like in miracles. Yet, he even does this, sometimes, in mundane things—such as working against our rooting out dewberry bushes (our means), in order to bless us with dewberries. So, means are not a limiter of God in any way, but they are one way he actively engages his creation towards the purposes of his will.
In our passage today we see various means that God uses towards his purposes in the ministry of his gospel. He uses the means of patterns and methods of ministry; the means of the discipline, patience, tenacity, and boldness of his workers; the means of persecution; and the means of the humility of his workers.
In vv. 1 and 6-7 we see the means of the continued pattern of ministry taking place, first in Iconium, then in Lystra and Derbe—a pattern of gospel proclamation. In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas keep to their regular pattern of speaking first in the Jewish synagogue and then to the Gentiles. Then in Lystra and Derbe, where there was no synagogue, they just went straight away into preaching the gospel to whoever would listen. The pattern varies depending on circumstances, but the gospel proclamation is consistent: get to the location; proclaim the gospel. If a synagogue is there, go there first, if not, find a spot where you can speak to a number of people and get down to business.
As the gospel is divisive, exclusive, and inclusive, as we looked at last week (also v. 4 here today), persecution occurred. The enemies of God first attacked the message and credibility of the apostles in v. 2. Then, as that wasn’t working like they hoped, they went after the apostles physically in v. 5, causing them to flee for their lives to Lystra and Derbe. This was Satan’s means of persecution. Delightfully, though, the Lord worked against Satan and his minions’ means of persecution as a means to spread his gospel.
Due to the persecution in v. 2, the Lord used the means of discipline, patience, tenacity, and boldness in the proclamation of the gospel of his workers. In the face of the resistance of Satan and his minions, Paul and Barnabas (v. 3), “remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord.” The unbelieving Jews who poisoned the minds of some Gentiles against the brothers merely allowed for Paul and Barnabas to double down on their message, spending more time discipling those who believed, and solidly planting the church of the Living and True God there in Iconium.
Then, once Paul and Barnabas fled for their lives from Iconium, the Lord worked against Satan’s means of persecution, using it as a means to bring the message of the gospel to Lystra and Derbe. Even there, the Lord used the means of the humility of the apostles for his purposes. Verses 14-15:
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news … “
The crowds, who, for the most part, were Gentiles without any knowledge of the Lord (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) or his Scriptures, and who were utterly pagan in their thinking, thought the missionaries were manifestations of Zeus and Hermes. This thinking was along the lines of a myth concerning those two gods manifesting in their region at another time: consisting in dire results when the gods were rejected, and glory when they were treated well. This myth can be found in Ovid’s work—Metamorphoses.
So, seeing the miracle of healing the man who was lame from birth, these folks wanted to glorify Barnabas and Paul, as such a miracle, in their minds, must have meant these two men had to be gods. They missed the point, however, that the healing was simply the Living and True God (the Lord) confirming the message of the gospel, as it was preached, and also a confirmation of the saving faith that the lame man had displayed in his hearing and believing the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the midst of the confusion and chaos that followed, the missionaries rightly gave the Lord the credit and glory he was due for the miracle. Further, the Lord used their humility, in part, (as we later discover in Acts 16:1-2, where Timothy is introduced); the Lord used their humility, in part, as a means to establish a church in Lystra. This church was not a church glorifying Zeus and Hermes, or Paul and Barnabas, as it could have gone. Rather, due to their faithfulness and truthfulness, their humility, a church was solidly established to the Living and True God.
Paul and Barnabas could have just gone with the flow, bolstering their own egos, or just playing along with the so-called “ignorant pagan locals,” with the excuse that they were just trying to gain acceptance and a voice in the people’s midst in order to share the gospel (perhaps calling it something sophisticated like “contextual ministry”); but, they didn’t. Instead, in vv. 15-17, they pointed out how the people’s false gods were vain and empty, and that they owed everything to the very Living and True God who healed the lame man. They gave the Lord the glory, and they explained how even these pagans are to give the Lord the glory.
As the Lord himself said in Matthew 5:45:
[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Also, like Paul teaches in Romans 2:4:
God, in his “riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” … “God’s kindness is meant to lead [people] to repentance.”
All of creation is a means the Lord uses to bring people to him—God’s kindness. Coupled with the Lord’s revealed Word, no-one is left with any excuse to not repent, believe, and receive the salvation freely offered in the gospel.
Paul and Barnabas’ reaction was likely offensive to many, as they were bold in their political incorrectness, insulting the people of Lystra’s false gods. Yet, while all this might have seemed suicidal, the Lord used all these things as means—their humility, their honesty, and their boldness in confronting the emptiness of the people’s idols—the Lord used these things as means to accomplish his will, bringing many to faith and establishing his church in Lystra.
This is spiritual warfare at its finest, my friends. Paul would go on to say,
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
How do we fight against that? Well, we put on the full armor of God as explained in Ephesians 6, pray, and faithfully work for the Lord. He uses whatever we do for his purposes. Even if we bumble it all up, he uses it as a means to accomplish his will. Neither Satan and his schemes, or our competence or incompetence foils God’s plan. He uses anything and everything he wants as his means to win. He always wins. He just calls us to stay faithful.
A message that really stuck with me when I was working on my MDiv, was given by Dr. Zach Eswine, where he spoke of how the pulpit is a place of spiritual warfare. It really is. Satan cannot stand a faithful preacher of God’s Word. Despite this, and whatever means Satan throws at us to try to hinder us or stop us, regardless of how things go up here, whether people judge our words as good or bad, the Lord uses the foolishness of preaching, as Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 1, to accomplish his purposes. He changes lives, brings people to faith, disciples his people, comforts his people, and whatever else he wants. He just calls us preachers and teachers of the gospel to faithfully preach to the best of our ability.
I’m always amazed at the feedback from folks (although, I shouldn’t be, knowing what I know); I’m amazed at how the Lord uses these messages, these sermons, to speak to people and affect people’s lives in ways I never imagined they could. I might be thinking one thing, but the Lord takes it and runs with it to wherever he wants in people’s lives. It’s pretty awesome, really. The preacher and the sermon are simply a means that the Lord uses to accomplish his purposes. What a comfort it is to know that Satan’s attacks are turned by God to be a means to accomplish the good of his will!
You’ll find such spiritual warfare going on everywhere, if you are a faithful Christian. Satan cannot stand faithful Christians, wants us to fail, and actively works against us. We find it in the workplace, among our relationships with our neighbors and family, on social media, in politics, and so forth. It is often relatively easy to pick out Satan’s attacks and schemes, too. Just look to where evil is happening, or Christians are getting pushback of some sort for their faithful message and lives, and even persecuted in whatever way. That is Satan and his minions at work.
Yet, the evil one does not win. He cannot win. The Lord turns all of Satan’s means, what Satan means for evil, and turns them to accomplish the good of his will. This is always the case, whether we see it or not. Indeed, it is usually hard, if not impossible, to see it in the middle of the battle (consider Elijah’s retreat to Mt. Horeb). Yet, later, in retrospect, it is a joyful thing to look at how the Lord overcame what was meant for evil, for good.
Perspective in the midst of events is important, my friends. Like this coronavirus thing. What is our outlook on this? Are we looking to see how the Lord is using it as a means towards the good of his people, like he says he does (Romans 8:28), even when times are tough? Or, are we wallowing in the negatives that Satan would have us focus upon?
Think about it. Our congregation has never ceased worship or fellowship through this whole thing, even though we haven’t been able to gather together in person. It has just looked a little different and become a little more deliberate. We, as a church have sought ways to obey the Lord in the midst of all this. We have been seeking ways to be obedient in our worship and succeeding in ways we’d never thought about before. So, we’ve been bringing God glory, and he’s been growing us in our walk with Christ. We have not forsaken each other or him. We have been talking on the phone more often, visiting. We’ve been providentially seeing each other in Spirit-directed encounters when we make a run to pick up various things at the various places that remain open (sometimes while picking up things for each other—opportunities that we would have missed otherwise). We’ve been regularly checking to make sure everyone is okay and that each of us have our needs met. So, we’ve had opportunities to be deliberate in our love. Families have had family prayer and worship times at home, when, perhaps, such things were normally just something done at church. We’ve had to be deliberate and creative in how we’ve gotten together in our worship, doing things a bit differently, but in that difference, we’ve demonstrated our faithfulness.
Would you have ever thought that worship might look like gathering around a computer or however you get internet (or, the CD player), and worshipping on Sunday through livestream or recordings?
We’ve learned what it means to be united together in worship through the Spirit of God, even when apart. We’ve learned that we are resilient, that we won’t give up worship, and that we will always seek to worship the Lord somehow and someway. We even, as a congregation, shared a time of fasting and prayer, which I’m told has not happened in recent memory. The Lord used this pandemic to bring us to learn and practice a long neglected spiritual discipline in our church. What a victory!
Perhaps, and I hope, during this time, you have been able to reflect on what is really important in life. Busyness has a way of creeping up on us to a point where the “important” is neglected for the “urgent.” I suspect that when we get back to our regular routines of life, we will have a little different perspective on things. Perhaps the Lord will use all this as a means to help us whittle things down, purging the things that are just time wasters, or trivialities, in our lives, so that we can be more focused on the important things, to his glory.
Maybe the Lord will have used this as a means to help us grow more reliant upon him. Maybe the Lord is using this time as a means to help us focus on who we really are as his people. I know he’s using this strange time in some way. I fully expect that we will come out on the other side of this having grown in our walk with Jesus Christ (Romans 5:3-5). That’s a victory, my friends. All to the glory of God!
Now, it is easy to take the credit when we see the Lord’s victory, and we’ve been a part of it. However, as has been pointed out in the message so far, we are a means! Our lives and actions are a means that the Lord uses to accomplish his will. We need to keep that distinction in place. The Lord gets the glory for the victory. We get to boast in the Lord that he deigned to use us for his purposes, in whatever way he chose. Such an honor is above any and all honors any man or woman could ever give you. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:17:
“Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
The Lord’s providence is a wonderous thing. His use of every sort of means to accomplish his will and work towards the good of his people is something we can endlessly marvel upon. Blessedly, the Scriptures provide us insight into his continual work in his creation. We are given a marvelous way to look into the simple things of life (the everyday things), and also a way to look at the deeper things and mysteries of life—the struggles, the trials, the pains, even grief; but also the things that bring us happiness and pleasure; relationships; love; beauty.
Indeed, the Lord’s providence (and how it reveals his kindness), is seen not only in the gospel of grace and the transformed lives of those who follow Jesus, but also in his common grace as we look around us in nature—such as the simple dewberry. How true it is that
“God, in his ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.”
Let us remember to give credit where credit is due. Give glory to God! And boast in the Lord! Because the Lord is victorious in Spiritual Warfare, we must glorify the Lord for his blessings of grace.
To him is the victory. To him is the glory.