And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" - Acts 13:46-47
My study of Acts has taught me much about how we take part in the forward movement of God's kingdom. I recently thought through how fear is essential in our witness, actually putting us in a position of trusting God while we call others to do the same.
This morning, I read about Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, where they went right after persecution moved them out of Pisidian Antioch and then Iconium. Lystra was the first time where they did not enter a synagogue to begin their gospel engagement. Apparently there wasn't a synagogue there, but that didn't stop them from preaching the gospel in some context where many were gathered. Specifics aren't given in Acts 14:8-18, but we do see what happened when Paul and Barnabas didn't do their cultural homework.
A sign is done by the Lord, through them, and a man crippled from birth walked for the first time. The crowds were amazed, but mistook the identities of the apostles thinking them to be Zeus and Hermes. A priest of Zeus brought garlands and oxen, wanting to offer sacrifice to these apparent gods, but Paul and Barnabas wouldn't have any of it.
They ran into the crowd, tearing their garments, asking, "Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness."
I don't know if I'd classify this as a mistake on their part, but Paul and Barnabas seemed a bit unprepared for the response they received. Up to this point, they would preach the gospel, signs would be performed, some would believe, some would not. Persecution would arise and they would move on.
Here, they use the same basic methodology but being that there was no Jewish presence, they had to do more work to help their new audience make sense of the gospel. In their respose to the offerings and sacrifices being presented, they appealed to God as Creator and as Sustainer. The Lycaonians did not have any categories for the Jewish God that had made everything and continues to sustain everything.
Paul and Barnabas in their gospel presentation had to go back to the basics, so that they could move forward into the specifics of God's redeeming work in Christ.
Not only did they go back to the basics, but they began to do the hard work of undermining the gods of the Lycaonians. They called them to, "turn from these vain things to a living God..." What you are doing, Lycaonians, is vain and the gods you serve aren't living. They never were. They are false and made up.
The lesson learned here, it seems, is that because of their lack of knowledge of the local gods and religious practices, their gospel presentation was made in response to the people's misidentification of the apostles and a total lack of understanding of God. Acts 17:26-34 helps make sense of this as well.
There, while Paul was in Athens, he did his homework (see Acts 17:22-23 and 28). As he had opportunity to address the Areopagus, he knew his stuff. He would not be running into this crowd, tearing his garments in dismay as people saw him as a god. He knew how the people of Athens thought, he had studied their culture and customs to the point where he could use them as a means of contextualizing the gospel.
The point is that mistakes happen while we are engaged in the mission of God.
Paul and Barnabas did not really know their audience as they made their first foray into cross-cultural missions. There were still evidences of faith (Acts 14:8-9), but in the end their gospel presentation came as a response to misunderstanding and misidentification. This displays our sovereign God working even amidst our mistakes!
We trust that he is always at work, even as we mess stuff up, but we take these experiences and these lessons and through them become better contextualizers of the gospel. Mistakes are essential in our witness as the only way we become more effective in this work is through on-the-job training. Mistakes too often hinder us from sharing the Good News, but in light of Acts 14 and 17, we need to use some degree of trial and error that is under the sovereign hand of God.
Basically, we tend to think that we will evangelize all wrong. That we will do something wrong, say something wrong, say too little, say too much, etc. Yes, we will do each and every one of these things many times. But, these are things we learn from. We do not enter into a new job, not willing to do what we are hired to do because we are afraid of making mistakes. A good employer will have a culture of learning from mistakes and getting better, and the good news is that in Christ we have that exact culture.
Learning from our mistakes means that we are humbled and therefore in a position to be used of God. We may have to clean up a mess we make by saying, "Whoa, whoa, whoa...that's not what I meant. What I meant was that God is _____ and _____...we are to respond to who he is in repentance and faith."
Lord willing, even in that moment, the truth of who Jesus is and what he's done can be shared and with effectiveness. But, as we continue to grow and be transformed and learn, the next time may be marked by a deeper understanding of our audience, more clarity in speech, more conviction in truth.
Our Lord can and will use our mistakes for his purposes, for our good, and for his glory. And, in his grace, he uses these mistakes to help us grow in our ability to relate the gospel.