In our last essay we studied Acts 13:13-52. Having evangelized a large part of Cyprus, Paul, Barnabas and Mark sailed to Pamphylia, which was a Roman province on the southern coast of Asia Minor. Then they made their way to the city of Perga about 12 miles inland, where Mark left the team. After Mark left, Paul and Barnabas went another 100 miles to Pisidian Antioch. Now then, the rest of chapter 14 completes the story of the first missionary journey. From Pisidian Antioch Paul and Barnabas traveled another hundred miles or so to the city of Iconium.
Luke tells us that the same basic pattern seen at Pisidian Antioch occurred again at Iconium. Paul and Barnabas began their ministry at the synagogue, and once again the initial response was highly favorable. Both Jews and Gentiles believed in Jesus. And once again, after the missionaries’ initial success, the Jewish authorities opposed them. But apparently the opposition was not as pronounced as at Pisidian Antioch, because verse three tells us that Paul and Barnabas remained there “for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord.” He also informs us that miraculous signs accompanied their ministry. But eventually, the division in Iconium over their ministry grew, and a combination of Jews and Gentiles, working with the city leaders, planned to mistreat, or even stone, Paul and Barnabas. However, the missionaries learned about the plot, and they departed to Lystra and Derbe, where they continued to preach the good news.
In verses 8-10 Luke does not describe the arrival of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. He simply begins the account with Paul speaking, though he does not indicate where Paul was speaking. My guess would be that he was speaking in the local synagogue, since that was their pattern. While Paul preached, he noticed a young man in the congregation who “could not use his feet.” Luke uses repetition to make the man’s situation absolutely clear. He “had never walked,” because “he had been crippled from birth” (v. 9).
Somehow, undoubtedly by revelation of the Holy Spirit, Paul sensed that the man had faith to be healed. So right in the midst of his sermon, Paul looked the man in the eye and loudly said, “Stand upright on your feet.” And with no hesitation the man stood up, literally leaped up, and began to walk (vv. 9-10). Wow! What a miracle! Not only was the man immediately healed, but also he immediately knew how to walk.
Next, inverses 11-18, we find one of the most unusual and fascinating stories in the New Testament. Let me begin with some background on the city of Lystra. The city, like Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, was located in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia in a geographical district called Lycaonia. Lystra also was one of cities chosen by the Roman Emperor Augustus as a settlement city for Roman veterans. Therefore the population consisted of native Lycaonians and Romans. As you can see in verse 11, Luke points out that Paul’s audience was made up of Lycaonians who spoke a Lycaonian language rather than Romans, who would have spoken Latin.
Let me quote John Stott at this point. “The crowd’s superstitious and even fanatical behaviour is hard to comprehend, but some local background throws light on it. About fifty years previously the Latin poet Ovid had narrated in his Metamorphoses an ancient local legend. The supreme god Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) and his son Mercury (Hermes) once visited the hill country of Phrygia disguised as mortal men. They sought hospitality but were rebuffed a thousand times. At last, however, they were offered lodging in a tiny cottage thatched with straw and reeds from the marsh. Here lived an elderly peasant couple called Philemon and Baucis, who entertained them out of their poverty. Later the gods rewarded them, but destroyed by flood the homes that would not take them in. It is reasonable to suppose both that the people of Lystra knew of this legend and that they would not want the same fate to befall them.
All right, coming back to Paul and Barnabas, let’s look at the reaction of the Lycaonian people of Lystra to the miracle. They were so impressed by it, they shouted, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (v. 11).
In the legend it was Zeus and Hermes who came to their neighborhood disguised as humans. Notice that they called Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, because Paul was the chief speaker. It seems to me that this incident calls into question Luke’s implication that Paul had become the leader of the team in Cyprus. In the Greek pantheon, Zeus was the chief god and Hermes was the herald or messenger god. Therefore this suggests that Barnabas still was the leader of the team. At any rate, because of the miracle, the Lycaonians of Lystra believed that Paul and Barnabas were gods.
Of course Paul and Barnabas knew nothing of the legend and had no idea what was going on until the priest of the city’s temple of Zeus showed up prepared to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas (v. 13). As soon as Paul and Barnabas heard about that, they tore their clothes in the standard Jewish expression of horror in the presence of blasphemy (v. 14). Then they rushed out to protest the idea that they were gods as strongly as they could.
Then Paul preached. Obviously, Luke records only a brief summary of what he said. But the heart of it was that he and Barnabas were men, not gods, and that they had come to share with them the good news, or the gospel. He also declared, “they should turn from these worthless things to the living God.” The “worthless things” Paul wanted them to abandon primarily were their false gods and idols. Of course the same applies to us. Twenty-first century Americans tend to have different kinds of idols from the ancient Lycaonians, but we certainly have our idols: money, power, sex, and self. And Paul would say to us, turn from these worthless things to the living God.
Now then, in this brief summary, we also note five things that Paul revealed about the true God. First, as we have just noted, God is a living God (15a). He is not lifeless like idols made with human hands. He is alive, and he wishes to enter into a personal relationship with each of us.
Second, Paul, in the briefest terms, says that God is the creator God (15a). “He made the heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them.” Thus God not only is alive, he is the creator.
Third, Paul told the people of Lystra that God is patient (v. 16). God “allowed all the nations to follow their own ways.” The nations were sinful and rebellious, which means they were deserving of destruction. But God permitted them to follow their own ways. However, as F.F. Bruce says, his patient mercy was not a matter of indifference. Rather it was a matter of patience. As you well know, God does the same thing with us. When we are sinful and rebellious, worthy of destruction, he permits us to follow our own ways. But it is not indifference; it is patient mercy.
Fourth, God always provides a witness to himself. It may be a verbal witness such s the one Paul was giving. Or it may be a non-verbal witness such as rain and fruitful seasons. But God always provides a witness, to us, just as he did to them.
Fifth, God provides nourishment. I would have expected Paul to mention food. Humans universally need food to sustain them. But he also declares that God fills hearts with joy, which is a nourishment of the soul. I like that! Many people who have plenty to eat, especially in our culture, have no joy. But God provides joy to believers in Jesus. Finally, Luke tells us in verse 18 that Paul, with that sermon, kept the crowds from offering sacrifices to them, but barely.
In verses 19-20 Luke demonstrates how fickle people can be and how quickly a missionary’s situation can change. On one day the people of Lystra were proclaiming that Paul and Barnabas were gods; and a few days later, they attempted to stone Paul to death, and nearly succeeded. There was no trial; the mob simply tried to kill him, and indeed thought they had killed him. We are told in verse 20 that the disciples surrounded Paul’s body, presumably praying for him. And he got up and the next day went with Barnabas to Derbe. We are not told that a miracle was involved, but I would at least call it a miraculous recovery.
In verses 21-26 the only thing we are told about their ministry in Derbe is that it was successful. They made many disciples there. Then they decided to return to Syrian Antioch from which they started. But the way they decided to do it involved a courageous decision. If you look at a map of the region in Paul’s day, you will see that they could have returned through Tarsus, which would have been shorter and would have given Paul an opportunity to visit his family. But they decided to retrace their steps to the cities in which they had planted churches and encourage the converts in those places. I say a courageous decision, because they had been persecuted in those cities. But they were willing to go right back to them. Of course the question we must ask ourselves is, are we willing to face danger for Christ?
In verses 22-23 we see the ministry plan of Paul and Barnabas. It consisted of four parts. First, they “strengthened the souls of the disciples” (v. 22). Second, they “encouraged them to continue in the faith (v. 22). Third, “they appointed elders for them in each church” (v. 23). And fourth, “with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe” (v. 23).
Finally the missionaries returned to Syrian Antioch. They gathered the church, reported to them everything that had happened with an emphasis on the open door to faith for the Gentiles.