Over the last several days we have been following Paul, along with Barnabas, on his First Missionary Journey. And with today’s readings we see Paul and Barnabas start on the return leg back to Antioch. And the places where they will stopping today are Iconium and Lystra.
At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the gospel.—14:1-7
Iconium was about 90 miles southeast of Pisidian Antioch. Paul and Barnabas continued their practice of going to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. The team had success with both groups. The signs done among them likely included healings and exorcisms but were not limited to these things. The signs were done in spite of opposition that ultimately led to Paul and Barnabas leaving for Lystra and Derbe. In verse 4 both Paul and Barnabas are called apostles. While Paul was an apostle in the same sense that the 12 were (Acts 1:26), the sense in Acts 14:4 is more likely that of a missionary, someone sent as a representative of another.
In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.—14:8-10
The lengthy description of the man who could not walk in verse 8 is to demonstrate the magnitude of the healing to come. The unnamed man had insufficient physical structures to enable locomotion. Walking could only happen if these structures were provided/created for him. After hearing Paul preach the gospel, the man had “faith to be healed.” Paul’s brief words of healing contrast with the life of suffering the man had experienced.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.—14:11-13
The Lycaonian language mentioned here survived until at least the fifth century, but it is no longer spoken. The crowds pronouncement was deeply disturbing and horrified the missionaries. Paul and Barnabas were opposed to idolatry, and now they were being made the objects of false worship. The crowed compared Barnabas to Zeus and Paul to Hermes, who was the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology. They likely made this connection because Paul had done most of the speaking. To sacrifice a bull was an incredibly expensive, albeit misguided gesture.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.—14:14-18
The apostles demonstrated their great distress by tearing their clothes. Their opposition to the attempted idolatry led them to stop it rather than to only protest it by rending their garments. Their declaration of the actions of God forms the foundation for evangelizing the nations, for it describes God’s relationship to them (the living God is the Creator), the reason for their distance from him (he allowed it in the past) and his continual witness to them (his creation loudly proclaims him). The speech is similar to the one given at the Areopagus (17:22-30). Paul and Barnabas barely succeeded in stopping the crowd.
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.—14:19-20
The apostles’ protest did not garner many friends in the city, for outsiders arrived and won over the crowd. Paul was stoned by the crowd and dragged outside the city. The natural reading of the text suggests that the persecutors left Paul for dead though he was still living. Both Paul’s preservation from death and recovery from his wounds are indications of God’s intervention. And that is where we will pick up tomorrow as Paul and Barnabas make their return trip to Syrian Antioch.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
2 Chronicles 33:14-34:33, Romans 16:10-26, Psalm 26:1-12 and Proverbs 20:19
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