Commentary on Acts 14:5-18
Paul and Barnabas continue their first missionary journey of spreading the Gospel.
We last saw them in the Galatian town of Iconium. At first, they had great success with their preaching and we are told that “a large number of both Jews and Greeks” came to believe. But then, as happened in Antioch, some Jews who refused to accept their message managed to stir up some Gentiles, too, against the two apostles. Even so, they stayed on in the town “for a considerable period speaking out boldly for the Lord”. Their message was confirmed by signs and wonders being performed through their [healing] hands.
The result was that the people were divided in their opinion – those who a priori rejected what they had to say and those who were convinced by the actions which seemed to confirm the missionaries’ message. And that is the situation as we begin our reading today.
Again, as in Antioch, a conspiracy of Jews and Gentiles came together to attack the two apostles and to stone them to death. Stoning was the Jewish mode of execution for blasphemy. Earlier we saw the fate of Stephen for words that were taken as utterly blasphemous.
When Paul and Barnabas got wind of this they fled the town. They went on to the cities of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding country in Lycaonia and continued proclaiming the Gospel in these places.
Lycaonia was a district east of Pisidia and north of the Taurus Mountains in south-eastern Turkey. It was part of the Roman province of Galatia. Lystra was a Roman colony and apparently the home town of Timothy, whom we will meet on the Second Missionary Journey. Derbe was about 100 km (60 miles) from Lystra. The events of today’s reading take place in Lystra; we will see Paul in Derbe tomorrow.
On arriving in Lystra, Paul saw a man there, who was crippled from birth, listening to his preaching. Seeing that he was a man of faith, Paul ordered him to stand up, which the man immediately did. He was totally healed of his disability.
The onlookers were utterly astounded and immediately saw the apostles as gods in human form: Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes (Latin, Mercury), the spokesman of the gods.
The New International Version of the Bible comments:
Zeus was the patron god of the city, and his temple was there. People who came to bring sacrifices to Zeus apparently decided to make an offering to Paul and Barnabas instead. The identification of Zeus with Barnabas may indicate that his appearance was more imposing and Paul was identified as the god Hermes (the Roman Mercury) because he was the spokesman.
This incident may have been occasioned by an ancient legend that told of a supposed visit to the same general area by Zeus and Hermes. They were, however, not recognised by anyone except an old couple. So the people of Lystra were determined not to allow such an oversight to happen again.
Even the priest of the local temple of Zeus, which was just outside the city gates, was preparing to offer sacrifices in their honour. Horrified, the apostles tore their garments, a sign of their displeasure and a Jewish way of expressing great anguish. They insisted they were ordinary human beings.
Paul then addresses the crowd and tells them that the mission of Barnabas and himself was precisely to lead the people away from such idolatrous superstitions to a belief in the “living God ‘who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them’ (Ps 146:6)”. In preaching against a belief in many gods (which most Greek-speaking peoples had), it was Paul’s custom to contrast the true God with the false, the living God with impotent idols, and to call for a change of heart.
Paul wants to tell them about the one living God, who is the source of everything in heaven and earth. While allowing Gentiles to go their own way, yet God gives them abundant witness of his presence – he gives “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and fills you with nourishment and gladness for your hearts”. Paul is now telling them of the true Source of all these good things.
But the people were not easily convinced and could barely be prevented from carrying out their plans to offer sacrifice to the two apostles.
Here we see two more elements in our work for Christ.
First, persecution in one place meant that the message was brought elsewhere. We see this happening frequently in the Acts.
Secondly, while persecution often is the lot of the worker for Christ and his gospel, an even more dangerous trap may be people’s adulation.
We see this in the life of Jesus himself, who sometimes fled from such situations (e.g. John 6:15). Here we see Paul and Barnabas firmly rejecting an apparently favourable situation which they could have been tempted to exploit. As we will see tomorrow, it was just as well they did not.