Commentary on Acts 14:19-28
We come today to the final description of Paul’s and Barnabas’ first missionary journey.
Yesterday we left them at Lystra in the embarrassing situation of being taken for gods because of the cure of a paralysed man. But their glory was to be short-lived; their enemies were on their tail.
Those Jews whose hostility they had incurred in the towns of Antioch and Iconium turned up and successfully stirred up the feelings of the people of Lystra against the two apostles. (We need to remember that there were other Jews in these towns who had become Christian believers.)
Reflecting the fickleness of crowds, the people who just now were treating the apostles as gods now had Paul stoned, leaving him for dead. It seems this was done within the city rather than at the usual place of execution outside the walls. This could indicate that it was a spontaneous outburst of mob violence rather than a formal execution. But Paul was what we would call a “tough cookie” and, as soon as his disciples gathered around him, he was suddenly back on his feet again. (Is there a hint of a miraculously quick recovery in Luke’s description?) It is also possible that his future companion, Timothy, was present. Timothy, as mentioned earlier, seems to have been a native of Lystra. Paul’s experience might have had the same effect on him as Stephen’s had on Saul (Paul).
With the courage that so often marks his actions, Paul went back into the town but the next day with Barnabas he moved on to Derbe, their last stop on this journey. Derbe was a border town in the south-eastern part of the Lycaonian region of Galatia. An inscription naming the city has been discovered about 50 km (30 miles) east of what was previously thought to be the city site. Here the two missionaries again proclaimed the Gospel and made “a considerable number of disciples”.
Paul must have been quite an impressive preacher, judging by his success in all the towns in which he spoke. One wonders if his being a Pharisee did not have an influence on his Jewish listeners, although it is clear that it also had a negative impact. If a devout Pharisee could be converted to the Way of Jesus, then maybe there was something in it. At the same time, others would see him as a total renegade to his Jewish faith.
Then they began their return journey going through each of the towns they had originally evangelised – Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch – and in which they had met such violent resistance. But one must remember that they had also made many Christian converts among both Jews and Gentiles. These would be the seeds of new churches in each place.
Paul “put fresh heart into the [newly-converted] disciples”. He preached and warned them of the trials and difficulties that they could expect to face – just as he did. This was a necessary condition to enter the kingdom.
In each church a pastoral structure was set up for the first time with the appointing of ‘presbyters’ (Greek, presbyteroi, presbuteroi) or elders. With prayers and fasting, they were commended to the Lord. The ‘presbyters’ or ‘elders’ were community leaders chosen from among the communities by a laying on of hands. In this case, too, the elders were chosen by the apostles and not by the community. Our modern word ‘priest’ is a corruption of this word but they were not priests as we know the term now in the Catholic Church.
As the New Testament emphasises, we really have only one Priest, Jesus Christ who acts as Mediator and Bridge-builder (Pontifex) between us and God (cf. Letter to the Hebrews)
From Pisidian Antioch Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps through Pisidia, Perga in Pamphylia and down to the coastal town of Attalia, the main port of Pamphylia. From there they went by ship back to Antioch in Syria, the city from which they had originally set out.
On their return to Antioch, the two apostles gave a complete report of their mission experiences and told of how God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” and how well they had accepted the message of the Gospel. In fact, Paul and Barnabas had left behind not just individual believers but functioning communities with their own leadership. After their return, they stayed on in Antioch and “spent no little time with the disciples”, probably a year at least. Paul now seems to be fully accepted into the community which had been so suspicious of him earlier.
In our work for the Church we also need to report to the community what we are doing. We also need to submit ourselves to their evaluation and their encouragement. The work of the Church is never that of just one person be it pope, bishop, priest, religious or lay person. Still less, is the church a ‘service station’ where I just go to fulfil my private needs.
Meanwhile, the way is being prepared for the next great event in the history of the infant Church – the Council of Jerusalem, the Church’s very first Council. It will also be a major turning point in the direction the new community is taking.