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Last week, Pastor Mike told us that a large number of Jews and Gentiles responded to the Gospel message Paul preached in Iconium. But there were some unbelieving Jews that stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against Paul and his colleagues. Paul’s preaching divided the city with some supporting the Jews and some supporting the apostles. A plot was formed to stone our dear brothers and they fled for their lives, but they continued to preach the Gospel. This morning, our missionaries end up in Lystra and we pick up the story with Paul preaching the truth.
Our passage today comes from Acts 14:8-20. Grab your Bible and take a look at it.
The stage is set and the narrative picks up with Paul already in Lystra. We don’t see him entering the synagogue which leads many to conclude there was no synagogue in this Roman colony. Paul encounters a man that is described three ways. He, “had no strength in his feet.” He was, “lame from his mother’s womb.” He, “had never walked.” Just to make sure we all understand: this man never enjoyed getting from one place to another on his own. He relied on other people to help him. The man is sitting somewhere that he can hear Paul speaking, but we don’t know the setting in which this takes place. At some point, Paul looks out into the crowd and locks eyes with the man. The man was listening, he was paying attention to what Paul was saying. As Paul is gazing into the man’s eyes, he recognizes the lame man’s faith.
We throw that word around a lot in the church. Faith is belief to the extent of complete trust and reliance. We put our faith in many things. The government. Teachers, coaches, schools, police officers, doctors, the military, cars, and other people. We find it so easy to trust these people; we find it easy to trust organizations and businesses. Is our faith as strong when it comes to God as it is with our kid’s coaches and teachers? I’m not saying don’t trust these folks, but I think we often have blind faith in these people. I think it’s safe to paint with a broad brush and say in most cases, coaches and teachers and police officers and government officials can be trusted. We’ve got many teachers right here as part of our faith family and I assure you, they love your kids and have their best interests in mind.
Does our faith in God compare with our faith in humans? I think of all the times I’ve counseled with people that have been hurt by others. Relationships that have gone awry. Family members estranged refusing to talk with one another. Unresolved anger and bitterness in the workplace. Friends gossiping about friends. Time and time again, people let us down that rightfully causes us to mistrust others, but often we find ourselves drawn back into those painful situations. God has never been involved in a scandal. We don’t have anywhere in recorded history where He does not do what He says He will do. We have nowhere written where God acts based on impulse or whim. Why do we find it easy to trust others and so difficult to trust God?
Whatever Paul was saying resonated with this lame man and Paul recognized his, “faith to be made well.” This is the third time in Acts that we see lameness healed. Remember the lame man in Chapter 3 that was laid at the Gate Beautiful that was healed by Peter. Then there was Aeneas that had been paralyzed for eight years in Chapter 9 that was healed by Peter. The result for all three is the same: Paul says, “Stand upright to your feet.” The man, “leaped up and began to walk.” Do you find it curious that he didn’t have to learn to walk. No shakiness, no tentative steps, no falling down, no trying to catch his balance, he miraculously, “leaped up and began to walk.” The response of the people in Lystra differs dramatically from the healings I just mentioned. In Chapter 3, the people, “Were filled with wonder and amazement.” (Acts 3:10) In Chapter 9, the people, “Turned to the Lord.” (Acts 9:35) But here in Lystra, “they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” Get the picture in your mind. The lame man is healed and the people raised their voices and began shouting. I’m sure there were looks of amazement, shock, awe, and wonder. They shout out in their native language, but there’s just one problem with that. Paul and Barnabas don’t speak Lycaonian. They didn’t know what was being said.
The people called, “Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.” Zeus is the legendary Greek god of the universe, ruler of the skies and the earth. The Greeks considered him the god of all natural phenomena; the personification of the laws of nature; the ruler of all things and the father of all gods. He had a Roman equivalent named Jupiter. Hermes was Zeus’ attendant and spokesman. Legend has it that he was the son of Zeus and Maia. His Roman equivalent was known as Mercury, the fleet of foot protector of travelers, thieves, and athletes that was able to move freely between the land of mortal and the land of the gods. Luke doesn’t say, but I bet the people began bowing down to Paul and Barnabas. I’m sure our Apostles thought the people’s response was strange, but they really began to understand when, “The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds.” The people witnessed the miraculous healing of the lame man and concluded that the gods have become like men and are standing right in front of them. The false, pagan priest of the pagan god Zeus comes from the pagan temple just outside the city and wants to offer pagan sacrifices to Paul who the pagan priest thought just had to be Hermes.
This action caused Paul and Barnabas such distress, “They tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you 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 our day and age, we often treat important people differently than we treat common folk. We tend to fawn over stars and big-time athletes and often are excited just to get a glimpse of someone famous. Paul did not appreciate being treated like this. He and Barnabas tore their robes as a sign of great distress and opposition to this inappropriate demonstration by the people.
In Paul’s mind, everything is clear. He and Barnabas are simply on a journey telling people about Jesus and demonstrating His power as they have opportunity. The people mistakenly think they are gods and begin worshiping them. I can picture Paul waving his arms and screaming, “we’re just men like you, stop this!” Paul explains by saying, we “preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all this is in them.” That’s Paul’s explanation. We’re just guys sharing the message of the Gospel. They worship, “vain things.” Empty worship. Worthless worship. Idolatrous worship of gods who were not gods. Paul goes on to say, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” This is the first time in Acts that a group of people like this are addressed. They are totally pagan. They believe in many false gods so Paul had to start at the beginning. One fundamental aspect of Christianity is that there is one God. He told them they needed to turn from idols to a singular, living God. Any religion that will transform men into gods is worthless. This principle was likely very strange to these people.
Paul gives three main points in this mini-message. First, God is the Creator of all that lives in the sea and on land. Second, Paul tells them of God’s mercies with past generations. If people wanted to walk away, God allowed it. We’ll see this more clearly in Acts 17:30. There is an indication that people acted in ignorance, but now they should know better. Third, God left proof of who He is. He still provided the rain that allowed food to grow that produced fruitful seasons that the people could be satisfied. This concept would not be foreign to these people of Lystra. There were writers of the day that spoke of divine providence of the gods, but the idea of only one true God would have rocked their world. One God was the source of all things natural; one God was the source of all things from heaven, one God that left proof of His involvement in the world. “Even saying these things, with difficulty they restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” As he’s speaking, the people are still thinking he and Barnabas are gods. It’s got to be frustrating for Paul. He’s telling them the truth of God, but they’re not picking it up. Paul is building a bridge between the creation and the Creator. He’s trying to meet these people where they are. He’s trying to bring them to the place where they can know the one true God, but something interrupts his message.
Before Paul could proceed to the next phase of the message, “Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.” The religious left comes again against what God wants to do. Remember the Jews were jealous of the crowds at Pisidian Antioch that wanted to hear from Paul and Barnabas. Just a few weeks ago, we heard Pastor Zane tell us these same Jews, “incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.” (Acts 13:50) Last week we saw large numbers of people turning to the Lord such that, “The Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the gentiles and embittered them against the brethren.” (Acts 14:2) The Jews have been pursuing Paul and Barnaba because of the success they’ve had in turning people from a religion to a relationship with Christ. The Jews from Antioch and Iconium won over the crowds and then stone Paul and leave him for dead. This is a mob and they have a mob mentality – even if not everyone participated. The people that just witnessed the miraculous healing of the lame man; the people that just wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas are turned against them and gathered stones. Why Barnabas was not given the same treatment is not known. In a stoning, large boulders, as big as someone can pick up are thrown at the person. Those stones are hurled at Paul and the crowd thinks he’s dead and drag him out of the city. In a miraculous turn of events, “While the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city.”
You cannot stop what God wants to accomplish. You might be able to delay it, but it’s not really a delay because all things work in God’s timing. Paul is stoned to death, but not death. Undeterred, “The next day, he went away with Barnabas to Derbe.” What will become of our missionary heroes? Will they receive the same treatment in Derbe as they did in Lystra? Join us next week as we continue to watch the incredible events of the early church unfold.