Acts 14: 8 – 20 In Lystra and Derbe
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.
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.
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.
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 round him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
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This passage is a graphic description of missionary work. The episode starts on a high note with a miraculous healing. A man who was so lame that he had never walked since birth is healed through the actions of Paul. What we have here is not an eye-witness account, and we’re not told the source of the story. However, the response of the local people is consistent with a genuine miraculous healing. There’s no good reason to doubt its truth.
The lame man would have been familiar to many of the local people. They would have known that he had never walked. Consequently, when he jumped up and walked among them, they would have had no doubt that a miracle had taken place.
There were few Jews in Lystra. There is unlikely to have been a synagogue or Paul and Barnabas would have started their missionary work there. There was, though, a temple to Zeus just outside the city walls, which was by this account the focus of the city’s religious life.
Seeing the miracle, the Lystrans mistakenly believe that Barnabas and Paul are divine. They set about preparing a sacrifice to them. When Paul and Barnabas hear this, they are appalled. They rip their clothing and rush to the crowd telling them to stop – they are only men, not gods.
Paul takes advantage of the attention of the crowd to identify the living God as the source of all good things in the world. This is a different approach from the one he took with Jewish communities. On this particular occasion it doesn’t seem to have been very effective. Paul and Barnabas only just stop the crowd from sacrificing to them, and Luke doesn’t mention any increase in believers.
Matters got worse. Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived and stirred up the crowd against the apostles. How did they manage this? They persuaded Gentiles to back them up against Paul? What about the miracle?
I suggest that it was a case of the self-interest of a few influential people stirring up the emotions of a crowd. The priest of Zeus, for example, had plenty to lose; the apostles had shown in the most positive way possible that they rejected his religion. I could imagine the whispers running round the crowd. “They turned down our sacrifice? We’re not good enough for them? Well, they’re foreigners. Not gods, eh? If they’re men, they’ll die when we stone them.”
And the miracle? How easy it is to dismiss a sign when your self-interest is threatened!
They stoned Paul, and thought they’d killed him. They dragged his body out of the city. The disciples gathered round and Paul regained consciousness and stood up. The next day, he and Barnabas left.
What a disastrous day! And yet…
In the crowd, listening to Paul preach, and seeing his heroism when faced with martyrdom, was a young man, a teenager. He was the son of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother.
His name was Timothy, and we shall meet him again.
You are a great and wonderful God, the creator of our universe. Thank you that you love us, and that we can draw close to you through your Son, Jesus.
In Jesus’ name, Amen