Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral (21st May 2017).
As our passage for this morning – as also the New Testament in general – shows, the preaching of good news always evokes a mixed response. People are won to Christ – but many are resistant to Christ. William Larkin: “As in physics every action spawns an equal and opposite reaction, so in the spiritual realm the proclamation of the truth will always encounter opposition” (Acts 209). Jesus, when explaining the Parable of the Sower to his disciples, warned them of a mixed response. “The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they not believe and be saved” (Lk 8.11,12)
14.1-7: PAUL AND BARNABAS BRING THE GOOD NEWS TO ICONIUM
Iconium is modern Konya, Turkey’s fourth largest city. Then Iconium was a prosperous commercial and agricultural centre, some 90 miles east-southeast of Antioch. A sign of its importance is that it had five main roads radiating from it.
14.1: “Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers”
As was their custom, they went to the synagogue first.
Do notice, it was a mixed congregation made up of ‘Jews’ and ‘Greeks’ – the Greeks were probably ‘God-fearers’, what we might today called ‘seekers’. Judaism has never been a ‘missionary’ religion, but it was willing to welcome non-Jews to their meetings.
The initial response to the preaching of the Good News was very positive – “a great number… became believers” – literally a ‘large crowd’.
14,2: “BUT the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers”
- “the unbelieving Jews” – literally the ‘disobedient’ Jews. I am reminded that in Rom 1.5 Paul says that that he was made an apostle “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles”.
- “the brothers” here must include not just Paul & Barnabas, but the new converts.
How did they ‘poison’ people’s minds? Peterson in his paraphrase suggests: “The unbelieving Jews worked up a whispering campaign against Paul and Barnabas, sowing mistrust and suspicion in the minds of the people in the street”.
14.3: At this point you might have expected Luke to say, “So Paul and Barnabas left Iconium’ – but no: “So they remained for a long-time, speaking boldly for the Lord”. Paul and Barnabas certainly had guts. Why did they stay when there was so much opposition? It is possible that they were concerned for the well-being of the new converts – these new believers needed to be taught and built up in their faith.
Luke adds: “the Lord… testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them”.
I like the phrase “the word of his grace”. We find it in 13.43: Paul & Barnabas … urged them [the Christians at Antioch in Pisidia] to continue in the grace of God. Then in Acts 20.24, to the Ephesian Elders, Paul speaks of his mission “to testify to the good news of God’s grace” and later in his farewell commends them “to the message of God’s grace”. Grace – God’s love to the undeserving. Or as Sunday School children used to be taught: ‘God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense’.
NB the link between ‘words’ and ‘signs’. Calvin; “God hardly ever allows them (i.e. miracles) to be detached from his Word
14.4: “But the residents of the city were divided….”
The upshot was that some of the Jews and Gentiles plotted to beat up Paul and Barnabas – “to maltreat them and stone them” (14,7). James Dunn in his commentary says that “Few passions run as deep as religious passions” (Acts of the Apostles 186). If God is on my side, then the Devil must be on your side!
Stoning was a Jewish custom – it was laid down as the appropriate punishment for blasphemy (Lev 24.11-16). However, this was threatening to be more a mob riot rather than a judicial execution.
At that stage Paul & Barnabas felt they had no option but to leave and move on to Lystra and Derbe.
- In Acts whenever the Good News was preached, people came to faith. William Willimon, an American Methodist bishop, commented: “While the mission of the church is more than growth, it is not something other than growth. It is certainly not decline… In Luke-Acts, any church bold enough to preach the Word, which dares to challenge the cultural status quo, which refuses to accept present political arrangements as eternally given, which is convinced of the truth of its message, which is willing to suffer for the truth, will grow. God gives growth to such churches” (Acts 127). Why do we not see such growth today?
- In Acts opposition often goes hand in hand with people coming to faith in Christ. Preaching good news evokes mixed responses. How true has that been in your experience? The nearest experience I have had was when I visited China some five years ago – I was invited to preach in a church in central Wuhan, and to my amazement some 19 people came forward to receive Christ – this was in a context where being a Christian is at the very least frowned upon by the State.
14.8-20: GOOD NEWS COMES TO LYSTRA
Lystra = 18 miles from Iconium. Lystra today is an obscure little town in present-day Turkey. In Paul’s day it was also ‘backwater’. The question arises, why then did Paul go to Lystra? Was it because he needed to recover from the difficult time in Iconium? Did he need some ‘R & R?’
At Lystra Paul & Barnabas met a man who had been crippled from birth – “he could not use his feet and had never walked” (v8).
“He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet’. And the man sprang up and began to walk” (9,10).
There are a good number of parallels with Luke’s earlier account of the healing of the man at the Gate Beautiful (Acts 3). But there is one signal difference: and that is the response.
In Jerusalem, Luke tells us, that “all the people… were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (3.10).
But here in Lystra it caused a sensation. The inhabitants of the town began to worship Paul and Barnabas – a priest brought oxen and garlands & wanted to sacrifice to them: “‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus and Paul they called Hermes, because he was chief speaker” (vv11,12).
All this seems incredibly strange to us. Just imagine, if a cripple were to be brought into the Cathedral this morning and I were to feel led by God to pray for his healing, and God were to answer my prayer, and he were to jump up and down, a healed man. How would you react?
- some of you might be cynical – “it’s been rigged”;
- others of you might be dumbstruck, and wouldn’t perhaps know what to say;
- yet others would praise God and happily acclaim that a miracle had taken place.
But none of you would hail me as a “god“.
What’s the difference? Is it that we are more sophisticated today?
No: there is a very simple explanation for the behaviour of the good people of Lystra.
For, as we discover from Ovid’s Metamorphoses the people in Lystra told a story that once Zeus & Hermes had come to this earth incognito – in disguise. But there was no one in the land who would give them hospitality – no one offered them a drink, let alone a bed at night Only two old peasants, Philemon & his wife Baucis, took them in & were kind to them.
The result was that the whole population was wiped out by the gods except Philemon & Baucis – they were made guardians of a splendid temple & – so the story goes – were turned into two great trees when they died.
So, when Paul healed the crippled man the people of Lystra were determined this time not to make the same mistake as before & ignore the gods again.
- Barnabas, perhaps, looked tall & dignified – so they took him for Zeus, the king of the gods.
- Hermes, was the god of speech & the messenger of the gods – since Paul was the preacher on this occasion he was called Hermes.
This then was the background to the people at Lystra taking them for gods.
At first Paul & Barnabas didn’t realise what was going on – Lycaonian was not one of their strong points – but when they did, they tore their clothes [a gesture suggesting they thought blasphemy had been committed] & ran into the middle of the crowd shouting:
“Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good – giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with good and your hearts with joy” (14.15-17)
Here we have Paul’s first sermon to a purely Gentile audience. In many ways this speech foreshadows the longer speech made to the Areopagus and found in Acts 17. In both speeches Paul engages with creation of natural theology.
Over against the gods of the Greek pantheon Paul maintained the existence of the living God who made heaven & earth & all that is in them.
There is only one God, the God who has made the world in which we live.
As proof Paul advances the regularity of the seasons: “He has always given evidence of his existence by the good things he does; he gives you rain from heaven and crops at the right time” (v17).
It is all too easy for us to take the laws of nature for granted – but Paul would encourage us to look behind them and see the living God.
“He has always given evidence of himself“.
GNB: “He has always given proof of himself”
REB: “God has not left you without some clue to his nature“.
Or in the words of Ps 19.1 NRSV “The heavens are telling the glory of God & the firmament his handiwork”
Are we really to believe that this world is one gigantic accident – the creation of random chance? I find that difficult to believe.
God has always given evidence of his existence“.
To believe in God is not to take a major step of faith. It is to believe the obvious. Belief in God is natural. It is so natural that there never has been a race or a nation without belief in the supernatural. Cicero: “There is no nation so barbarous, no race so savage, as not to be fully persuaded of the being of God“.
But Paul & Barnabas were not wanting to convince their hearers of the existence of God – the people of Lystra were clearly religious people.
What Paul & Barnabas wanted to get over was the fact that God matters. v15: “ we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them“. God matters – therefore turn to God.
The Psalmist said: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 53.1).
Or rather, as the 1st draft of the GNB put it: “Fools say to themselves, ‘God does not matter’. They are all corrupt, they have done terrible things, there is no one who does right“. Because they didn’t believe God mattered, they broke every rule in the rule book – they were practical atheists.
“Turn from these worthless things to the living God”. Peterson: “We are here to persuade you to abandon these silly god-superstitions and embrace God himself”.
Paul went on to speak of God’s care for us seen in the world of nature.
“He has not left himself without a witness in doing good – giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food your heart with joy” (v17). God is the giver of every good and perfect gift.
Alas we don’t have the full transcript of the sermon he preached at Lystra. Strangely there is no specific reference to Jesus – o is such a reference present by implication when Luke records that to the people of Lystra Paul declared: “We are here to announce the good news” (v15).
Paul doesn’t spell out the good news here, but if his sermon to the people at Antioch in Pisidia is any guide, then he will have talked about Jesus and forgiveness (13.38-39). God is not just a Creator God who is also the Saviour God – the God who sent his Son that we might have life.
Unfortunately there was no happy end to Paul’s missionary effort at Lystra: “But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (14.19).
Iconium was only 18 miles away (6 miles by foot), but Antioch was 100 miles away! Some have questioned whether Jews would have gone to such lengths to oppose the work of Paul – but then think of the lengths that Paul went to persecute Christians.
The crowd thought he was dead – but Paul was a survivor – must have been either unconscious or semi-conscious: see 2 Cor 11.25: “Once I received a stoning”.
No mention of Barnabas – but then he had not been the preacher – nor had he healed the man! Paul was the natural target for the Jews’ anger.
“But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe – a journey of 60 miles
The disciples must have been the new converts – this must have taken guts to form a protective ring around him.
For reflection: Paul tailored his preaching to his audience. At Lystra instead of beginning with Jesus, he began with God and creation. How do Christians (and Christian preachers) connect with people today? How do you respond to the comment of John Stott (Acts 232): “With secularized people today this might be what constitutes authentic humanness, the universal quest for transcendence, the hunger for love and community, the search for freedom, the longing for personal significance. Wherever we begin, however, we shall end with Jesus Christ, who is himself the good news, and who alone can fulfil all human aspirations”.