We’re following Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. They were sent out by the church in Antioch and first went to Cyprus. Then they travelled to Pisidian Antioch. And then they moved on to Iconium. And at the end of last week’s reading, in verse 6, Luke told us that they travelled from Iconium to Lystra and Derbe. Lystra was 18 miles from Iconium. Derbe was a further 55 miles away. And there they did what they always did: they continued to preach the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. And we’ve seen in previous weeks that the reaction to their preaching was mixed: some believed, while others refused to believe. Some believed and little churches were formed. But some were so angry by their message that they began to stir up trouble against Paul and Barnabas.
Verses 8 to 10
In verses 8 to 20, Luke recounts for us what happened in Lystra. There was a man there. And Luke describes his condition for us. First of all, he was crippled in his feet. Secondly, Luke tells us that he had been lame from birth. And thirdly, he tells us that he has never walked. And so Luke is making plain to us how serious this man’s condition was and what an apparently hopeless case he was. But look at verse 9. He was listening to Paul who was speaking. And no doubt, Paul was speaking about the Lord Jesus. And Paul noticed him and somehow Paul was aware that this poor, crippled man had faith to be healed. And, of course, this is something that a preacher notices from time to time. Not so much that someone has faith to be healed, but that someone has been gripped by the message and it’s affecting them more deeply than normal. Paul saw something like that in this man and so he looked at him directly, and called out to him: ‘Stand up on your feet!’
Now, does this remind you of anything? Think back to chapter 3 and to the time when Peter and John were going up to the temple in Jerusalem and they met a lame man on the way. And on that occasion, Peter said to the man who had asked them for money: ‘Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ And do you remember how it ended? The man went walking and leaping and praising God. That was in chapter 3 and it was about Peter. And in chapter 14, it’s Paul who was able to heal another lame man. And whenever Paul told him to stand up, this man, crippled in his feet, lame from birth, who had never walked before, jumped up and began to walk. The two stories are quite similar which might mean that Luke is deliberately trying to show how Paul was able to do what Peter could do. Both possess the same authority because both have been sent by the Lord Jesus Christ, and he is working through both of them to build his church.
Verses 11 to 13
In verses 11 to 13 we see the reaction of the people. And it’s clear from their reaction that these people are not Jews. We’ve seen in previous weeks, that Paul would arrive at a city, and he would head for the synagogue, and there, on the Sabbath Day, he would address the Jews and whatever god-fearing Gentiles were present. In Lystra, Luke doesn’t mention anything about the Jewish synagogue — so perhaps there wasn’t one in this city. And the reaction of the people indicates that those who were listening to Paul and who saw him heal the lame man were definitely not Jews. How do we know they weren’t Jews? Well, it’s easy really because no Jew would ever think of saying to Paul and Barnabas what these people said. Look at verse 11. When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in their own language:
The gods have come down to us in human form!
Because Paul was able to perform such a mighty miracle — healing this man who had been lame from birth — they think that Paul and Barnabas must be gods. They called Barnabas Zeus — and Zeus was the king of the gods, according to Greek mythology and because Paul was the chief preacher, they called him Hermes — Hermes was known as the messenger of the gods. One of the commentators recounts a legend told by Ovid that Jupiter and Mercury — the Roman equivalents of Zeus and Hermes — had disguised themselves as humans and had visited an area near Lystra. An elderly couple had welcomed them into their home and were subsequently blessed by the visiting gods, whereas all those other households that did not welcome them were destroyed. So, perhaps because of that legend, the people of Lystra wanted to make sure that they gave these gods a proper welcome this time. So, verse 13: The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the people wanted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas.
In 2 Corinthians 4 the Apostle Paul wrote of how the god of this age — by which he means the devil — the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel. These people in Lystra had heard the good news of the gospel but their reaction to the miracle shows just how blind they were to the truth and how lost they were in darkness. Even though they had heard about the true God and his Son Jesus Christ, they clung to their old superstitions. They heard the gospel, but they could not accept it.
When we lived in the Republic, we prayed so much for our Catholic neighbours who went to mass every weekend. And, of course, there was an awful lot wrong with the mass, and there was an awful lot wrong with what the priests were saying. Nevertheless, in one way or another, every Sunday they were reminded that Jesus Christ died and shed his blood for sinners. And yet, they never came to see and to understand the truth of the gospel which is that we are justified through faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone. And like these people in Lystra, there was still so much superstition and unbelief which blinded them and kept them from coming to a knowledge of the truth. And we just longed for the Lord to take away their blindness and to enable them to see the light of the gospel and the truth about Jesus Christ the Saviour. But it was never easy. And it wasn’t easy for Paul and Barnabas either. So look at what they did in verses 14 to 18.
Verses 14 to 18
First of all, we read in verse 14, that when Paul and Barnabas heard what they were planning to do, they tore their clothes. Now, I think it took a while for Paul and Barnabas to figure out what was going on. If you glance back to verse 11, Luke is careful to tell us that the crowd shouted out in their own language. Paul and Barnabas presumably didn’t speak Lyconian, and so wouldn’t have known what they were saying to them. But once the priest arrived with the bulls and garlands and presumably a knife to slaughter the bulls, it finally dawned on them what was going on. And they were so upset at the thought of what the people were trying to do, that they tore their clothes which was often a sign that blasphemy was about to be committed. And then the rushed out into the crowd and shouted: ‘Why are you doing this?’ And unlike King Herod, back in chapter 12, who accepted the praise of the men who called him a god, Paul and Barnabas insisted that they were only men, not gods. They were only men, but they had come to tell them the good news so that they would know the one, true and living God.
And so, Paul and Barnabas explained that Zeus and Hermes and all the rest of the Greek gods are only worthless things. They’re worthless because they can’t do anything. So they should turn away from worshipping these false gods and they should turn to the Living God. And he’s the Living God because he’s alive not dead, he’s real, not false. And whereas the false gods can do nothing, the Living God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. So, don’t worship us, Paul and Barnabas were saying. And don’t worship these false gods. Worship the true God.
And then Paul goes on to say two things. First of all, in verse 16, he refers to how God let the nations outside Israel go their own way. Now, there are several ways of understanding this. Either it points to God’s patience: instead of destroying them for their unbelief, God put up with them. Or it’s a sign of God’s judgment on them: because of their unbelief, and to punish them, God let them wander further and further from the truth. Or Paul is merely making the point that whereas the Jews had the Scriptures and the prophets to teach them about God, the other nations did not. In that sense, he left them to go their own way.
But here’s the thing. Even though they didn’t have the Scriptures and the prophets to guide them, God did reveal something of himself to them. You see, every day, God made himself known to them. Every day, whenever it rained and their crops were watered, every day, as their crops grew, every day, when they sat down to eat the food God has provided them, every day, when their hearts were glad because of what they had eaten, God was revealing to them his fatherly care for all that he has made. And he was revealing to them his great power. And yet, even though the rain, and their crops, and their food spoke to them about God’s might and his kindness, they continued to worship false gods instead of the one, true and living God who had filled their lives with good things.
So, come on now, Paul is saying to them. Turn from these worthless gods. And turn to the true God and give thanks to him for his kindness to you.
But look at verse 18. Even with these words, Paul and Barnabas had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. Well, we go around the district. And we speak to our unbelieving friends and neighbours. And no matter what we say, they just don’t get it. But, instead of becoming discouraged, and thinking that we’re wasting our time and we should try something else, we should understand that this has always been the case, because the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel. It was the same back in the days of Paul the Apostle. And it’s the same today. And yet, Paul, who wrote about the god of this age blinding people also wrote about how we ought not to lose heart, but should continue to set forth the truth plainly, because the God who once created the light with a word is able to speak through his word and make his light shine in the hearts of men and women and boys and girls.
Verses 19 to 20
But the god of this age doesn’t like it, does he? Look at verses 19 and 20. He stirred up the hatred of the Jews in Pisidian Antioch and Iconium so much that they travelled, some of them about 100 miles, to Lystra where they won the crowd over to their side. And together they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead.
But, of course, he’s wasn’t dead. And in verse 20 we read that some of the disciples gathered round him. Who were these disciples? Well, it seems that despite all the trouble and misunderstanding that happened there, there were some who believed. And that reminds us, once again, that the word works. Through the reading and preaching of his word, the Lord Jesus was building his church on the earth.