Chapter 11: Trusting God on the roller coaster
1 Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren. 3 Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.
4 But the multitude of the city was divided: part sided with the Jews, and part with the apostles. 5 And when a violent attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them, 6 they became aware of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding region. 7 And they were preaching the gospel there.
8 And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9 This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said with a loud voice, ‘Stand up straight on your feet!’ And he leaped and walked. 11 Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ 12 And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out 15 and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, 16 who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.’ 18 And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.
Preaching, poison and perseverance
Paul and Barnabas arrive at Iconium, in Asia Minor, eighty miles south west of Antioch in Pisidia and twenty miles north west of Lystra. Again they go to the synagogue first, even though the Gentiles are always in their sights. God again blesses these Bible-based men as they speak from God’s word, from the heart and from the shoulder. A ‘great multitude’ of sinners turn to Christ there. Both Jews and Greeks believe in Him. Is it any wonder that Paul tells the church at Rome, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek’?1 That is not just good theology: he has seen it work in practice as he proclaims the gospel of the Saviour he loves and serves.
But again the unbelieving jealous Jews stir up the Gentiles who have not believed. They poison their minds against God’s servants. Part of the cross that every Christian servant is called to carry is the acceptance that untrue and unjust things will be said and written about him or her. It is the way Jesus went: we walk in His footsteps. Our responsibility is to ensure that the untrue poison remains untrue, and that we honour Christ by how we live. When we fail, we come back to Him for cleansing and, thus restored and helped, keep on keeping on by His grace.2
Paul and Barnabas are ready to flee from persecution when it is right to do so. But they do not flee from duty. So, despite the Jews’ poisoning the minds of the population against the Christian brothers, they ‘therefore’ stay a ‘long time’. Some sportsmen play better away from home when fighting against the taunts and jeers of the opposition’s fans. Here, under the highest and purest influence of the Holy Spirit, the two men face the opposition and stay in Iconium because of it. They know there is a work to do there for God, even if they are maligned. Do we have that sort of perseverance?
They preach boldly. When men show their disapproval, God steps in and identifies with his last appointed apostle and his colleague by two means. First, God bears witness to the truth of what he says. They are words of ‘His grace’ to assist the proclamation of the gospel of ‘His grace’. Second, God grants signs and wonders to be done by Paul and Barnabas, thereby identifying each of them as His servants with His message. To continue to share boldly that Christ died for sinners and that there is no forgiveness unless and until we come humbly to Him in repentance, needs every bit of God’s grace, especially when poisonous and violent opponents are getting ready to attack. The mark of the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onwards has been, and still is, faithfully making known God’s message with boldness.3
A divided city: flee for your life, but don’t stop witnessing!
But Iconium is divided for and against Paul and Barnabas. The encouragement is that the effect of the gospel is so huge and well known that a whole city is aware of it. Is that not an indictment of the silent witness of so many Christians today? Why are we not more vocal—with wisdom, of course—than we are? An attempt to kill the men of God by stoning follows. Together, Gentiles poisoned by prejudice and jealous Jews, encouraged by those in authority over them, seek to ‘abuse and stone’ the two men of faith. ‘They become aware of it’. We are not told how. But God makes sure they are aware, and they escape to nearby Lystra and Derbe, further south east. They will also visit the area around, but, like the early Christian victims of persecution from Jerusalem, they preach wherever they go. They flee from death threats, not from the duty to make Christ known. Christianity in the West has, with some notable challenging exceptions, become weak and woolly and, like wool, very soft. We have gone a long way from the scenarios painted in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, where men would die violent deaths rather than deny their Saviour. Their gospel made a huge difference, because their hearers could see it was real. Consequently many believed despite the cruel opposition.
A lame man healed—and a new problem
Paul and Barnabas escape to Lystra, a fairly unremarkable town in the province of Lycaonia. As Paul presents the Christian message there, a man crippled from birth hears him speak. Paul discerns after intense observation that the man wants to be healed. He sees he has faith: perhaps Paul has noted the man’s unfolding response to his message as he has given it. Paul tests his faith by telling him to ‘Stand up straight on your feet!’ Like the lame man who was healed in Jerusalem’s Temple court,4 the cripple first leaps and then walks. God again is underlining to a new audience that these preachers are his agents and that he is vindicating them in the sight of the hearers by signs and wonders. But this time it seems that the background of a superstitious and complicated Greek myth concerning Lystra causes the hearers to think that Paul and Barnabas are the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, disguised as men.5 In the Lycaonian language, which is presumably unknown to the two men, the people who have seen God heal the lame man through Paul call out that ‘the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas and Paul are then renamed Zeus and Hermes by them. The priest of Zeus arrives from his temple in the city with oxen and garlands. He intends, along with the multitudes, to make sacrifices to the two men. This new problem is completely unexpected. Christians should expect the unexpected and trust God’s grace and wisdom to help when those ‘impossible’ situations arise: God is never taken by surprise! But how must the apostle and his co-labourer now respond?
Insisting on the character of God
Paul does not say, ‘It’s their culture: they mean well’ and accept the would-be idolatry. He and Barnabas put the Lord first wherever they are and in whoever’s company they find themselves. This is an example for every Christian to follow. Scripture must always be followed before culture, whether that culture is our own or that of others. Their response is clear. They publicly tear their clothes, as in mourning. This is a universal language of sadness about was has happened. Hearers who only understand the Lycaonian language will understand what torn clothes mean. Then instead of accepting homage and worship they run in and cry out to the crowd. Certainly many will understand them: they were listening to Paul preach only minutes before. But through the crying out, the facial expressions and the non-verbal communications of the two Christians, their displeasure with the proposed idolatrous actions is obvious to all.
Those who understand their language are challenged to stop. They point out that there is no difference between the people of Lystra and themselves. They call their idols ‘useless things’. The Old Testament paints the same picture and ridicules idols with deaf ears, sightless eyes, noses that cannot smell, and mouths than never know breath. We are told that those who worship them are like them: they are spiritually deaf, blind, insensitive, and dead.6 God’s character is now invoked by Paul and Barnabas to underline the need to turn from the ignorant evil of idolatry. God is living; He is creator of all; He is over the affairs of ‘all nations’; He constantly witnesses to His goodness by giving us seasons essential to His provision and our survival; and He provides us with ‘food and gladness’.
Even so the two recent survivors of an intended stoning twenty miles away can now hardly prevent men worshipping them as gods. Unable yet to use the Old Testament to explain God to these untaught people, they use nature and logic. It is far simpler to explain God and His requirements from Scripture than from nature, though God’s fingerprints are everywhere in nature. With no firm foundation for life and no moral compass to follow, the same people will soon join others in a renewed attempt to stone Paul to death, this time in Lystra.7
Thank God for the fruit of the Bible in the life and history of nations who have embraced it. May we grieve and pray over the decline in reading and trusting the Bible, get to know it better and help others to know it better too!
Questions on Chapter 11
Acts 14:1–18 Trusting God on the roller coaster
A. Imagine that you are composing an email to send to a church which says it will pray for the work of Paul and Barnabas. You have to list five prayer points based on Acts 14:1–7. What are your five points?
B. How many things do Paul and Barnabas say and do to prevent their hearers treating them like the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes?
Acts 14:14–18, Psalm 135:15–18, Exodus 20:1–6, Isaiah 44:9–20
C. What do you learn about the character of God from the way in which Paul and Barnabas talk to the people of Lystra who want to treat them like gods?
Acts 14:14–18, Hebrews 10:31, Hebrews 12:22, Genesis 1:1, John 1:1–3; Psalm 2:8, Genesis 8:22