MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 23, 2011 FROM ACTS 14:8 -20
This morning we continue to follow Paul and Barnabas as they begin the second half of Paul’s first missionary journey. Our text for this morning you heard a few moments ago as we heard about the confusion and peril that met them in the city of Lystra. Lystra was about 20 miles from their previous stop in Iconium where they fled after hearing of a plot against their lives. Lystra was a Roman colony at this time but Greek was not their native language. Although they doubtless understood Greek, they actually spoke a local dialect that Paul and Barnabas would not have understood. This account about Paul and Barnabas’ ministry to Lystra is significant mainly because this is the first time in Acts that Paul and Barnabas ministered to people who were not in a synagogue. No one in this account was familiar with Judaism or the Old Testament. The name of Jesus Christ would have meant little if anything to the people of Lystra.
The people of Lystra were pagans who worshipped the gods of the Greek pantheon like Zeus and Hermes. Luke wants us to see the apostolic approach to ministering to what we would call “unreached” people who have very little understanding of the Biblical God or the Bible. Because so much of this story describes the lost people of Lystra, I want our focus to be on what God wants us to see about them and I see four distinct divisions in this text. The first is in verses eight through ten where we see that: Lost people sometimes must witness God’s supernatural power before giving the gospel a hearing. This is seen in many places in Acts. One of these previous miracles is strikingly similar to this one. In chapter three, verse one, Luke writes, “1 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. 3 Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. 4 And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.”
Did you hear the similarities? Both men were born lame and Paul, like Peter and John look directly at the crippled man. Both men leapt up after being healed and if you were to read further in chapter three, you would see that in both instances the preachers had to divert attention away from themselves to God. The main differences are that the first miracle occurs near a temple gate near the heart of Judaism and Peter was the preacher. In chapter 14, the miracle occurs in Lystra in the midst of pagans with Paul as preacher. These accounts do not teach that in order for someone to savingly trust in Christ; he/she must first witness a dramatic miracle. What they do illustrate is that God will use whatever means necessary to compel unbelievers to see Jesus as a Savior worthy of their trust. Today, if a Muslim is going to trust in Christ, that means he will lose everything, perhaps including his life. They must believe that Jesus is the true Savior and worth the sacrifice they will make. If the gospel is the call to forsake your old way of life—die to it and make Jesus Christ your treasure, God will give a person the faith to know that Jesus is worthy of their trust. Many simply hear the gospel preached and are converted through the faith-inducing, preached Word. But these miracle accounts in Acts indicate that, in certain instances, God uses miracles to prepare the soil for the seed of the gospel. As we have noted before, today many missionary to unreached Muslims missionaries report that God is sending dreams and visions of Jesus to prepare Muslims’ hearts to leave Islam and pay the terrible price they must render for that. But today, as in the days of the apostles, the most powerful expression of God’s supernatural power is not the healing of a lame man, it’s a transformed life. Resuscitating a dead body, as we see in the gospels and Acts is an impressive miracle, but not as remarkable as raising someone’s dead, unresponsive soul to life.
Only Christ can change a rebel against God into a lover of him. Nothing can change a serial adulterer into a loving and faithful husband and heal that marriage...except Jesus. Nothing can change an arrogant snob into a humble servant but the miracle of the new birth through the Holy Spirit. Only Christ can turn darkness into light, slavery into freedom and death into life. We must never forget that at times the most powerful sermon you can preach to a lost person who knows you is to live like Jesus and love like Jesus. People who by God’s grace have come to see their sin as God sees it, or who are damaged from the consequences of their sin, are desperate for something that works. If you lead a vibrant, set apart Christian life and love the brethren and the sinner like Christ--that is an absolute miracle of God’s grace and a powerful tool in our witness for Christ.
The second section of this account is found in verses 11-13. Luke writes, “11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds.” This section illustrates another truth about lost people. That is—Lost people will see God’s activity through the lens of their own worldview. That is what happened here in Lystra. These pagans had a worldview and that worldview interpreted for them the miracle God did through Paul to heal this leper. Their worldview told them—if a man performs a miracle, it must an incarnation of one of their pagan gods. That worldview was shaped by the polytheism of the Greek Pantheon; and their interpretation and their “frenzied response” to this particular event were influenced by one particular Roman legend they believed. The well-known Roman author Ovid, in his book called Metamorphosis tells a story of Zeus and Hermes visiting earth disguised as ordinary men. “They were turned away from a thousand homes where they sought lodging, but were finally taken in by an elderly couple into their humble home. The gods turned that house into a temple and destroyed all the houses that had rejected them.”
Their belief in that legend explains their extreme reaction to this miracle. They become very excited and cry out, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” The priest of Zeus immediately begins to prepare a sacrifice to these “gods.” They manage to do quite a bit of preparation before Paul and Barnabas—who can’t understand their language—get a grasp of what is happening. When they understand who the pagans think them to be, they immediately respond in typical Jewish fashion. They tear their clothes indicating that blasphemy has been committed. They cry out in verse 15, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men, of like nature with you.” Paul and Barnabas were fallen sinners just like the pagans and they were impassioned to disown any claim that they were gods. In the pagan worldview, gods like Zeus and Hermes are those who do miracles like what they had seen. Since these were ordinary men like the two in Ovid’s story, they assumed Paul and Barnabas must be a re-incarnation of these two gods and they did NOT want to show inhospitality to them for fear of being destroyed and in the hope of receiving some sort of extravagant blessing.
When they plugged in the data of their worldview into this healing, that is what came out and that is what caused them to act as they did. They believed this story and they acted on their beliefs. People tend to live out their worldview. A good example is those who believe that life on earth came about through evolution. Some people see the beauty and wonder of creation, but their worldview does not include miracles or the existence of a divine Being like God who created it. So, they must explain the created order within their naturalistic grid. So, they read the evidence of what we know to be God’s creation and come up with evolution—a naturalistic and (I might add) very weak explanation for the creation. We must understand that when a scientist says he believes in modern evolutionary theory, that belief is not only influenced by what the scientist sees as evidence. Modern evolutionary theory is just as much a product of philosophers like Immanuel Kant whose worldview excludes the miraculous as it is the scientific methodology of Charles Darwin. That’s why evolution persists even though it is becoming increasingly clear that the theory is quite inadequate. It’s not the strength of the science that allegedly supports evolution that is keeping it in the science books; it’s the worldview behind it that excludes God.
Our worldview dictates how we interpret what is happening around us. A tribal people in New Guinea endure a brutal storm in the jungle that kills some of their tribe. Their worldview leads them to believe the spirits must be angry with them and they must sacrifice some animal or person to these spirits in order to appease them. If you want to be able to reach certain people with the gospel, you must understand that their views on God and the gospel are dictated by a particular worldview—whether that is naturalism, hedonism, materialism, relativism, humanism and so forth. The “Truth Project” is a great tool to get a better handle on this and there are many good books on the subject. You will notice that when Paul begins to preach, his very first statement pokes a giant hole in their Roman polytheistic worldview. He says in verse 15, “…we bring good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God…” He attacks their worldview head on. The so-called gods they serve are not real, but are in fact vain and dead—expressions of vanity and futility. But Paul preaches a living God who they must turn to from their idolatry.
Lost people are no different today. God created people to worship, so every worldview produces gods people with that worldview bow before. Their worldviews dictate which gods they worship. Tim Keller in his book “Counterfeit Gods” gives a couple of examples. He writes, “We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image. We may not actually burn incense to Artemis, but when money and career are raised to cosmic proportions, we perform a kind of child sacrifice, neglecting family and community to achieve a higher place in business and gain more wealth than privilege…In ancient times, the deities were bloodthirsty and hard to appease. They still are.” Keller gave an example of humanism—man (including our beauty) is the measure of all things and materialism—the worship of things. We should never hate sinners or look down on them for their ignorance or their rejection of God. The truth is—the idols of their worldview are just as vain as Zeus and Hermes were for these pagans at Lystra… and they are hard to appease.
Paul is simply borrowing from the Old Testament when he says their idols are vain or dead. Daniel says this to the pagans of his day, “…you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is you breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.” [5:23b] That’s a picture of vanity and people all around us are living their entire lives rooted in these dry wells of their vain worldviews and the dead idols they produce. When you see that what they are serving is vain and empty, you are much more likely to feel godly compassion for them rather than self-righteous condemnation. When you become more acquainted with the utter vanity of their lives, and remember that you would still be living in that vanity if it weren’t for God’s grace, you will feel more compelled to share with them the good news of our living God as Paul did with these people in Lystra.
A third section of this text is seen in Paul’s message to these men. He says, “…we bring you good news, [that is--we are just the messengers, not the subject] 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. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” This text illustrates the truth that: Lost people must hear the gospel in a way that meets them where they are.” This presentation of the good news is radically different than those Paul directed to Jews and God-fearers in the synagogues. These people don’t know about Jesus—they don’t know who he is or what he has done. Paul doesn’t even mention Jesus by name to them. Again, he says, “We bring you good news, 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.” Paul brings them back to a place where he can connect with them—creation. He is saying the living God we preach is the God who created “the heaven, the earth, the sea and all that is in them.”
One question that might logically follow that claim would be, “So your living God—created everything. The creation has been around for a long time—why are you coming here now to tell us about this God of yours.” Paul says in verse 16, “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.” When a person or nation is allowed to walk in their “own ways,” it is never toward God. That’s a remarkable statement, but one that is rooted in the Old Testament. He’s saying that “Up until this generation, God was not actively pursuing people outside Judaism.” That doesn’t mean that God didn’t have a Creator’s concern for these other peoples, it just means that they weren’t part of his chosen people and so he did not actively pursue them to follow him. “…he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.” He was not actively engaged in redeeming peoples outside the Jews. Occasionally, someone converted to Judaism and trusted in Yahweh, but it wasn’t because of any Old Testament Great Commission. The prophet Jonah called Nineveh to repent, but he never called them to be circumcised and enter into the covenant. In Genesis 12, God promised Abraham to “bless those who bless you,” but that certainly falls well short of offering them entrance into the covenant relationship with God. In Exodus 19, God calls on his people to be a “kingdom of priests” to in some way mediate God to the nations, but when Israel rejected that priesthood, he didn’t offer another redemptive option for the nations.
The Old Testament primarily gives promises of the day when God will indeed pursue the nations and they will come and worship him, but there is no concerted effort to convert people outside of Israel. It seems a bit ironic that many who strongly object to the notion of election as taught in the New Testament, aren’t terribly troubled about the clear teaching of it in the Old Testament. God did not pursue the millions of people living in China and the Far East or what is now Europe or the Americas or any other Gentile people before Christ. He revealed himself as a covenant God only to this group of chosen Hebrews who had done nothing to deserve it. Paul goes on to say in verse 17, “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Paul is saying that God has revealed himself to you, not through the special revelation of the Old Testament, but through the general revelation of the created order. Further, he restates what Jesus taught when he said in Matthew 5:45, “…he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” In other words, Paul is saying the God I speak of to you is the God who has revealed his character to you by giving you every good thing that makes life worth living. All of that comes from God—“food and gladness.”
Paul teaches this
truth in more detail and from a slightly different angle in Romans1:19-20, “19
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because
God has shown it to them.
20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Paul says there that no one will be able to say—“I never had a chance to know God.” In 2:15 he says the Law is written on their hearts in some way. They could have seen him in the visible creation and come to know even his invisible attributes. So these nations weren’t part of the covenant, but they were responsible to God, which is the consistent teaching of the Bible.
The larger point is—Paul does not speak to these pagans in the same way he speaks to the people who knew the Old Testament. And we live in a Biblically illiterate society that is much closer to the world of these pagans than to the folks in the synagogues. “A Gallup survey shows that fewer than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only one-third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (many named Billy Graham, not Jesus), and one quarter do not know what is celebrated on Easter. A 1997 Barna Research poll showed 12 percent of self-professed “Christians” think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. Eighty percent of self-professed “born-again Christians” believe it is the Bible that says "God helps them that help themselves." And that was 14 years ago. It is doubtless worse now. “The Kelton Research Group questioned 1000 Americans on their knowledge of the biblical Ten Commandments. Even though 80 percent could name the ingredients of a Big Mac (McDonald’s), only 6 in 10 could name the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Most of the participants in the Kelton Research survey recalled the names of the four Beatles but many could not recall one single commandment.” The application is--we must not assume that the person on the street has a Biblical understanding of sin, salvation, repentance, holiness and certainly not the gospel. In many contexts in our culture, we had better sound more like Paul did in Lystra and in later chapter 17, when he preached to the educated pagans in Athens, than how he preached virtually everywhere else. Before lost people can understand the gospel, they must first know the more foundational truths that the gospel assumes.
A fourth section of this text is in verses 18-20. Luke writes, “18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. 19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” A final truth this last section well captures is: Lost people will zealously attack Christ’s servants, but we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus. I don’t want to labor this point about opposition to the gospel too hard, as we did that last week. However, we must see what is happening here. We see the zeal of these Jews opposing Paul because the ones who stirred up these pagans in Lystra come from Iconium that is 20 miles away and from Antioch that is 100 miles away. These people travelled 100 miles on foot or donkey or camel’s back to kill Paul. They stone him for being a false teacher—which means they pelted him with at least fist-sized rocks and one would assume that if people had travelled 100 miles to kill Paul, they would be very sure to do a thorough job once they got hold of him.
Yet, in the grace of God, Paul, after he is stoned and drug out of town, gets up. This is perhaps what he meant in Second Corinthians 4:9 when he says that he was “struck down, but not destroyed.” But we see even more zeal from Paul because he not only gets up, Luke reports, “he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” So, he goes back into the city he had been drug out of and “executed” in. Do you think you would head back to Lystra, having just been “executed” there? Paul was not going to let something like a mere stoning stop him from being faithful to minister in Lystra. But the next sentence is perhaps even more remarkable. It says that “on the next day he went with Barnabas to Derbe.” Do you suppose he might have been a little sore as he made that journey? And we know from the next few sections of Acts that after Derbe, he went back to Lystra again and then he retraced his steps back to Iconium and finally home to Antioch—where those people had travelled 20 miles and 100 miles respectively to stone him. Many people at that point wouldn’t have gone home to Antioch, they would have found another base of operations, but Paul wants to go back to his sending church to tell them all that God has done. He wants to go back to Iconium and Antioch because he has more work there. He must minister to the new converts and appoint elders.
The point is—Paul didn’t let even the threat of brutal attempts on his life to scare him away from his mission. He was more than a conqueror through Christ because his attention was not on his opposition, but on Christ and being faithful to him who had saved him out of a life of persecuting Christ’s church. And that is where our attention must be—on Christ and not on the obstacles to being obedient to him. Keep your eyes on Christ when you get the cold shoulder from someone who doesn’t want to hear about your God. Look to Christ when you lose a relationship because of your love for Christ. Look to Christ when you’re mocked for your faith in the school cafeteria. Christ enabled Paul to get up from a stoning and continue to preach. He can certainly enable you to get past whatever opposition you are facing.
Two further points of application before we close. First: Is your life a compelling witness for Christ? This account in chapter 14 and many others in Acts tells us that lost people need to see God’s work sometimes before they will trust in Christ. Does the way you live—the way you relate to your spouse, your kids, your brothers and sisters in Christ reflect the transforming, life-changing work of Jesus? Does the way you do your job reflect Christ? What is there about you that makes the way you live visibly different than a nice, friendly pagan? For many of us, there is far too little difference between the way we live and the way the world lives. Our lukewarm lives can undermine our message more than anything else.
Second, Paul tells us that though there was a time when God let the Gentiles walk in their own ways, but by implication—now he is pursuing people outside of Judaism to be his children through Christ. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus marked a new chapter in redemptive history and now all the nations are eligible to hear the gospel. Now is the day of God’s free offer of salvation to everyone. Have you trusted in Christ for your salvation? Have you placed your trust in what Christ did on the cross to save you from the eternal penalty of your sins? Or, are you banking that God will see that you are a good person and will let you in? If so, you are deceived. Even one sin will condemn you to hell before a holy God. Only the work of Christ can make us good enough in God’s sight to get us into heaven where we will live in eternal bliss, loving the God who saved us. If you have not done so, place your trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins today. May God give us grace to look to Christ and live like him for his glory and our joy.
 Fernando,Adjith, Acts, electronic version—his commentary on Acts 14:8-20.
 Keller, Tim, Counterfeit Gods, 2009, Penguin Books, p. xii-xiii.
 The Baptist Standard, December 4, 2000 as quoted in http://www.studycenter.com/downloads/Bible_Literacy_Crisis_in_America.pdf
 3 Allie Martin, “Ten Commandments’ Survey of Americans,” October 12, 2007.
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