Studies in the Book of Acts
Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.
Chapter 14: Paul Takes the Gospel to Asia Minor, Continued
Missionaries at Iconium (14:1-3)
Iconium (modern Konya) is the next city in which Paul and Barnabas carry on missionary work. The city is on the Sebaste Road about 90 miles (145 kilometers) east-southeast of Pisidian Antioch. Following their usual procedure, the two missionaries enter the Jewish synagogue to preach (14:1). Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas speak so effectively that large numbers of Jews and Gentiles believe the gospel.
But as usual, the nonbelieving Jews embark on a smear campaign that eventually poisons the minds of the Gentiles “against the brothers” (14:2). This probably entails a sustained campaign to discredit the teaching of Paul and Barnabas, perhaps ridiculing their claim that Jesus is the Messiah. In spite of the persecution, the two missionaries “spent considerable time” in Iconium (14:3). Luke gives few details of their preaching here, and compresses the work of several months into a few sentences.
The missionaries preach the “message of his grace” (14:3). Luke has already used the phrase to describe the gospel, and he will do so again (23:43; 20:24, 32). The idea of “grace” is prominent in Paul’s letters, and Luke’s use of it in his messages may reflect Paul’s emphasis. [Romans 3:24; 6:14-15; Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8.]
The preaching of Paul and Barnabas is accompanied by “signs and wonders” (14:3). Paul later refers to these miracles in a letter to the churches in the province of Galatia. He appeals to the miracles as evidence that the good news he preaches is approved by God (Galatians 3:5).
Plot against the apostles (14:4-6)
Paul and Barnabas preach effectively in Iconium, and God performs miraculous wonders through them. Nonetheless, the population of the city remains divided about them. “Some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles” (14:4). Because of the support Paul and Barnabas receive, it takes a long time for any serious opposition to develop. But eventually the Jews are able to hatch a plot with some of the townsfolk and political leaders of Iconium. Apparently, the Jews intend to gather a mob, beat up Paul and Barnabas, and stone them to death (14:5).
The missionaries are informed of the plot, perhaps by sympathetic Jews who accept the gospel. The apostles leave the city before the plotters can capture them (14:4).
Verses 4 and 14 contain the only reference in Acts to Paul being an apostle. This may seem odd in view of the fact that Paul often stresses his apostleship. [See the first verse of many of his letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.] Apparently, Luke restricts his use of the term “apostle” as a special “office” to the Twelve. They are the ones who were with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry and who are witnesses of his resurrection (1:21-25; 10:39-42).
Luke probably thinks of Paul and Barnabas as “apostles” only in a general sense, as special emissaries, envoys, or messengers commissioned by the church at Antioch (13:3-4), and in this sense were apostles, or people “sent out.” Paul himself uses the word apostle in a broad sense of a person who is given the responsibility of being a messenger, but who doesn’t hold a special office. He says that Epaphroditus, a co-worker, was, “My brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger [Greek, apostolon]” (Philippians 2:25).
Flee to Lystra (14:6-7)
The Jewish plot against Paul and Barnabas is about to be put into operation. Having learned of it, and to avoid stoning, Paul and Barnabas travel to “the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe” (14:6). Here, they continue to preach the gospel. By mentioning that Lystra and Derbe are in the region of Lycaonia, Luke is implying that Iconium is in a different political realm — apparently part of Phrygia.
Healing a crippled man (14:8-10)
The first city in Lycaonia Barnabas and Paul visit is Lystra, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south-southwest of Iconium. Luke limits himself to narrating a single event in Lystra, which begins with the healing of a crippled man lame from birth (14:8). Paul is speaking to what is probably a crowd of Gentiles in a public place. (From Luke’s account, we have no indication that Lystra has a synagogue.) Apparently, Paul is drawn to this man, somehow perceiving that he has faith to be healed. Paul interrupts his speech and says to the cripple: “Stand up on your feet!” (14:10). At Paul’s words, the man jumps up and begins to walk.
This story portrays Paul as an authentic messenger of God in the tradition of Peter, who also healed a lame man (3:1-10). Luke uses parallel expressions in the two accounts: “lame from birth,” “looked directly at him,” “jumped up and began to walk.” Both Peter and Paul are shown to be using the same power as did Jesus, who also healed a crippled person (Luke 5:17-26).
This incident, selected by Luke for detailed description from among the “signs and wonders” of the Galatian mission (verse 3), parallels the similar cure by Peter in chapter 3, and doubtless was chosen for this reason. In opposition to those who would challenge Paul’s claim to apostolic authority based on his direct commission from the risen Christ, Luke is concerned to show that his hero shares with the chief apostle the healing power vested in his disciples by the Lord himself. [Neil, 163.]
Gods in human form (14:11-13)
When the beggar jumps up and walks, something unexpected happened. Seeing the healed beggar, the crowd shouts in their own language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (14:11). Barnabas is called Zeus, and Paul is thought to be Hermes, because he is the main speaker. Hermes is called the messenger of Zeus and the patron of orators.
Barnabas and Paul refuse worship in Lystra
The people of Lystra, as in other towns of Asia Minor, probably use or are acquainted to some degree with three languages. Latin is the official language of the Roman administration. Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Roman empire, is understood by most of the Lystrans. The third language in use is the native vernacular — “the Lycaonian language.” Almost certainly, Paul preaches in Greek, which the people understand. However, it’s doubtful that Barnabas and Paul understand Lycaonian. Therefore they don’t know at first what the shouting is all about — even the names of the gods may have been in the local dialect.
The Lystrans think that they are experiencing a divine visitation. The idea of gods coming to earth in human form is familiar in this region because of a legend. The existence of this ancient legend may explain the wildly emotional response of the Lystrans to the healing of the cripple by Paul and Barnabas. According to the legend, Zeus and Hermes came to earth in the neighboring district of Phrygia disguised as human beings. They seek lodging, but no one shows them hospitality and takes them in. Finally, an old peasant couple, Philemon and his wife Baucis, welcome them as house guests, even though it depletes their meager resources. The gods are angry and destroy the whole population for their lack of hospitality, except for the gracious Philemon and Baucis. The couple’s humble cottage is transformed into a temple, of which they are given the charge until their death.
This legend is preserved in a Latin story-poem by Ovid. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, “The Story of Baucis and Philemon,” 620-724. Ovid called them by their Latin names, Jupiter and Mercury.] He tells the ancient legend about half a century before Paul’s first missionary journey. This ancient legend is well known in southern Galatia, and it may explain why Paul and Barnabas become the objects of such a wild celebration. Paul’s healing of the crippled man make the Lystrans think he and Barnabas are the gods Zeus and Hermes once again come down in human form.
If the people of ancient times failed to pay homage to the gods on their previous visit, the Lystrans are determined not to make the same mistake and incur their wrath again. Thus, the priest at the local temple arranges for a sacrifice to honor the presence of Paul and Barnabas. Luke says he “brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them” (14:13).
We are only humans (14:14-15)
Paul makes an impassioned speech in hopes of thwarting the attempt of the Lystrans to worship the missionaries. This speech, in verses 14-17, is an example of how the gospel might be introduced to purely pagan audiences. A more complete example is the speech delivered by Paul to the Athenian Court of the Areopagus (17:22-31). The speech here differs widely in content from those Peter, Paul and others deliver to Jewish and Gentile followers of Judaism. When speaking to Jews and those worshiping with them, Christian speakers can assume their listeners have some knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, and that they know about the one true God of Israel.
With a purely pagan audience, the speaker has to back up a step to first proclaim the existence of the one true God. In his speech to the Lystrans, Paul begins by explaining that the one God is the Creator of all living things (14:15). Even before this, however, Paul and Barnabas are forced to deny that they are gods. When they understand what the Lystrans think — and that they are going to sacrifice to them — they race into the crowd yelling for them to stop.
“We too are only human, like you,” Paul shouts (14:15). (This assumes that Paul gives the speech, as he is chief speaker.) More literally, the Greek means we are “of the same nature as you.” That is, Paul is saying that he and Barnabas share the human condition with the Lystrans and they have no special qualities about them. The Bible rejects the idea that humans have any spiritual uniqueness worthy of special homage. This is true for even the greatest of God’s servants. James says to Jewish Christians that Elijah was “a human being, even as we are” (5:17). Peter refuses any special reverence from Cornelius, saying, “I am only a man myself” (10:26). Even angels are not to be given special adoration (Revelation 19:10).
Turning from idols (14:15-18)
Paul and Barnabas urge the Lystrans to give up their idolatry — to “turn from these worthless things to the living God” (14:15). The rejection of idolatrous worship practices is a basic test of conversion for Gentiles. Of course, these Gentiles should also accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. But knowing God is the starting point for pagan Gentile conversion. As Paul will later write, the Gentile Thessalonians understand this and turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
At Lystra, Paul identifies the true God as the One “who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (14:15). Paul and Barnabas are beginning their sermon on an elementary level, starting with nature rather than Scripture. They are saying that nature itself testifies to the existence of a Creator. Paul says the same in his letter to the Romans (1:20). If people understand and accept that God is the Creator of everything, they are also led to worship him.
It is said that there are two books of God. One is his word, the Bible. The second is nature, and the lessons about God that people should draw from it. The existence of the creation can help people understand that God exists and is the creator. But nature does not tell us about a Savior — that is normally communicated through evangelism.
Even further, Paul and Barnabas insist that the works of creation should lead us to understand that God is kind and merciful (14:17). God does not fall into a rage in response to minor matters (as Zeus and Hermes supposedly did when they destroyed people who failed to show them hospitality). Paul says that God’s kindness is shown in his providing rain in due season for crops. The one true God, the missionaries insist, “provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (14:17). God demonstrates his presence through the good things we enjoy. The goodness of God in providing rainfall and bountiful harvests is an Old Testament theme (Genesis 8:21-22). It is also a common theme in pagan religions. The idea is that the gods supply bounteous harvests. Since Paul’s audience is probably composed largely of farmers, they understand the importance of food — and that they are dependent on God for its supply.
As a beginning for the preaching the gospel of salvation, Paul’s speech is a good start. At best, however, this sermon based on natural theology is only a preamble to the gospel. The speech is incomplete, for it doesn’t go on to discuss the death and resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for the listeners. Luke doesn’t say if Paul and Barnabas go on to relate this vital aspect of the gospel. Perhaps their immediate intent is simply to stop the crowd from sacrificing to them. Luke implies that the Lystrans don’t really understand Paul’s message; his words barely achieve the immediate goal of stopping the townspeople from sacrificing (14:18).
Paul is stoned (14:19-20)
Sometime after this tumultuous event, Jews antagonistic to Paul and Barnabas from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium come into Lystra and begin to preach against the missionaries. Eventually, they win the crowd over (14:19). How soon the fickle Lystrans forget! At one time they are calling the missionaries gods. Now they call them charlatans and frauds. No doubt they are disappointed that Barnabas and Paul claim to be nothing more than ordinary human beings. Because of the Lystrans’ disappointment, it is only a small step for the Jews to persuade the townspeople that the missionaries are really hucksters.
The mob singles out Paul for a beating, perhaps because he is the main messenger, and they stone him. After thinking he is dead, they drag his body away and dump it outside the city limits (14:19). But then something astonishing occurs. As the small number of converted Lystrans gathered around Paul’s body, probably to give him a decent burial, he gets up, and then goes “back into the city” (14:20). Luke does not present Paul’s revival as a miraculous restoration to life. Rather, Luke says that Paul’s attackers think that he is dead (14:19) — Luke is implying that Paul is not dead. Paul was beaten into unconsciousness, and then he revives. Nonetheless, the fact that the stoning does not kill him indicates that Paul is under God’s protection.
A few years later Paul writes to these Lystrans who live in the region of Galatia, saying, “Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:17). Some of these marks or scars may be from the beating Paul received at Lystra — something the disciples receiving his letter would remember. Later, when Paul writes the Corinthians, he refers to being stoned and “exposed to death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23). It is probably the stoning at Lystra that he has in mind as one of those times during which he is almost killed. Even near the end of his life, Paul recalls the abuse from these Galatian towns. He asks Timothy to remember the “persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them” (2 Timothy 3:11).
Among those who hear Paul, and even see him stoned and left for dead, may be Eunice and Lois, the mother and grandmother of Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy is from Lystra, where his mother Eunice, a Jewess, probably lives as well (16:1-3). Timothy is to become an important worker in Paul’s missionary campaigns. It’s possible that Timothy provides eyewitness testimony for Luke’s account of these events.
In Derbe (14:21)
After Paul revives, he goes back into Lystra, and then he and Barnabas leave the next day for Derbe. Though there is some doubt about its exact location, Derbe is probably about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southeast of Lystra, on the eastern end of the Lycaonian region of Galatia. Luke gives no details about the activities of Barnabas and Paul in Derbe. However, their missionary work must be successful, because their preaching wins “a large number of disciples” (14:21). Among those converts may be Gaius, who becomes a member of Paul’s missionary company (20:4). Apparently the missionaries do not suffer any persecution in Derbe. Luke records none, and 2 Timothy 3:11 implies that there isn’t any.
This is, in a sense, the end of the first missionary journey as far as preaching the gospel to outsiders is concerned, except for a brief notice of it in Perga (14:25).
Disciples encouraged (14:22)
Paul and Barnabas prepare to return to Syrian Antioch (the sponsor church) after finishing their missionary activity. They could return by continuing eastward along the Via Sebaste, and then south through the Cilician Gates, a mountain pass near Tarsus. However, it would be a difficult journey, especially in winter.
What the missionaries do is to backtrack and return to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, in that order. They revisit each city, not to make more converts, but for pastoral purposes. Of course, the threat of harm from mobs and city officials is still possible. But the missionaries keep a low profile and avoid public preaching. Paul and Barnabas are apparently able to gain entry into the cities without incident. Their objective is “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith” (14:22). Luke repeats what must have impressed him as a central point Barnabas and Paul make to the disciples: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22).
The missionaries apparently see that this type of encouragement is especially necessary for the Galatians. As events are to prove, these people are easily influenced away from the simple gospel message. Paul will later write his strongest letter to the churches in this area because they are accepting false teaching. “I am astonished,” he writes, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
Presumably Paul and Barnabas exhort the disciples not to fall back into either Judaism or paganism. The new converts will be persecuted by relatives and friends for abandoning their ancestral faiths. This will cause them much trouble. They need to be given realistic warnings that the path into the kingdom of God is strewn with such obstacles (2 Timothy 3:12).
Luke mentions the “kingdom of God” several times in Acts. [Acts 1:3, 6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31.] The contexts in which it is discussed are varied: The risen Jesus speaks of it to the disciples; the disciples wonder if Christ is going to restore it to Israel; Philip preaches it; Paul teaches it in the synagogue, to the disciples, and in Rome during his two-year imprisonment. In this context, the reference to gaining entry into the kingdom seems to refer more to the future realm to be established by God (2 Timothy 4:18).
Appoints elders (14:23)
Paul and Barnabas also appoint “elders for them in each church” (14:23). They commit the Galatian elders to the Lord with prayer and fasting. Paul and Barnabas must feel that these individuals have enough spiritual maturity to serve their fellow disciples. These individuals are not brought in from outside, such as from Antioch, to be pastors. These are members of the congregation in which they are given the responsibility of aiding the community of believers. This is the first reference to “elders” outside of the Jerusalem church (11:30). Antioch has only prophets and teachers, though the latter probably serve in the same capacity as elders. Later in Acts, we will hear of elders in the Ephesian church (20:17). [They are also mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; and 1 Peter 5:1, 5.]
Every community needs some kind of organization, and the most obvious expedient that lay to Paul’s hand for these largely Gentile congregations would be to follow the pattern of the synagogue, since Jews and Gentiles alike were now incorporated into the “Israel of God.” The elders (or presbyters), therefore, would be chosen from the older members of the community, and charged with the oversight of worship, discipline, administration and instruction — more or less along the lines of the “rulers of the synagogue.” [Neil, 166.]
Luke is describing the organization of new congregations, but on a somewhat dangerous base. Barnabas and Paul are forced to give the oversight of the church to converts who have been in the faith for only a few weeks or months. The missionaries probably have no other choice. A church with poorly trained leaders would be better off than one with no leaders. Paul and Barnabas cannot remain in Galatia as pastors. It’s doubtful they can return anytime soon to instruct these congregations. In fact, there is no evidence they ever return, though Paul does write to the churches in this area.
Barnabas and Paul’s responsibility is in planting and setting up churches, not in watering or pastoring them. In later years, Paul will instruct people responsible for appointing elders to be careful about their qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
To Perga and home (14:24-28)
After organizing the churches as well as they could, Paul and Barnabas travel south through Pisidia and then Pamphylia. Luke makes no mention of the gospel being preached in these regions. The two missionaries finally reach the coastal city of Perga, where they had begun. This time Luke says they “preached the word in Perga” (14:25). But Luke gives no details about the length or nature of their preaching, nor its success or failure.
Paul and Barnabas then go a few miles south to the Mediterranean port of Attalia (modern Antalya). There they board a ship that takes them to Syrian Antioch (14:26). The first missionary tour is over. It’s difficult to say how long Paul and Barnabas have been gone, but the time must be measured in years — anywhere between one to four years.
After arriving in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas gather their sponsoring church to give it a full report of their activities. Luke is careful to point out that the two missionaries are loyal members of the church at Antioch. They report back to the body that commissioned the tour. Paul and Barnabas especially point out how God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). Here we see Paul’s use of “door” in a metaphorical sense as an opportunity to have the gospel message heard. Only Paul uses the word in this way. [1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3.]
Luke ends the account by saying that Paul and Barnabas “stayed there a long time with the disciples” (14:28). The time notation is indefinite, but perhaps it is up to a year in length.
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012