Whenever I read today’s passage of several stories on Paul’s first missionary journey, I am reminded of my own travels some years ago to this very same part of the world in modern day Turkey. I was with a small group of American pastors visiting with an EFCA (our denomination) missionary in that land. He was showing us a local shrine dedicated to a particular Islamic holy man who had made many trips in his life to Mecca, or some such story. This was in a public market area, and looking very touristy I am sure, we attracted a varied crowd of people around us. One man wanted to make a public show and ingratiate himself to us, so he began to play “tour guide” by telling us about the shrine and its significance. However, another man standing nearby took serious issue with the interpretation of the first fellow, and they began to argue in loud voices with fingers shoved in each other’s chests. More and more people began to gather and argue – all of them yelling in Turkish at each other. It turned into a small riot, attracting the attention of nearby police … at which time we sort of quietly went slinking away through the crowds.
In our story today, the Apostle Paul was not ultimately able to quietly slink away, at least not at first!
There are many repeat elements as in the passage yesterday – of Paul and Barnabas using the strategy of going first to the Jews by speaking in the synagogue in Iconium, and then looking for other opportunities to preach to a wider audience. The reactions are also similar, as a range of responses are seen from those who enthusiastically believe to those who are violently opposed. Here the opposition was so fierce as to be life threatening, so they move off to the other (somewhat nearby) cities of Lystra and Derbe (see the map at the bottom).
In Lystra, an accompanying miracle performed by Paul, along with the preaching ministry of both men, caused the crowds to actually draw some wrong conclusions. Though Timothy was from Lystra, this was probably a more Gentile-dominated area. The people concluded that the missionary pair were gods come to earth – thinking the likely older and more distinguished-looking Barnabas was Zeus (the big boss god) and that Paul (the orator) was Hermes. At first, the guys don’t realize what is going on, but finally they begin to understand that the folks are getting ready to make some sacrifices to them! (I hate when this happens after my sermons!)
But just to show how a preacher’s stock can go from bulls to bears in a short time, the crowd is swayed toward disapproval on the word of naysayers who come from Antioch and Iconium – the previous stops on this road trip. Paul ends up getting stoned, and is dragged out of the city since he is presumed to be dead. I’m not sure how Barnabas escaped the same treatment; I guess his sermons weren’t quite as inflammatory. The old preachers’ joke about this (in the category of why the chicken crossed the road) is to ask, “Why did Paul march back into a city where he was just stoned?” … and the answer has always been, “Because he wasn’t done yet with his sermon!”
We might think, “Wow, that’s rough! I’m glad stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore!” Well, in fact it does – pretty much daily around the world. In many countries, the Christian faith and the witness of the Gospel of Christ is despised and persecuted. Christians are regularly killed because they believe in Jesus. To see countless stories and gain information on this topic, I’d encourage you to look at the web page for Voice of the Martyrs. Indeed, we can be thankful that such treatment has been historically rare in the USA. But as we have shared throughout this series, it is generally pretty clear that the tide is changing and that a growing hostility toward Christ is growing. These thoughts rightly challenge the depth of our faith and commitment.
In Iconium – Acts 14:1-20
14 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the gospel.
In Lystra and Derbe
8 In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked.9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.