The Gods Have Visited Men.
Acts 14: 8 – 18.
Luke’s perspective of the evangel’s passage following Paul’s three missionary journeys are peppered with cultural and historical observations of the day that dovetailed into its message, with some incidents detailing supernatural interventions (Acts 13 -20). The most familiar of these was the discourse episode before the Areopagus, a council of Greek philosophers, with a statue of the Unknown God among them. Paul’s sermon resurrected memories of a much earlier trial at the same venue, where Socrates defended himself against the accusation of corrupting the youth of his day and impiety towards the gods, and eventually was forced to take his own life. In this Mars Hill incident, the ‘idle babbler’ (i.e., Paul) not only escaped death, but also converted a few astute men of the council (Acts 17:33-34). Our focus here is another cultural occurrence at Lystra, after Paul and Barnabas were driven out of Iconium (Acts 14:1-7).
It began with a rather innocuous event, when Paul, in the midst of his preaching, caught sight of a lame man from his birth, and saw healing faith in his eyes, as he listened to the gospel message. Paul made a B line towards him and declared, “Stand upright on your feet.” As he leapt up, he was healed immediately (Acts 14:8-10). It was apparent that faith’s presence or manifestation is not a hit-and-miss affair, and is sufficiently ‘concrete’ to enable others to discern its existence. Actually, one is able to see it! The crowd around the previously lamed man erupted into a stunned excitement, and instantly concluded that the gods Hermes (the mouthpiece for Zeus; i.e., Paul) and Zeus (i.e., Barnabas) were visiting them again. Their priests began preparation to worship them through animal sacrifices, before Paul and Barnabas intervened and dissuaded them (Acts 14:11-14). What was the background to this presumptuous conclusion by the Lycaonians?
There was a Lycaonian legend that tells of the arrival of Zeus and Hermes one day, disguised as indigents, seeking to test the citizens’ generosity towards the poverty-stricken in the city. To their consternation, the people insulted and ignored them, and in anger, the Olympian gods sent a massive flood that destroyed the city and its occupants. In Luke’s account, it was obvious that the Lycaonians, in their trepidation, did not wish to repeat their earlier mistake, as they considered these ‘undercover’ gods to be responsible for the handicapped man’s healing. Paul and Barnabas attempted to disabuse them from their entrenched superstition by preaching the eternal love and ongoing care of the almighty God. That seemed to have momentarily pacified them. Days later, Jews from Pisidian Antioch (located in Turkey, as opposed to the other Antioch in Syria) and Iconium, who had resisted the gospel in Paul and Barnabas’ earlier visits, arrived at Lystra, and induced the Lycaonians against these two ‘gods.’ In a complete reversal of sentiments, the indignant Lycaonisns stoned Paul and Barnabas, dragged them out of the city, and left them for dead (Acts 14:15-19). This seemed reminiscent of Stephen’s martyrdom! Paul and Barnabas inevitably would have counted the cost as they were set apart by the Antiochian congregation. However, unlike their escape from Iconium, this instance implied that they must have been entrapped by the Lycaonians, with no opportunity for escape. To consciously and cognitively decide to lay down one’s life for the gospel is never an off-the-cuff decision, but a struggle between our robust human norm towards self-preservation and the challenge to count our life as nothing, compared to Christ (c.f., Phil 3:7-11). It involves our will to intentionally and literally become a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1-2).
After the crowd left, the few believers came to Paul and Barnabas’ aid, and transported them back into the city, probably under the guise of reclaiming their ‘dead;’ tended to their injuries, and sent them off to Derbe under cover of darkness. Weeks later, they made a return trip to Lytra, to instruct and strengthen the new believers, despite the city’s hostility towards them and the threat of death. The apostles’ tenacity in the face of endangering their own lives for the gospel’s and new believers’ sakes were commendable, and God did not forsake them and this nascent church (Acts 14:20-23). After many years, the Lycaonian church sent out Timothy, Paul’s true son in the faith and a missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 16:1-3; 1 Timothy 1:2)). God is in control and His church will be built, and nothing is able to stand against it and His purposes despite persecution (Matt 16:18-19). Our God is faithful to His promises.