Sunday’s Sermon — Acts 14:8-20 — “The Unusual Shape of Powerful Ministry”

14 Jan

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at Paul’s first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabus have already experienced what all of us will experience when we seek to minister to others, a mix of joy and heartbreak, inside and outside the church, moments of sadness and great blessing. They have seen a Roman official on Cyprus believe, they have seen many in Pisidian Antioch and Iconium believe and so many of these have been Gentiles, the ones whom God had commissioned Paul to reach. Of course, they’ve also faced much hardship. John Mark deserted them at Perga, they’ve been run out of two towns as well and they have been threatened with stoning. But still, they move on. The love of Christ compels them to go on in their mission. They won’t be stopped by threats or by slander against them. They go on. And God honors them as they go, meeting them with powerful works and strengthening them with His presence. So as Paul and Barnabus move on to Lystra, we are not surprised to see again a mix of blessing and hardship. What we begin to notice, however, is that everything is beginning to intensify. In Pisidian Antioch they were kicked out of the city. In Iconium they were threatened with death and fled. Now in Lystra Paul will be harmed to within an inch of his life. The sufferings are getting more intense but the ministry is getting more powerful at the same time. We see that power demonstrated at the beginning of the passage in verse 8 . . .
8 Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked.
As Paul and Barnabus enter Lystra they are entering a new world. Here is a city of almost all Gentiles. There is no synagogue here, very little Jewish presence. So Paul and Barnabus can’t get established in town by going to the synagogue and getting a hearing with the Jews and the Gentiles that hung around the synagogue. How will they find an inroad for the gospel in this Gentile town where their message would be so easily dismissed or misunderstood? The answer was found in this lame man and God’s work in him. A miracle would open the door.
Luke makes it very clear that this man was lame. He uses three different phrases: “he could not use his feet”, “he was crippled from birth” and “he had never walked.” So Luke is underlining for us that this man who was sitting there at Lystra could not walk. Recently I was watching one of those Masterpiece Theatre shows on PBS and it was set in WWI and one of the main characters was injured in the war and could not walk. But over time, his spine healed and he was able to walk again. Luke wants to make sure we understand that this man is not like that. He can not walk and has never walked. This is not just a matter of Paul coming along at the time of his recovery, it is the story of a supernatural healing.
Peter and John had healed a lame man by God’s power in Acts 3 while they were in Jerusalem. Now, here in Lystra, Paul and Barnabus will heal a lame man by God’s power. Both men were lame from birth but there is where the comparison ends. The one man was a Jew the other a Gentile. The first man wanted money not healing and showed little interest in the things of God. The second man looked intently at Paul as he spoke. But both men were healed. In this case, the man’s faith seems to play into his healing.
9 He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well,
We see that the man was listening to Paul speaking. And we can be assured that Paul was speaking of Jesus and the gospel. And Paul looks intently at this man and sees faith. Now how did Paul see this man’s faith? Well, certainly the Holy Spirit gave him the ability to see it. As I was thinking about this, I think I have seen this at times in my own life. There is a certain spark in the life of the one in whom God is working. There is a twinkle in the eye, an excited attentiveness, a love for the Word. Aren’t there times when you can just sense a kindred spirit, another person who is hungry to know God and make Him known? I think that is something of what Paul sees here. So in verse 10, Paul will call on the man to be healed. Now in Acts 3, Peter called a man without any spark of faith to be healed. That man just wanted money. In both cases the men were healed and in both cases their healings provided opportunity for the spread of the gospel. So what do we say about this? It is clear that God heals whom He wills for His own purposes. Sometimes people of faith are spared, sometimes they are not. Sometimes faithless people are healed. We can be assured in these times that God is wise and that He is good but we can’t know all the reasons for the sufferings we endure or the blessings we experience. Ultimately it is for God’s glory and our eternal joy and blessing to others but beyond that we can’t get much more specific. In these cases in Acts though, we can clearly see that miracles are given for the spread of the gospel. So we see the miracle in verse 10 . . .

10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking.
Paul calls out with a loud voice, showing the authority of God behind his words. And he commands the lame man to stand up. And he sprang up, an instantaneous healing. And he began walking. And the word there means he was continually walking about. So it was an instantaneous healing with a continuing result.
Isn’t God good? Paul and Barnabus are in a Gentile city. They did not have the natural inroad of going to the synagogue to share their message. For Paul to go in talking about Abraham and Moses and David would have been ridiculous. But here at the entrance to the city of Lystra, where there was a temple to the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. God healed a lame man through Paul just as at the entrance to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem where the true God was worshiped Peter healed a lame man by the power of God. So what’s the point? The point is that the gospel which was powerful to the Jews is just as powerful to the Gentiles. It can reach those in the Bible belt and those who have never even heard of Jesus.
So at a time when the message of the gospel could have gotten lost in the mix of all the pagan gods of the people of Lystra, God did something that caused the message of Jesus to stand out. But the initial response to the work of God was not a sweeping revival but a great misunderstanding. Notice verse 11 . . .
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!”
The people of Lystra spoke Greek and spoke their native language Lycaonian. Paul had been speaking to them in Greek but when they saw the miracle, they did what many bi-lingual people do when they are deeply moved emotionally, they reverted to their native tongue. The problem was, Paul and Barnabus didn’t speak Lycaonian. So they can tell by the raised voices that the crowd has been moved, but they can’t yet tell in what way. So Paul and Barnabus don’t yet know what is afoot.
What has happened, of course, is that the people of Lystra have interpreted the healing based on their own mythology rather than the truth of God. A miracle alone is not enough to bring faith. Miracles without the Word are likely to be misunderstood or written off as coincidence. Here the crowd interprets the miracle by their own pagan beliefs. Therefore, verse 12 says . . .
12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.
Zeus was the main Greek god, whom the Romans called Jupiter. Hermes was the messenger of the gods and the Romans called him Mercury. Luke tells us that the people of Lystra assigned Paul with the name Hermes because he was the chief speaker. They viewed him then as the messenger of the gods so the quiet one, Barnabus, had to be Zeus.
Now there is a famous story in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, of Zeus and Hermes coming down in the form of men and traveling through this very region seeking a home in which to stay. And they go to one home after another and no one will let them in. Finally, they come to the home of an elderly couple and they are welcomed in and given lodging. And Zeus and Hermes change the home into a temple and destroy the homes of those who would not welcome them. And the couple is given one request. And the elderly couple requests that they would die together so that neither would have to look on the grave of the other. And the request was granted. So it is in light of this story that the people of Lystra regard Paul and Barnabus. They have seen this incredible healing of the man born lame and they think to themselves, we are not going to make the same mistake the people in Ovid’s story made. We are going to welcome the gods now that they have come to us.
So, not having the word and having very little exposure to the truth of the gospel apart from the things Paul has already told them, the people of Lystra totally miss the source of the miracle and instead believe Paul and Barnabus are gods. And Paul and Barnabus don’t realize this because they don’t understand the language the people of Lystra are speaking. So the people follow through with their misunderstanding in verse 13 . . .
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.
The temple of Zeus was right outside the entrance to the city. And the priest of Zeus hears the uproar and immediately offers his services. And oxen and garlands are brought for sacrifice. The garlands were usually placed on the oxen as part of the ceremony.
Matthew Henry has a good insight on this verse when he writes, “See how easily vain minds are carried away with a popular outcry. If the crowd give a shout, Here is Jupiter, the priest of Jupiter takes the first hint, and offers his service immediately. When Christ, the Son of God, came down, and appeared in the likeness of men, and did many, very many miracles, yet they were so far from doing sacrifice to him that they made him a sacrifice to their pride and malice: He was in the world, and the world knew him not; he came to his own, and his own received him not; but Paul and Barnabas, upon the working of one miracle, are immediately deified. The same power of the god of this world which prejudices the carnal mind against truth makes errors and mistakes to find easy admission; and both ways his turn is served.”
In other words, Satan will work to deny the truth about Jesus and he will also work so that people will go about believing anything and everything but Jesus. So it goes in our culture that Jesus is not trustworthy but healing crystals or karma or cult religions are a path of enlightenment. People who trust in things with the flimsiest of foundations are looked at as progressive and daring and faithful while those who trust in Jesus are looked at as foolish. But then the story changes in verse 14 . . .
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out,
Paul and Barnabus heard of it. We don’t know precisely how that happened but they probably figured out, between seeing what was happening and hearing from someone in the crowd in Greek, what was going on. They were about to be worshiped as gods. When they heard this, they tore their clothes, ripped them right at the top of the neck. This was a sign of extreme grief in the ancient world. It is interesting that Paul and Barnabus didn’t rip their clothes when people spoke against them in Iconium. They didn’t rip their clothes when people threatened to stone them, but when they are worshiped, here couldn’t stand it. Why? Because they lived for God’s glory not their own glory. They would not allow the glory that belonged to God to go to them. We dare say in our own day that this is not always the case with ministers of the gospel. We thank God for faithful people in the ministry of the church but we are far too prone to make much of people and little of God. And we are probably also far too likely to take credit that only God deserves.
It’s been a long time since we covered it, because we are going verse by verse and because we hopped back over to Exodus for a few months, but in Acts it’s only a couple of chapters ago. Do you remember Herod Antipas? What a contrast he is to Paul and Barnabus. He was before the people in his shiny robe and the people said, “The voice of a god and not a man!” And the Bible says Herod did not give glory to God and God struck him down. But here Paul and Barnabus won’t stand for such veneration for a second. Our hearts are idol factories and we will make gods of our favorite teachers and preachers and pastors as quickly as we will make an idol of a house or a car or a spouse. But let us be like Paul and Barnabus, always living for God’s glory alone.
We see here in this episode a sad irony. Paul and Barnabas are servants of the One True God who is supreme to all the false, empty gods of the people of Lystra but now Paul and Barnabas are called by the names of the very gods they have come to oppose and the true and living God is lost in the shuffle. But they will make sure this misunderstanding does not linger long, even if it costs them their lives. Look at verse 15 . . .
15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and 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 and Barnabus call out these men and ask them why they are acting like this since Paul and Barnabus are also just men. Then he gets to the message. They have brought good news. But what is his good news. Since the people of Lystra believed in many gods and had no exposure to the true God, Paul begins with God the creator. He says that the things they are doing here with their false gods are vain, they are empty. Paul confronts their false worship directly. But it’s not enough for him to say, what you are doing is wrong, he also points to what is right, that there is a living God who has made everything.
Aren’t Paul and Barnabus much better as ambassadors for Christ than they are as gods? They make poor gods, but they make great spokesmen for the gospel. The same is true with us. We make lousy gods. Your favorite preacher is a lousy god. But he’s a good ambassador if he’s faithful to God.
Now Paul goes on with his message in verses 16 and 17 . . .
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.”
Most people who believed in many gods in Paul’s day believed that certain gods regulated certain things, whether harvest or fertility or rain or some other aspect of life. Paul tells these Gentiles that all these things instead come from the hand of the true God. These things then are not a proof of the pagan gods but a witness to the reality of the true God. The sense of joy you feel in your life is also a witness of the true God. These things didn’t just happen. These things are not just the work of Zeus or Hermes. These things are the work of the true God, who made heaven and earth. Since He made it, He owns it, and He rules it.
So Paul has, in very short order, pointed the people of Lystra away from their view of the world toward a biblical view. The true and living God is real, the gods you worship are false. The true God has been providing for you all along, your gods have not.
Now notice in Paul’s message he doesn’t even mention Jesus. We probably don’t have every word Paul said in Lystra here and it is likely that before as he was in the city he spoke of Jesus and for a time after this he spoke of Jesus but here he is doing what we might call pre-evangelism. This is more and more necessary in our world today. Many people don’t have a fundamental understanding that God is the creator and therefore Lord of the universe. They believe the universe came about apart from the intelligent design of a good God. Many people have no understanding of sin and God’s judgment and what Jesus really came to do. So with many people we talk to we will have to take an approach like Paul takes, thinking carefully about how we share without compromising the message we share. The reason this is necessary is because without being clear on these basic things a person is likely to just fit Jesus into what they already believe rather than really trusting Him as Savior and Lord. Jesus to the people of Lystra would have just been set right next to Zeus and Hermes as another god and for us if we are not careful people will just set him next to self-help books or meditation as just one more pathway we can explore on our journey through life.
18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.
After hearing about the humanity of Paul and Barnabus and the falsity of their own gods, the people of Lystra still want to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabus. It seems their mythology has a stronger influence on them than the message Paul has shared. The past can be hard to shake but in spite of all that happens here there will be a group of people in Lystra that God will save. He can overcome the past, He can overcome present misunderstandings, He is able to save and He does. God is always at work saving and growing a people.
In this case, the people of Lystra needed an additional reason to reject Paul and Barnabus, and they soon got it. Look at verse 19 . . .
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.

Now the Jews enter the scene. They have come from Antioch and Iconium. Those who have come from Antioch have traveled about 100 miles on foot to come after Paul. That is hatred. These Jews from Antioch and Iconium band together to oppose the gospel, still offended at the message Paul was preaching of salvation and life through Jesus Christ for Jew and Gentile alike. Isn’t it interesting that Paul’s message contradicted the traditions of the Jews and it contradicted the traditions of the Gentiles. The gospel just doesn’t fit into neat categories. It offends the self-righteous and the pagan alike. We shouldn’t be surprised when people dislike us if we live a gospel-focused life because many of the people in our culture fit into one of those two categories, either stuck on their traditions or living for their own pleasure. So the people of Lystra stone Paul, dragging him out of the city leaving him for dead. Once Paul had been a part of such a mob, on that day when Stephen was killed. Now, for preaching the same gospel, Paul is brought within an inch of losing his life. The people of Iconium planned to stone Paul when he was there back in verse 5 and now it becomes a reality.
Here’s the interesting thing: if Paul would have allowed himself to be enthroned as Mercury, he would have probably escaped harm and been commended by the people. He could have enjoyed a peaceful time in Lystra. He may have even been able to rationalize it as a way to get access for the gospel. But because he rejected the people’s efforts to exalt him, he was not enthroned, he was stoned. In other words, faithfulness led not to a great evangelistic campaign and fame and fortune for Paul, but to stoning. I wonder if our own expectations of the Christian life and our life as a church are not skewed by the expectation that if we follow Christ it will lead to security, comfort and prosperity. I just don’t see that in the New Testament. The road to effectiveness in ministry is marked with suffering. The road to effectiveness as a church is to endure hardship. This is not the message that will have people breaking down the doors to be here but it is a true message. It is the message we must proclaim and the message we must live.

But notice verse 20. What words of hope come from this verse.

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.

First, notice that there are disciples here. Now it may be that these are fellow workers who were with Paul and Barnabus. That is possible although we see at the end of this chapter that Paul comes back through Lystra and strengthens the disciples who were there. So it seems through his ministry leading up to the stoning by the Jews that God saved some of the people of Lystra. And I think about these disciples rallying around Paul and I am so inspired. They don’t leave him hanging. They are for him. They put their own lives at risk by identifying themselves as followers of Christ. One of these new disciples who surrounded Paul may very well have been Timothy. He was from this area and by the time he is introduced in chapter 16 he is already a believer. Paul calls him in 1 Corinthians 4, his “beloved son.” This means it is likely that he was converted under Paul’s ministry. So to me it is very likely that Timothy was converted under Paul’s ministry and was among the number gathering around Paul.
Luke doesn’t say this group prayed for Paul but they very well may have. And God may have answered their prayer by resuscitating Paul.
Paul rose up. Matthew Henry says “Note, God’s faithful servants, though they may be brought within a step of death, and may be looked upon as dead both by friends and enemies, shall not die as long as he has work for them to do. They are cast down, but not destroyed, 2 Co. 4:9.”

The next morning Barnabus left for Derbe. Sore in body but not broken in spirit. Instead, filled with the Holy Spirit, he went on and preached Christ. He came to Lystra and almost lost his life. But he left a church behind.

Oh, the glorious ironies of gospel ministry. What looks like failure is success. What appears unimpressive is God-honoring. When confusion comes doors are often opened. God’s true servants when abused go on in faithfulness. Don’t judge by outward appearances. Be faithful to God. Suffer willingly for the kingdom. This is the life God calls us to. The life of the cross. The Calvary road. Get on that road today. All other roads lead to death. All other roads are vain, they’re empty. Pour your life out for the gospel. The cost is great, but the reward is worth it. Glory to God. Usefulness in His hand. Blessing to others. Joy forever, no matter where I am in my life. This is why we are here. Don’t settle for anything less.

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