We’re back into the book of Acts. Paul and Barnabas have been commissioned by the church at Antioch. They’re now on their first missionary journey, travelling from town to town, looking to plant churches wherever they go. Last week Ramzi took us through 14:1-7, with Paul and Barnabas in Iconium, from where they’re forced to flee. This evening my title is The Living God, and we’re looking at 14:8-20, with Paul and Barnabas now down the road in Lystra.
Every now and again something happens to us that becomes a formative experience that we never forget. It becomes one of the landmarks of our lives. The kind of experience I have in mind is invariably tough. It will be one of the hardest things we ever go through. And how we react to it and come through it will shape who we become. It will live with us for the rest of our lives.
It seems to me that what happened to Paul on this first missionary journey – and in particular what happened to him here in Lystra – was just such a formative trial. Paul never forgot it. In 2 Timothy 3.10-11 we see Paul, towards the end of this life and ministry, strengthening his younger colleague Timothy. He says:
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings – what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from them all.
In other words, he’s saying to Timothy, “You know my character, forged in the furnace of the experiences I went through” – not least at Lystra. And he wants Timothy to develop the same kind of character, by learning from his experience. We need to do the same.
So what did happen in Lystra that so burnt itself onto Paul’s soul? Over a short time, it was a rollercoaster of experiences. For clarity, I’ve divided the Lystra mission into six brief episodes. You can see them on the back of the service sheet, where there’s space for notes if you want it. We’ll follow them through. What’s episode one?
First, DRAMATIC HEALING
Look at verses 8-10:
In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
Now that was a dramatic healing if ever there was one. It was instantaneous, obvious and powerful. This is a man who’s had something wrong with his feet from birth and has never experienced what it’s like to put one foot in front of another and walk. His body had never allowed him to do that. With a word from Paul, that whole lifetime of suffering is over.
Now one thing you can’t help noticing about this if you know the book of Acts is how similar this is to an earlier healing done by Peter – or rather by the power of God through Peter. It’s at the beginning of Acts 3. This too was a man crippled from birth. Peter looks straight at him and tells him, in the name of Jesus, to walk. Then, vv. 7-8:
Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk…
So God uses both Peter and then Paul to heal in this way. Why? Well for a start, these miraculous signs and wonders are God’s way of confirming and affirming the unique apostolic calling of these men. Clearly God can and does do these things when he so decides. Equally clearly, we are not intended to understand this as normal Christian experience. Paul is explicit about this, for instance, in 2 Corinthians 12:12, where he says:
The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance.
Done among them, that is, by Paul himself. And the context there is precisely that Paul is having to defend his own authority as an apostle through whom God speaks. So in Acts 14 Paul’s authority as the apostle to the Gentiles is attested by God through a dramatic healing in just the same way as with Peter. Not only is Paul an apostle, but he’s on a par with Peter. On then to the next episode. So:
Secondly, IDOLATROUS REACTION
You can see this response in verses 11-13:
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 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.
These Lystrans that Paul and Barnabas are evangelising, are full blown Graeco-Roman polytheistic pagans – even if they do speak their local lingo Lycaonian when they want to talk behind the strangers’ backs. They had a local legend about the gods Zeus and Hermes visiting their region disguised as men. And they wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas. So their reaction to this dramatic healing by the living God through his servants was profoundly idolatrous. They were putting the creature in place of the Creator.
We’ll come to the response of Paul and Barnabas in a moment. But let me make these observations about this astonishing physical healing and this idolatrous reaction.
The faith of the crippled man came from hearing Paul preaching the gospel. His faith came before he was healed. Indeed Paul “saw that he had faith to be healed” and then healed him. Whatever exactly is meant by that, there can be no doubt that the faith came before the healing, and not as a result of it. Faith comes from hearing not healing.
That is confirmed in the case of the Lystrans. They see the miracle. They know it’s happened. But it makes no impact on their world view at all. In fact it simply serves to reinforce it. Faith doesn’t follow seeing. It follows hearing the good news. I think sometimes we wish that God would do great healing miracles amongst us, so as to persuade this apathetic and unbelieving society that the Christian faith is true. But it doesn’t work like that.
Jesus did miracles and he was despised and rejected. Paul did this miracle and the reaction was idolatrous. Let’s not doubt that God can do whatever he decides to do. Let’s keep on praying for healing for the sake of those who suffer. But let’s be clear that faith comes not by healing but by hearing the Word of God and by the work of the Holy Spirit convicting and convincing hearts and minds. And that same Spirit and gospel that are at work in the pages of the book of Acts are just as surely at work today.
Thirdly, GOD-GLORIFYING EVANGELISM
What do Paul and Barnabas make of the prospect of being worshipped as Hermes and Zeus? Verses 14-17 tell us:
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this [remember they couldn’t at first understand the local lingo the Lystrans were using, so it took them a while to catch on to what was happening], they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea, and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 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.”
Paul and Barnabas’ problem here is not just that they don’t like the limelight. In fact they do like the limelight. They want to be the centre of attention – because they want as many people as possible to hear them preaching the gospel. No, what they cannot stand is the prospect that any of the glory that belongs to the living God should be deflected on to them. That horrifies them.
Does it horrify us? I don’t suppose anyone’s accused you of being Zeus or Hermes recently. But all around us all the time people are completely failing to glorify God and to be grateful to him for all the blessings they receive from his hand. All too often we too fail to give God the glory due to him. We’re only going to react like Paul and Barnabas when we begin to share their vision of the glory of the holy and living God.
And as we do that more and more, so also more and more we’ll take every opportunity that presents itself to persuade people to turn to the living God. Paul is always alert to these opportunities, and he leaps in here.
And you can see the way that he begins at the beginning with his evangelism. It’s a striking fact that in this account of what he says there isn’t a mention of Jesus specifically. To these pagans who believe in many gods, Paul introduces the one living God who made heaven and earth. This is the living God whose blessings they’ve experienced every day, but to whom they’ve been blind. They’ve been on the receiving end of God’s common grace but they can’t see it. Paul sees their distressing pagan idolatry and he tells them, v 15:
Turn from these worthless things to the living God…
Some of you here this evening have yet to turn to the living God. Do you hear Paul’s call? It’s for you too. Maybe you’ve come to realise over these last few weeks and months that the living God is there and cannot be ignored. Well, there’s no time like the present. Turn away from whatever is your own form of idolatry. Turn to the living God in your heart this very evening. Now is the time for you to become a Christian, submit your life to Christ, seek his forgiveness, and start to follow him. Like the apostle Paul, give God the glory due to him.
Then what’s the next episode here?
Fourthly, MASS REJECTION
What’s the response to Paul’s God-glorifying evangelism and his call to turn to the living God? Look at verses 18-19:
Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over…
Never underestimate the fickleness of crowds. In one sentence Paul and Barnabas are desperately trying to prevent the crowd from worshipping them as gods. In the next sentence the crowd is turned murderously against them, under the influence of these aggressive enemies of the gospel who’ve gone to the trouble of following them from town to town, such is their hatred.
The experience of Paul and Barnabas at the hands of this crowd is strikingly parallel to what happened to Jesus. Take, for instance, the example in Luke 4. Luke 4:22 says:
All spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.
But a moment later, in Luke 4:29, the mood has utterly changed:
They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.
What about us? We must make sure that our own convictions about the truth of the Christian faith are built on a foundation much deeper than the current mood of whichever crowd we’re running with. If our faith is a fashion, it will last about as long as the latest fashion fad.
And we must always be aware that the opinions of the crowd are highly unstable. We mustn’t be caught out if the crowd swings either against the Christian faith, or indeed back in a Christian direction. Indeed let’s be praying for a national mood swing in the direction of Christianity. Let’s do all we can to encourage it. And then when it happens, let’s work hard to make sure that it gets rooted in people’s lives so that they’ll stand firm when the mood swings off somewhere else.
But it’s never going to be comfortable following Jesus. The fact is that the more Christ-like is our obedience, the more Christ-like is our experience. For Paul, as we’ve seen, things went from bad to worse. And what did the Jewish enemies of the gospel do now that the crowd had swung behind them? That brings us to the next episode. So:
Fifthly, VIOLENT ATTACK
This is the second half of verse 19:
They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.
He wasn’t dead. But they clearly intended that he should be, and thought they’d done their work. What a rollercoaster this is. One moment hailed as a god. The next, under a deadly hail of rocks smashing his body and rendering him unconscious. Before this Paul’s life had been under threat, but he’d always managed to escape the danger. Not this time. It’s sparsely told in one short sentence. But imagine going through this. You wouldn’t forget it.
Paul never forgot. Later, writing to the church in Corinth, Paul sums up all his sufferings for the sake of the gospel. In the middle of his catalogue, he says in 2 Corinthians 11:25:
… once I was stoned…
And to the Galatians he writes (Galatians 6:17):
… I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
Probably at least some of those marks were the scars that resulted from this near lethal hammering he got in Lystra. How would you have reacted? It would have been so easy to give up. But Paul was made of sterner stuff. Which brings us to the final twist and turn on this rollercoaster mission.
Sixthly, SURPRISING SUCCESS
But after the disciples had gathered round him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
By the time we get to the end of verse 19, you could be forgiven for thinking that this mission in Lystra was a complete failure. But you’d be wrong. Verse 20 make two things clear.
First, there are now disciples in Lystra. Some people have come to faith, and they’re bold enough to gather round the stricken Paul and identify themselves with him despite the danger. We know this isn’t just Paul’s travelling mission team from what happens next. So here’s a sneak preview of the next instalment: (vv. 21-22):
They preached the good news in that city [Derbe] and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
There are disciples in Lystra. A new church has taken root. That’s why Paul went there, and his mission has succeeded.
And don’t miss the second thing that’s clear from verse 20. Paul didn’t give up. Maybe we take that for granted, but we shouldn’t. Paul had been stoned to within an inch of his life. And what does he do? He picks himself up and gets on with the job of telling the world the good news about Jesus.
Despite everything, a church is planted, and the work continues. To the church in Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 4:9, Paul later wrote:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed… struck down, but not destroyed.
That is, “we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out”.
This rollercoaster mission to Lystra was a formative experience for Paul. He never forgot it. It was the kind of thing that the apostle Peter talks about in 1 Peter 1:6-7, where he speaks of …
… all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith … may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Paul’s faith is proved genuine and results in glory to Christ. John Stott sums up this section of Acts when he says:
[Paul’s] steadfastness of character was upset neither by flattery nor by opposition.
How will you react when those formative times of trial come along that will test your Christian life and ministry to the limit? Because they will happen. How we react will shape who we become. It will live with us for the rest of our lives. We need to learn from Paul. We badly need that kind of resilience and courage in the cause of Christ. Paul learned it from the Spirit of Jesus. We need to do the same.