In my last article in this series of articles on the life of the apostle Paul, I considered the sermon that Paul preached in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. From Antioch, Paul and Barnabas went on to Iconium. This article summarizes Paul and Barnabas’ visits to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe and their journey back to Antioch in Syria.
Paul and Barnabas’ visit to Iconium followed much the same pattern as their visit to Pisidian Antioch had. They visited the synagogue and witnessed so effectively that many Jews and God-fearing Gentiles believed. However, the Jews who didn’t believe stirred up such opposition to them among the city’s Gentiles that despite God’s confirming their message with signs and wonders, they eventually had to flee to Lystra and Derbe in tne neighbouring region of Lycaonia to escape a plot to mistreat and stone them.
The section of the mid-second-century apocryphal The Acts of Paul about Paul’s visit to Iconium contains a description of Paul that may rest on fact: “a man little of stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat crooked, full of grace, for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel.” Of course, it might also be, as F. F. Bruce puts it, “the product of the writer’s lively imagination” (The Book of Acts, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 272.).
Lystra (Acts 14:8-20)
As Paul was speaking to a crowd in Lystra, he saw that one of those listening, a man who was lame from birth and had never walked, had “faith to be healed.” The man’s countenance may have shown Paul that he had this faith, or Paul may have been made aware of it by the Holy Spirit. He called to the man in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV),” and the man jumped up and walked. (The miracle resembles Peter’s healing of a lame man in Acts 3:1-8. In each instance there were two apostles, a man lame from birth, an unsolicited healing, and great effects. However, there was a major difference: here faith preceded the healing, but in the earlier incident faith followed the healing.)
Amazed by the healing, the crowd concluded that Paul and Barnabas were gods, identifying Barnabas with Zeus (the king of the gods in the Greek pantheon; some commentators suggest that the crowd identified Barnabas as Zeus because of his more dignified bearing) and Paul with Hermes (the messenger of the gods) “because he was the chief speaker,” and shouted in Lycanonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.” Then, led by the priest of Zeus, they brought oxen draped with garlands to the temple of Zeus just outside the city gates to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul.
The crowd’s reaction is understandable in light of an ancient legend that Zeus and Hermes had visited a town in the area and, not being recognized, had been refused lodging except by an elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis. The two gods had rewarded the couple by transforming their cottage into a splendid temple but had destroyed the town for its inhospitality.
When Paul and Barnabas heard what was taking place, they tore their garments (among the Jews the tearing of garments was a recognized way of reacting to blasphemy [Mark 14:63], but here it was probably a sign of distress and agitation) and rushed from where they were into the crowd, shouting:
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. 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.
However, even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the people from sacrifing to them.
The summary that Luke gives of what Paul and Barnabas said is one of two examples in Acts of Paul’s addressing a purely pagan audience (the other, fuller, example is Paul’s speech to the Aeropagus in Athens [17:22-31]). He appealed to God’s revelation in nature rather than to His revelation in Israel’s history as he had done in his sermon in the synagogue at Pisidia Antioch (13:16-41), illustrating how he always kept his audience in mind.
Somehow the Jews from Antioch and Iconium got together and followed Paul and Barnabas to Lystra, where they “persuaded the crowds,” who were probably already disappointed by the missionaries’ refusal to accept divine honours. The crowd stoned Paul and, thinking that he was dead, dragged him outside the city. However, as those who had accepted the gospel in Lystra stood around him, he got up and courageously returned to the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
All that Luke says about Paul and Barnabas’ ministry in Derbe is that they “preached the gospel” and “made many disciples.” He doesn’t mention any opposition.
Return to Antioch in Syria (14:21b-28)
From Derbe Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. This time they confined their ministry to “strengthening the souls of the disciples.” They encouraged them to remain in the faith, even in the face of the hardships that they would probably experience, and appointed elders in each church, committing them to the Lord with prayer and fasting.
At Antioch, Paul and Barnabas gathered together the congregation that had sent them out and “declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” I find it significant that Luke doesn’t report that they told what they had done but rather that they told what God had done and like Matthew Henry’s observation: “The praise of all the little good we do at any time must be ascribed to God; for it is he that worketh with us to make what we do successful.”