Even by today’s standards their first missionary journey was incredibly successful. Paul and Barnabas traveled roughly 1,200 miles in two years and planted six new churches. Considering the rough terrain in Southern Galatia alone makes the trip nothing less than stunning. But it was not just geography that made the first journey challenging. It required a tenacious faith to witness for Jesus.
The Miracle: Coming Down
Following the evangelistic efforts in Cyprus (last week’s lesson), Paul and Barnabas made their way into south central Turkey (Pamphylia). They stopped briefly at Perga and then spent some time at Antioch of Pisidia. Here Paul gave his typical synagogue address (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel message met with acceptance and rejection (vv. 46-52). Luke will feature three cities in Acts 14: Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Unlike the heavily-populated cities where Paul typically went, these cities were smaller and a bit more rural.
In response to faith, Paul healed a lame man in Lystra. Faith is not essential for healing but often accompanies it. In performing this miracle Paul not only secured a hearing for the gospel but also placed himself squarely in the messianic mission. After all, Jesus raised lame people toward the beginning of his ministry (Mark 2:1-12; John 5:1-18). Peter raised lame people toward the beginning of his ministry (Acts 3:1-10). Now Paul enters that prophesied stream (Isaiah 35:6).
The worldview of Lystra was tied to geography (rural and farming), past folklore, and legends. The Lystra legend concerned two gods who came to Lystra in its past and were refused lodging. Supposedly, the gods took out their anger in judgment on the valley. It did not matter to the people of Lystra if the legend was true; they were not going to make a similar mistake. So in response to such a wonderful miracle, they wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods. Their heart’s desire was a reflection of the Christmas story. We want a God with skin on and skin in the game. The unprinted part of the text (Acts 14:12-18) shows the humility of the missionaries in attempting to restrain the people’s misguided worldview.
The Mistreatment: Getting Up
Opposition to their evangelistic success did not take long to materialize. Jews from regions Paul and Barnabas had already visited rode into town with theological six-shooters blazing.
The fickleness of the crowd’s faith is seen in how quickly they turned against the gospel. Paul was stoned (maybe because he was the chief spokesman). There were prescribed ways to do a stoning according to Jewish literature, but this looks more like mob action. More than once Paul thought back to this experience (2 Corinthians 11:25; see Galatians 6:17).
The townsfolk thought Paul was dead, but the disciples had gathered around him, and he got up. Did they gather around him to pray for his recovery? Had Paul died, and did their prayers have the effect of bringing him back to life? It is probably best not to over suppose. We should not try to make the text say something it does not say. It looks as if in the town’s aggression against the gospel they left their job of killing Paul undone. But this did not deter Paul. Even though he had been mistreated, he got back up and went on to Derbe to preach.
Ministry: Going Through
Paul persevered in his work and had great success. Large numbers came to the Lord (a summary phrase that Luke uses when he wants to speak of a critical mass becoming Christ followers; see Acts 5:14; 11:21; 16:5; 17:12). There is much to the phrase, “Then they returned.” That is what the faith to persevere does.
Paul was aware that new believers needed encouragement, teaching, and leadership. It is actually encouraging to know that hardships (something that presses down) are in front of us. That way we are not surprised when bad things happen (see John 16:33). Believers have entered the kingdom but not its full expression yet. They get there by suffering. But to help believers grow, leadership is necessary. So the missionaries appointed (literally, to raise the hand, as in a vote) elders (the second time in Acts where local church elders are mentioned; see Acts 11:30). Lots of ministry is simply “going through.” As Alan Alhgrim says, “It is always too soon to quit. You never know when God is going to break through.”
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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