Exegesis Acts 14:8-20

In Lystra a man was sitting who was without strength in his feet, had never walked, and had been lame from birth. He listened as Paul spoke. After looking directly at him and seeing that he had faith to be healed, Paul said in a loud voice, “Stand up on your feet!” And he jumped up and began to walk around.

When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the town, brought bulls and wreaths to the gates because he intended, with the crowds, to offer sacrifice.

The apostles Barnabas and Paul tore their robes when they heard this and rushed into the crowd, shouting, “People! Why are you doing these things? We are people also, just like you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them., In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own way, although he did not leave himself without a witness, since he did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” Even though they said these things, they barely stopped the crowds from sacrificing to them.

Some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and when they won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. After the disciples gathered around him, he got up and went into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. [1]


Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Ac 14:8–20.

Interpretations

  1. Why did the crowds react the way they did when the lame man was healed?

Paul and Barnabas have come to the city of Lycia in what is now southwestern Turkey. Having gone as far north as Pisidian Antioch, the team is returning to the Southern coast. Stopping first in Iconium, the duo encountered resistance from the Jews who stir up the Gentiles (14:2). They stayed in Iconium “a long time” (vs. 3) but eventually had to flee. They traveled south to Lycia.

When they arrived in Lycia, the narrative immediately has Paul healing a lame man. There is no mention of Paul going to a synagogue (which was his usual pattern), but instead, he launched straight into ministry. The healing was observed by a crowd suggesting that it was in a very public place (perhaps a market or the city gates where people with disabilities gather). They obviously did not have a Jewish context for the miracle. Also, there was a language issue in that the people were not speaking Greek but their “native Lycaonian language” (vs. 14). Because miracles were not often seen and their religious worldview was that of the pagan Greek gods, the crowd could only assume that Paul and Barnabas were gods themselves.

  • Why did Paul provide just an abbreviated message to the crowd instead of his usual sermon and evangelistic message?

When the crowd equated Paul and Barnabas with Greek pagan gods, they became very concerned. They became most concerned when the priests of Zeus wanted to make sacrifices to them. This move caused Paul and Barnabas (orthodox Jewish Christ-followers) turmoil because it violated the first two commandments of the Torah: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.Do not have other gods besides me. Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:2-4). The foundation of all the proscriptions in the Torah begins and has meaning in these first commandments. If Paul and Barnabas let the crowd adulate them in this fashion, all involved (the crowd and Paul and Barnabas) would be committing the gravest of sins.

Paul attempts to give a brief explanation of their message. He states that they are just men, proclaiming the gospel, offering repentance, and appealed not to the Torah or Jewish law but the creation (general revelation). It doesn’t appear that his message had much effect as “Even though they said these things, they barely stopped the crowds from sacrificing to them.” (vs. 18). Luke quickly adds that the troublemakers from Iconium arrive, and Paul is stoned and dragged out of the city. Although tended to by other Jesus-followers, the duo left the next day for Derbe. Paul and Barnabas could not preach the full gospel because the crowd was whipped into a pagan frenzy, and the troublemakers from Iconium worked against them.

Application   

Ministry is frequently messy. Because ministry necessarily involves people, things most always do not go according to plan. Paul and Barnabas encountered this kind of messiness at Lycia. It may be that Paul knew that the city would not have any context for the gospel, so he was led to start his ministry by healing a lame man. Little did he know the ramifications of the healing. When the people of Lystra wanted to pay homage to them as gods and offer sacrifices, this must have set them back from their original expectations of ministry. However, they countered the crowds and had a brief chance to proclaim the gospel.

This passage teaches us that God frequently brings his followers into ministry encounters that they think they are not prepared for. That Paul and Barnabas were so disturbed by their deification demonstrates that their mission had gone “off script.” When Christ-followers engage in ministry, the messiness of that ministry can lead to unintended outcomes. However, that does not mean that they are not God-ordained outcomes. Ministry is meant to stretch us in spiritual, emotional, and sometimes physical ways. The key is that when in a messy time of ministry, the Christ-follower must be in tune with the Holy Spirit. God will lead through and be glorified in the messiness. All the believer has to do is be obedient to the ministry.

Summary and Review

  1. Summary –

This passage takes place during Paul’s first missionary journey. Paul has taken water transportation to Cyprus and then to the southeast shores of what is today southwestern Turkey. John Mark is with Paul and Barnabas briefly but abandons the campaign as soon as they reach the shores of Perga. The team travels up north to Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) and returns through Iconium. Up until this point, the evangelistic efforts have been relatively successful. They did have some success in that “a great number of both Jews and Gentiles” believed. However, it is at Iconium that Paul received stiff opposition from “unbelieving Jews” (14:2) who “poisoned the minds” of other Gentiles. The team, under threat of stoning, left for Lystra and Derbe.

Arriving at Lystra, Paul heals a lame man. The crowd who witnessed the healing cannot comprehend what just happened. They started speaking in their language that Paul is Hermes and Barnabas is Zeus. The crowd’s fervor is so intense that the local priest of Zeus starts to prepare a sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas. With emotional intensity (14:14), the duo addressed the crowd to dissuade them from this great sin. Paul gave a short evangelistic address but was not successful in quieting the crowd.

To make matters worse, the troublemakers from Iconium arrive on the scene. This time Paul was stoned and left for dead. After receiving care from the Lycaonian believers, they left the next day for Derbe.

Paul wasn’t done with Lystra and Iconium, however. After a successful campaign in Derbe (14:21), the team returned to Lystra and Iconium back north to Antioch. In each of these cities, Paul and Barnabas planted churches (“When they had appointed elders for them in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (vs. 23),  and “encouraging them [new beleivers] to continue in the faith and by telling them, “It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (vs. 22). Paul and Barnabas returned to the coast and Perga to embark on their journey back to the Syrian Antioch home base.

  • Critical Assessment –

The passage of 14:8-20 is a foreshadow of Paul’s future evangelistic journeys. In some cities, he has success, others not so much. Some cities tolerate him; others persecute him. In the case of Lystra, they are encountering for the first time thoroughly pagan people. As Marshall observes: “The significance of the story of what happened at Lystra is that here for the first time in Acts the Christian missionaries came to a town where there was apparently no synagogue or at least no mention is made of it.”[1]

The city of Lystra was established in 6 B.C. and was the retirement colony for Roman soldiers. “Its population was mostly uneducated Lycaonians, who came from a small Anatolian tribe and spoke their own language. The ruling class was made up of Roman army veterans, while a few Greeks controlled education and commerce. Jews also lived there (16:1–3), but their influence seems to have been minimal.”[2] Indeed, this was a city with no context for the gospel.

But Paul healed a lame fellow in a public setting, which was the incident that set the crowd on fire. In his brief message, he appeals to the creation and general revelation as a way to make inroads to their worldview. Paul needed a way to break through the religious superstition of the pagan Lycaonians. As Wright observes: “There are ancient texts and inscriptions which speak of Zeus and Hermes arriving on earth and being entertained by an ordinary pair of mortals; there is some evidence to suggest that this old story belongs in the part of Turkey where Paul and Barnabas now found themselves. It may be that the townsfolk were, so to speak, always on the lookout in case it really happened one day”[3] Paul and Barnabas are horrified by the misidentification with pagan gods because “Idolatry diminishes the divine to human size… and makes God dependent on human actions and subject to human control.”[4]

The result of his efforts was that he was stoned. Stoning in the first century was usually a fatal event. However, as notes Story referring to Pervo: “Luke does not inform his readers how Paul could stand up after being stoned and left for dead. Pervo states, ‘Theologically, ‘the decisive point is that this messenger of God is not discouraged but resumes his task.’”[5]

Reactions and questions, and application –

I’ll be honest, the application for this passage was elusive for me. The observations and interpretations came pretty quickly but deciding how to apply these evaded me for some days. Several times I approached the section and just could not come up with a sufficient application. In a word, it was messy. It was in that messiness that I discovered my application. When the crowd gathered and started paying homage to the duo as gods, I can imagine Paul looking over to Barnabas and saying, “This is not how we planned this to go.”

As stated in my application, the key is listening to the Holy Spirit. I may feel out of place and, I may be frightened spiritually of my surroundings. But the Holy Spirit has me there for a reason. One of the first times I engaged in prison ministry, I visited the Massachusetts Department of Corrections facility in Concord, MA. Walking behind the gates and hearing the locking doors behind me, I was in a messy place with very messy people. As we studied the Bible, one of the inmates, a Jehovah’s Witness, wanted to debate the Trinity. This turn of events was not how I envisioned my ministry going. However, God led me through this dicy conversation. God will lead; I just need to follow and be unafraid and unsurprised about where he leads me.


[1] I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 249.

[2] Richard N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 434.

[3] Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008), 29.

[4] Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts A Literary Interpretation Volume Two: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 1990), 179.

[5] J. Lyle Story, Joyous Encounters (Chestnut Ridge, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2018) Kindle Edition, 226-227.

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