Commentary on Acts 14:8-18
On this first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas have proclaimed the gospel in Cyprus (13:4-12), Pisidian Antioch (13:13-50), and Iconium (14:1-7).
In each of these cities they have begun their preaching in synagogues, and have encountered both receptivity and resistance among Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles (Gentiles who worship at the synagogue but have not become full proselytes). In Lystra, there is no mention of a synagogue, and for the first time, Paul and Barnabas encounter a crowd of Gentiles who have no knowledge of Israel’s God.
Healing, Confusion, and Interpretation
The story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra begins much like the story of Peter and John at the Jerusalem temple in Acts 3. Like Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas encounter a man lame from birth (3:2; 14:8). Like Peter, Paul “looks intently” (3:4; 14:9) at the lame man and commands him to stand up (3:6; 14:10). In both stories, the lame man not only stands but “leaps up” (allomai) and begins to walk (3:8; 14:10).
At this point, however, the stories diverge. In Acts 3, the people are filled with wonder and amazement, which provides Peter an opening to proclaim that this healing has happened through faith in the name of Jesus the Messiah. In Acts 14, a chaotic scene erupts among the Gentile crowds as they interpret what has happened from their own religious presuppositions. They begin to shout in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (14:11) They believe Barnabas to be Zeus, the chief Greek god, and Paul to be Hermes, the messenger of the gods, since Paul is the chief speaker (14:12). Even the local priest of Zeus gets in on the action, bringing oxen and garlands in order to offer sacrifice (4:13).1
Because of the language barrier, it apparently takes some time for Paul and Barnabas to understand what is happening. When they do grasp what is taking place, they are quick to try and dispel the misunderstanding. They tear their clothes as a sign of grief and rush out into the crowd, shouting “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you” (4:14-15).
Even in the midst of this chaos, Paul finds an opportunity to bear witness, tailoring his message to his Gentile audience. Before he can tell them about Jesus the Messiah, he must tell them about the one true God. He urges them to “turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (14:15). He continues by saying that even though in the past God allowed the nations to “follow their own ways” (i.e., the ways of idolatry), God did not leave himself “without a witness,” for creation itself testifies to a benevolent Creator who showers humanity with blessings (14:16-17; cf. Romans 1:20).
Paul will expound on similar themes in his speech at the Areopagus in Athens. Having seen an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown God,” Paul tells the Athenians, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (17:23-25).
Paul’s Areopagus speech meets with both scoffing and curiosity, and a few of the curious become believers (17:32). In Lystra, Paul’s speech seems to fall on mostly deaf ears, for he and Barnabas are scarcely able to restrain the crowds from offering sacrifice to them (14:18).
Acts gives us a glimpse of the challenges faced by the earliest missionaries proclaiming the gospel in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world. The words and deeds of Jesus’ disciples could easily be misunderstood by people with a wholly different set of presuppositions. “Signs and wonders” on their own are ambiguous and always in need of interpretation.
In Acts we see evidence that there were many wandering wonder-workers in the ancient world. In Samaria, for instance, Philip, Peter, and John encounter a magician named Simon who amazed the people with his magic and whom people believed to have divine power (8:9-11). When Simon sees the Holy Spirit given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offers them money to purchase this gift, earning a sharp rebuke from Peter (8:17-24). In Cyprus, Paul and Barnabas have difficulty with a false prophet and magician named Bar-Jesus or Elymas (13:4-12), and in Ephesus, itinerant Jewish exorcists try to use the name of Jesus as though it were a magical incantation (19:11-16).
Acts draws a stark contrast between the authentic leadership of apostles and missionaries commissioned by the church and the dubious undertakings of other prophets, magicians, and wonder-workers. Jesus’ disciples are not motivated by personal gain of wealth, power, or status. Indeed, they put themselves at great risk and endure persecution for the sake of the gospel. They know that they cannot control or manipulate the gift of the Holy Spirit, but trust the Spirit to work through them as God sees fit. Their ministries do not draw attention to themselves, but point to the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus Christ.
Comparisons are often drawn between the pluralistic world of the first century and that of our own day. How will the gospel be heard amidst so many competing voices and worldviews? While there is no simple answer to that question, the story of Acts does lift up the vital importance of authentic missional leadership. Today as always, the Spirit calls leaders to be servants and not masters, to abandon self-centered agendas and delusions of grandeur, and to engage humbly and creatively in this great adventure of translating and proclaiming the gospel in a world of stunning diversity.
1It may be that the narrator is giving a wink and a nod to Ovid’s tale of Zeus and Hermes taking on human form and visiting a pious old couple in Phrygia. The disguised gods had been rejected by many, but this couple showed them hospitality and were rewarded (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8:611-724).