Paul's Mission

Acts is not just a historical narrative of the early days of the church.

April 26, 2015

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Commentary on Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

Acts is not just a historical narrative of the early days of the church.

Luke did not set out merely to name the key events and places that marked the growth and development of these early communities of believers. That is, chronology and key places and important figures are not the main concern of Acts. Our understanding of Acts would not be well-tested by taking a quiz on the whos, whats, and whens of its protagonists; the whys are what matter most to Luke. And so Luke’s relentless attention remains focused on God throughout this narrative. God is always the “why.”

And so we can point to Paul’s various missionary journeys in the Book of Acts, notice the bold ways he preaches the good news in the cultural cauldrons that dotted the ancient Mediterranean world. From Jerusalem to Philippi to Athens to Lystra and eventually to Rome, Paul travels the ancient world, leaving an indelible mark upon these communities. And yet Paul’s missionary journeys are never really about Paul himself. Paul is not the hero of Acts but merely the courageous and powerful vessel through which God works. Clearly, God is the primary actor of Acts.

This is not to say that the names and exploits of leaders of these churches are unimportant. Acts 13 opens with a naming of various “prophets and leaders” in the church of Antioch. Luke’s lists are significant for exegesis, for the lists are suggestive of the character of the communities they represent. So, for instance, we learn about a certain “Simeon who was called Niger.” Why was he called “Niger?” Was it because of his origins or ancestry? Do we have here named an African man, whose presence in the church in Antioch needs no explanation or rationalization? That is, is the presence of and leadership by people like Simeon characteristic of these early churches? We almost meet Lucius of Cyrene, another individual not local to Antioch, but also Manaen, “a member of the court of Herod the ruler.” From the courts of the powerful to the foreign sojourner, we find not just members of these communities but their “prophets and teachers.” This is a community — and more important a community whose God — draws people from the ends of the earth.

In the midst of worship and fasting, the Holy Spirit speaks to this community. That is, God acts and commissions Saul and Barnabas (the only two individuals on that list who were not granted additional descriptors, cf. Acts 1:23) to be sent from Antioch. The community, however, participates in the discernment and sending as well. In laying hands on these two brothers and sending them on the path to ministry elsewhere, God’s commands and human obedience intersect. Paul’s missionary journeys are definitively empowered by God’s word, but they also do not bypass the blessing of human hands.

These various interactions between the human and the divine come to light in 14:8-18. And the confusion of human and divine initiatives is at the center of the narrative. The scene in Lystra begins with Paul’s healing of a man who could not walk. While preaching, Paul “look[s] at him intently and see[s] that he ha[s] faith to be healed” (v. 9).

This is an important detail.

Too often, we have applied the Bible’s narratives of healing miracles to our lives without careful consideration. We see only what was lacking in those Jesus healed, and we assume too quickly to know the meaning of wholeness. There are individuals worshipping in our communities with disabilities of various kinds, some are evident while others are largely invisible. In either case, their wholeness is not for us, for me to determine. For instance, we cannot simply assume that those who are visually impaired or those who are hearing impaired would find wholeness in the restoration of sight or hearing. It may be for some — perhaps even many — of our sisters and brothers that a significant component of their identity emerges from these so-called disabilities. They are not children of God despite their disabilities.

And yet Paul does heal this man. Why? Notice that he does so because the man has “faith to be healed,” meaning that he has a hope for this healing and a trust that God and God alone could provide it. This is the nature of faith in Acts: trust in a God who will keep God’s promises. So also this is the nature of God in Acts: a God who meets us and heals us.

Once healed, the crowd is stunned and in their jubilation assume that Paul and Barnabas are living embodiments of the gods Zeus and Hermes. So convinced of their divine status are the Lystrans that the priest of Zeus is on the verge of offering sacrifice to Paul, assuming he was Zeus himself! Of course, Paul and Barnabas are unaware of this since the hubbub is being conducted in a language they do not understand, a reminder that Pentecost does not resolve all linguistic confusions!

In response, Paul and Silas lament symbolically by tearing their clothes in grief and testify their common mortality with their audience. We are not gods whatsoever, they say, but the God who created everything you see is the one who empowered this miracle. Worship that God for God is the same God who has showered your crops, fed you, and caused your heart to abound with joy.

What do we make of these narratives of mission?

First, we might be reminded that Paul’s journeys were cross-cultural efforts, that his attempts to proclaim the gospel in new places meant crossing cultural boundaries that sometimes resulted in massive misunderstandings. Second, we might be reminded that God and God alone is the source of healing and life and salvation in Acts. We, God’s servants, carry God’s power to heal and to renew life in our hands and in our mouths when we are called by God to love our neighbors and proclaim the good news in word and deed. Third, we are reminded anew that the stories in Acts delight us with vibrant scenes. There is a comedic element to this scene of religious fervor and misunderstanding. In the delight this scene causes, we catch a memorable glimpse into God’s character. Last, we are reminded once again that Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts are not meant only to lead us to imitation. Certainly, we can retrace Paul’s steps by visiting key sites in Turkey today. But that is not the primary aim of this text! Instead, these encounters ought to inspire us to see the unexpected ways God will call us to serve God and neighbor in our everyday lives.