November 16, 2014

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV. The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   

                

Subtopic A: The First Missionary Journey (Acts 13, 14)  

                          

                                                                            

Lesson: IV.A.5: Lystra: A Lame Man Healed & the

Reaction Part 3 (14:8-20a)

 

Part 1: A Lame Man Healed (8-10)

Part 2: Paul and Barnabas Paid Homage (11-13)

Part 3: Paul and Barnabas Dismayed (14-18)

Part 4: Paul and Barnabas Rejected (19-20a)

                                                   

 

Scripture (Acts 14:14-18; KJV) Part 3

14 Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out,

15 And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein:

16 Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.

17 Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.

18 And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them.

 

Introduction

Paul’s sermon in Lystra is interesting because of the particular framework of circumstances within which it is set. Paul had healed a lame man. There was nothing unusual about that, for wherever the Gospel went there were similar signs of God’s power to restore the minds and bodies of the people who heard it. The unusual thing in this case was the response of the people. When they saw Paul heal the lame man they thought the gods had come down to earth. That excited the crowd and they promptly decided to worship them; the priests brought cattle to sacrifice and the people paid homage to Paul and Barnabas.

 

 

Commentary

14 Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out,

At first Barnabas and Paul did not realize what the crowd was up to, because they didn’t understand the Lycaonian language; but it didn’t take long until the two apostles were fully aware of what was taking place—they wanted to worship them as gods. They were not only startled and amazed that these people want to worship them, but they are completely shocked, so they rushed into the crowd, tearing apart their garments and shouting, “We are human beings like you are (v. 15)!” You will remember that Peter had to say the same thing to Cornelius when Cornelius bowed down to worship him. The tearing of one’s clothes is a gesture found elsewhere in the Bible. It could dramatize a state of mourning (Genesis 37:29, 34), express extreme distress (Joshua 7:6), or protest a perceived blasphemy (Mark 14:63). Here the gesture expressed ardent protest and was designed to put a stop to the intended sacrifice. How easy it would have been to accept this worship and try to use the honor as a basis for teaching the people the truth, but that is not the way God’s true servants minister: “THEREFORE SEEING WE HAVE THIS MINISTRY, AS WE HAVE RECEIVED MERCY, WE FAINT NOT; BUT HAVE RENOUNCED THE HIDDEN THINGS OF DISHONESTY, NOT WALKING IN CRAFTINESS, NOR HANDLING THE WORD OF GOD DECEITFULLY; BUT BY MANIFESTATION OF THE TRUTH COMMENDING OURSELVES TO EVERY MAN'S CONSCIENCE IN THE SIGHT OF GOD” (2 CORINTHIANS 4:1, 2; also see 1 Thessalonians 2:1-5). Paul and Barnabas opposed what they were doing and boldly told the people that the gods of Lystra were “vanities[1] (v. 15).”

 

Certainly none of us would bow down to worship any man. A Christian is not to be so awed and submissive that he gets down to lick the boots of anyone. Unfortunately, even in Christian work we find some people who want others to bow to them. How tragic that is.

 

 

15 And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein:

 “We also are men of like passions (feelings) with you,” they shouted. They were not about to be a part of such a blasphemous act. Herod Antipas had himself been given homage as a god, and he faired none to well for failing to deny it (Acts 12:22, 23). It seems to be human nature to want gods that can be seen and touched, gods in the likeness of men. “Holy men” in every age yield to the temptation to be honored and adored. Not so with Paul and Barnabas. They had the natural unaffected humility of all great men. The thought that ignorant people might be so misled as to take them for gods was so disgusting to them that before they said anything else, they made it unmistakably clear that they were human beings, no less and certainly no more. Ministers should follow the example of the apostles and take warning from Herod.

 

One of the greatest dangers to which people in public life (actors and actresses, star athletes and politicians, entertainers and the very wealthy and influential) are exposed is the adulation of people whose minds are too thin to think deeply and who like to think that their heroes are gods. Most men in such positions know the emptiness of the flattery, but at the same time enjoy it enough to accept it and finally lose the ability to thrust it from them as a dangerous and poisonous thing. It is the religion of hero worship. It takes important things and exalts them to the place of God, whereas the Christian religion is the service of the God who emptied Himself so that He might become like one of us.

 

Once they had gotten the crowd’s attention, they explained their protest in the form of a minisermon (vs. 15-18). It is the first sermon in Acts to a purely pagan group, which believed in many gods, and had no knowledge whatever of the God of Christians and Jews. Because the crowd was pagan and had no knowledge of the Old Testament, Paul adjusted his message to fit the audience. By contrast, the first of Paul’s messages demonstrated how he preached to those well acquainted with the Old Testament. In Lystra, the apostles had to start at the very beginning, not with the coming of Christ but with the basic theological assumption of monotheism—that there is one God: “HEAR, O ISRAEL: THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE” (DEUTERONOMY 6:4). As such the sermon has its parallel in Paul’s address to the Areopagus[2] (Acts 17:22-31), and in many ways the address to the Athenians is the best commentary on the sermon at Lystra. The text reads almost as if the sermon was delivered by both apostles, but it is probably a fair assumption that Paul was the spokesman on this occasion as well: “BARNABAS THEY CALLED ZEUS, AND PAUL THEY CALLED HERMES BECAUSE HE WAS THE CHIEF SPEAKER” (ACTS 14:12).

 

Paul’s introduction had to do with the vanity of their worship. Any religion is pretty empty that would venerate men as gods. The pagan polytheism is vanity, futility, emptiness, worthlessness, idolatrous worship of gods who were nongods (Jeremiah 2:5; Romans 1:21-23). Paul exhorted them to abandon this worship and turn to the one true and living God, the source of all that truly lives. This was the main theme of the sermon—the “living God”; one of the most glorious and distinctive of all the names of God.

 

First, He is creator of all life, all that dwells on earth and in the seas and in the skies. Paul was perhaps quoting from Psalm 146:6, but it is in any event the threefold division of creation familiar from the Old Testament: “FOR IN SIX DAYS THE LORD MADE THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH, THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM. . . .” (EXODUS 20:11a; see also Acts 4:24; 17:24). Paul’s second point deals with God’s patience and mercy. In former generations God allowed the Gentiles to go their own way (v. 16). The implication is that then their deeds were done in ignorance and to that extent they were not held accountable for them: “IN THE PAST GOD OVERLOOKED SUCH IGNORANCE, BUT NOW HE COMMANDS ALL PEOPLE EVERYWHERE TO REPENT” (ACTS 17:30a). Then they had had no revelation; now they did. Then they had not known the true God. Now Paul was revealing Him to them. Yet even in the past God had not left Himself without a witness. He had revealed Himself in His works of natural providence[3]. There was not one spot on the face of the earth, according to Paul, where God has not left some sign of His presence.

 

Paul said nothing which any good Jew might not have said. The reason for it is obvious. The people who hailed Paul and Barnabas as gods had no real knowledge of God. Their idea of God was a childlike idea. The thing that impressed them most was the sight of two men who did something that they could not do. In their minds the only explanation was that these two men were gods, and they were prepared to put them on pedestals for public veneration and worship. The man who could do the most tricks was to their way of thinking the most godlike. It was the unusual and extraordinary which was the proof of God’s power.

 

16 Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.

Paul’s message was not based on the Old Testament, because this was a pagan Gentile audience. Had he started immediately to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be like preaching on “The Lord is my shepherd” to people who have never seen a sheep. He started, therefore, with the witness of God in creation (v. 15; also see Acts 17:22). He made it clear that there is but one God who is the living God, the giving God, and the forgiving God. And He has been patient with the sinning nations (see Acts 17:30); because of their ignorance, He has not judged them for their sins as they deserve. The implication is that now, when they can no longer plead ignorance, their only hope is in repentance: “AND THE TIMES OF THIS IGNORANCE GOD WINKED AT; BUT NOW COMMANDETH ALL MEN EVERY WHERE TO REPENT” (ACTS 17:30); and Romans 3:25, “WHOM GOD HATH SET FORTH TO BE A PROPITIATION THROUGH FAITH IN HIS BLOOD, TO DECLARE HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS THAT ARE PAST, THROUGH THE FORBEARANCE OF GOD.” This verse has also been translated, “THIS WAS FOR THE PURPOSE OF SHOWING GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS, BECAUSE IN HIS DIVINE PATIENCE AND MERCY HE HAD DISREGARDED PREVIOUS SINS.”

 

Some interpret verse 16 to mean that God will not judge the heathen who lived before the Apostolic Age. However, verse 16 must be taken with verse 17. Up to the time of the church, God gave no direct revelations to the “nations” (that is, “Gentiles”) so they were responsible only for their reactions to the general revelation discernable in Creation (see Romans 1:18-20).

 

 

17 Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.

This is Paul’s final point. God had been sending rain from heaven and causing the crops to flourish. Fruitful harvests had brought plenty of food to nourish the body and cheer the soul. Such ideas of divine providence would not have been strange to the ears of the Lystrans. They were often expressed by pagan writers in speaking of the benevolence of the gods. What was new to them was Paul’s message of the one God—that all the benevolence of nature came from the one and only God who was Himself the source of all creation. He is attempting to turn their attention to the living god who is the Creator. The rains and the seasons; the sun and the stars; food and the joy of life—these are the signs of God’s goodness. He wants to draw them away from their heathen, pagan idols and the mythology of the Greeks by telling them about the God who loves them and the Savior who died for them.

 

It has often been argued that Paul drew opposite conclusions from the argument from natural providence in the Lystran sermon as compared to Romans 1:18-25. That is true, but it is equally true that the two are in no way contradictory. The basic premise is identical in both: God has revealed Himself in His works and in creation. The contexts and hence the application of the premise are radically different in the two instances. In the speech at Lystra as well as the speech on the Areopagus (see Acts 17:24-28), Paul used the argument from creation to build bridges, to establish a point of identification with his pagan listeners. While they may never have heard of his God before, they had seen Him—in His providential works of nature. In Romans 1:18-25 Paul was seeking to establish humanities responsibility before a just God. The Gentiles could not claim that they had no responsibility on the grounds that they had received no revelation. They had received revelation in God’s providential works of creation and had perverted that revelation by worshipping nature itself, exchanging the Creator for the creation. The Gentiles were thus without excuse: “FOR SINCE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD GOD'S INVISIBLE QUALITIES—HIS ETERNAL POWER AND DIVINE NATURE—HAVE BEEN CLEARLY SEEN, BEING UNDERSTOOD FROM WHAT HAS BEEN MADE, SO THAT MEN ARE WITHOUT EXCUSE” (ROMANS 1:20). We simply do not know how Paul would have moved to establish the Lystrans’ need to repent had he went on the discus repentance and judgment. His sermon was not completed at Lystra. The Areopagus’ speech gives an idea of how he would have proceeded. There the call to repentance is closely linked to the Gentile idolatry (see Acts 17:29), which is precisely the argument of Romans 1:18-25).

 

The expression “filling our hearts with food and gladness” is a figurative way of saying that in providing “food” for their bodily needs, “God” filled their “hearts with” the “gladness” that comes from the enjoyment of “food.”

 

 

18 And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them.

Evidently Paul and Barnabas were cut short in their witness. It is anything but a complete exposition of the Gospel. Paul never got beyond the basic monotheistic message of one God. The heart of the Christian message from the beginning until now is what God has done in Christ. And yet in this sermon there is no mention of Christ at all—no Crucifixion, no Resurrection. Luke was well aware of its incompleteness. Verse 18 indicates that the sermon was cut off. The crowd was still intent on sacrificing to the apostles, so impressed had they been by the healing of the lame man. Even with his brief sermon on God, Paul could scarcely restrain them. The time in Lystra, however, was not over. There would be occasions in the future to introduce them to Christ. Just how he would have moved on to speak of Christ to a pagan Gentile group we will see in the Areopagus sermon of Chapter 17. It is, however, interesting to speculate on how he would have been treated if he had accepted the honor of divinity which the people were eager to bestow upon him. And it is to his everlasting credit that he had both the wits and the grace to see clearly the vanity of any temporary advantage that such an honor might have given him, and to walk steadily in the footsteps of his Lord and Master who set aside His divine entitlements so that He might taste human life even to its dregs and die the death of man, even the death of the Cross.

 

The message had its desired result. The people reluctantly desisted from their intention of sacrificing to these servants of the Lord.

 

 


[1] Something worthless, trivial, or pointless.

[2] The Areopagus or Mars Hill is a bare marble hill next to the Acropolis in Athens. It is especially popular with travelers for its connections with a speech made there by Paul the Apostle. The Areopagus, like most city-state institutions, continued to function in Roman times, and it was then that the Apostle Paul delivered his famous speech about the identity of "the Unknown God." (see Acts 17). Also the Supreme tribunal of ancient Athens was called “The Areopagus.” It was named for the Areopagus (“Ares' Hill”), where it met. It began as the king's council and had broad judicial powers. Its prestige fluctuated from the mid-6th to the mid-4th century BC, after which its power revived and continued under Roman domination, when it reacquired extensive administrative duties.

[3] God, in His omniscience directing nature, the universe, and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence.

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