Monday 22 January 2024

Paul 10



And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully and to stone them.  They were ware of it, and fled into Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia and unto the region that lieth round about:  And there they preached the Gospel. (Acts 14:5-7)

One of the things I have noticed in life is that knowledge or information can be difficult to remember, even stories can be. One of the most basic methods to help us remember is of course to make a list. Take for example, the stories of Paul’s life as described in the Acts of the Apostle’s. It is a long, complicated story and much of it is understated. In other words, there are details of his story we simply don’t have and there are some details available from other sources, not in the Bible, and there are things we can also surmise.  If we have a basic frame work, it can help us to remember the main points of Paul’s story. I am not going to give you a big list this but it might be helpful to you to remind you, as we go along, that so far, on Paul’s first missionary journey we have followed him from Antioch in Syria, sailing to Cyprus, and then from Cyprus he sailed to Asia Minor, (now known as Turkey) and there he travelled to Antioch Pisidia and from there to Iconium. That is as far as we have got.

Let’s turn that into a list of places Paul and Barnabas visited after leaving the church in Antioch, Syria.

1). Cyprus

2). Antioch (Asia Minor: Modern day Turkey)

3). Iconium (Asia Minor: Modern day Turkey)

Now, after Paul and Barnabas left Antioch, after they were expelled and facing persecution, they ‘shook off the dust of their feet’ as the Bible puts it, and they travelled on some 80 – 90 miles, west to Iconium.

In writing this sermon it occurred to me that, heroic as Paula and Barnabas no doubt were, they may not have made all their journeys by foot. Why I say this is because there is nothing in the New Testament that refers to their specific mode of travel. 

When we think about Paul, we do not have to think too deeply to recognise that Paul an extremely intelligent, shrewd, cultured and educated man, which he certainly was, would naturally use the existing available modes of transport as they were at that time to travel the distances that he did. 

Both he and Barnabas and whoever else was travelling in their entourage would have to a certain degree to be self-reliant, as far as possible, but they also relied on local hospitality and of course they would have relied on their supporters wherever they could find them, Preparation for travel, travel plans and security would be just as important then as they are today. 

At first, I wondered if they might use camels, if they Paul and Barnabas might travel by camel but I didn’t know, so I checked it on the internet -   The answer is that no one really knows.  It is a question of some debate.  The Jews, as you know, have their purity laws, and according to the Old Testament, the camel is an unclean animal.  According to the book of Leviticus (11 – 4):

‘… the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you’

However, I have also read that there might have been a cleansing ritual, that may have allowed Jewish travellers to ride camels – this is by no means certain.  In any case, there is a tradition for example that Paul was riding a horse on his famous journey to Damascus, I would say that he probably was, but that is only a guess. 

Cyprus, Antioch and now Iconium. We don’t know exactly how long Paul spent in Iconium, after he and Barnabas left Antioch but it was a relatively significant amount of time, as we know.

But the story moves on now, and you will recall how we have already reflected on the division that Paul’s gospel message had created in Iconium and so we are told:

And there was an assault made both of the Gentiles and also of the Jews with their rulers to use them despitefully and to stone them. (14:5)

So, we already know that Paul and Barnabas, as their preaching divided opinion in the city, we already know that they were facing an increasingly volatile situation.  Now as a student of the Bible, I am often obliged to use commentaries and other sources of information to help to bring detail to the stories of the Bible that I must preach.  One such very famous writer of such commentaries was the late William Barclay and so I’ve handed over to him, to his work, a description of the situation facing Saul and Barnabas at that time. Barclay wrote:

As usual they began in the Synagogue and as usual they had good success; but the jealous Jews stirred up the mob and once again Paul and Barnabas had to move on.  It has to be noted that Paul and Barnabas were more and more taking their lives in their hands.  What was proposed in Iconium was nothing other than a lynching.  The further on Paul and Barnabas went the further they got from civilisation.  In the more civilised cities, their lives at least were safe because Rome kept order and a lynching would have been speedily punished; but now, out in the wilds, Paul and Barnabas are to be ever under the threat of mob violence from the excitable Phrygian crowds stirred up by the Jews.  Whatever else these two men were, they were brave men.  It always takes courage to be a Christian because it always takes courage to take a way that’s different from the crowd.’

Now before coming to Iconium both men, as you know, were in Pisidian Antioch, and as I’ve already said, on leaving they ‘shook off the dust of their feet’ it was a sign of rejecting those who had rejected them,

So we can be in no doubt that the persecution that came to Paul and Barnabas in Antioch would be more than a gentle cautionary letter from the town council.  Raising up persecution against others looks a lot uglier than that, and one you would do well to escape from such a situation; relatively unscathed.  In Iconium however, the intended nature of this kind of persecution seems to be more explicit:

And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully and to stone them (15; 6)

What can we say about this, other than to say ‘it was a close-run thing.’  The attempt to lynch and to murder was already underway when news of the impending attack reached Paul and Barnabas. We don’t need to labour this point, other than to comment on the unity of the forces that were attempting to move in for the kill.  We could say also, that the instigators were all agreed on what might be termed, the A-B-C policy: Anything But Christian.

The disparate forces of evil coming together on this one unifying A-B-C idea.  You know that this Anything but Christian policy is increasingly prevalent today in the 21st century.  It’s not that we Christians have a persecution complex, that somehow, we just think that the world ‘has it in for us’ – it’s just that it happens to be true.  When Christ sent his apostles out to preach, we can read in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 10 the words of advice he gave to his disciples:

Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves. (16)

In the following verse we see the united forces of opposition of the Jews, the kings and the powers of this world and the gentiles. the pagans:

But beware of men; for they will deliver you up to the councils and they will scourge you in their synagogues; (17)

But ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the gentiles. (18)

And finally, as we think of Paul and Barnabas facing the hostile mob and their departure from Iconium, again, we can consider these words of Jesus, his advice to his apostles in a hostile world.

But when they persecute you in their city, flee ye into another; for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the son of Man be come. (10:23)

So, there we have it – ‘when they persecute you in their city,' said Jesus 'flee ye unto another.’

It is obvious from this text that Christians are not to go out and seek martyrdom just for the sake of it, but as our Lord implies, that rather, we are to act prudently. Remembering also those words, of Jesus, that we should be, ‘Wise as the serpent and harmless as doves.’  It is also clear that there are occasions when we will have no choice but to lay down our lives for Christ’s sake, for our faith and for all that we believe.  But Saul and Barnabas acted wisely when they were informed that thugs and killers were already committed to ‘use them despitefully and to stone them,’ and as stated in our text:

They were aware of it, and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth about.

I think as we consider the flight of Paul and Barnabas from Iconium there is one detail that we must not overlook and that is this - that stoning, as it is known, was a Jewish method of execution and thus we can see from that the persecution, the intended execution of Paul and Barnabas had been planned and instigated by the Jewish leaders, it was then that stirred up the gentiles and the civic leaders in Iconium

Perhaps the best-known story of stoning in the bible is the story of Jesus and the woman who was about to be stoned to death for adultery – its recorded in the Gospel of John (8: 1-11) and we have the unforgettable words of Jesus who said to the would-be killers:

‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.’

Jesus saved her from death by stoning, this ancient killing method is also known as lapidation.  By its very nature this lapidation this stoning is a brutal method of execution and it would take the victim or the offender anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours to die.

According to Jewish tradition (Sanhedrin Ch 6 Mishnah 4) the offender was pushed off a cliff or a precipice – no more than about 12 feet high – he would be pushed by the hips so that he fell face first onto the rocks below.  He would then be turned on his back, and if he was still alive a huge rock would be dropped on his chest.  If he was still alive, then the crowd would pelt him with stones until he died. 

Once, Jesus preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, when an angry crowd tried to kill him in the same way.

And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way. (Luke 4:28-30)

Perhaps I digress, but at least we should be in no doubt concerning the prevalent or potential undercurrent of violence that preachers of the early church would have to face.  So, Paul and Barnabas prudently decided to leave Iconium. It was indeed a wise decision. We can also say that Paul and Barnabas did: ‘flee into Lystra and Derbe but they did not let the fear of their experience drive them underground. As we know, they were now in even more dangerous and lawless surroundings than they previously had been, but undeterred, they continued where they left off in Antioch and Iconium, they continued preaching the gospel.

There are two sayings that come to mind when we think of Saul and Barnabas and their fleeing Iconium, the first saying is that ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’ and the second is that, ‘A good general knows how to retreat as well as how to advance.’ The story of Paul and Barnabas and the early Christians is not a story of defeat, but rather quite the opposite and as Paul's story in the Acts of the Apostles continues, we will continue to see examples of his outstanding courage. Indeed, churches were established in the towns or cities from where Paul preached and from where he suffered persecution and expulsion, but he returned to visit those his churches established in these places to teach and to encourage. The Christian story is not a story of defeat but rather a story of victory and triumph. How could it be otherwise with a leader like Paul? There is a tradition that goes right back to the second century, of a man, named Onesimus, who lived in Iconium. who set out to meet Paul as he got near the city. He gave a description of Paul and it is written down like this:

And he saw Paul approaching, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, bad-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, full of grace, for at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of angel.

Let us give thanks to God for raising up such leaders as Paul and may continue to find his work a blessing and an inspiration to us.


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