Wednesday 26 June 2024

Paul 12




Acts 14:8-15

And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked: the same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked. And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, ‘The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.’ And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people. Which when the apostles, Barnabas, and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, 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.


The last time I preached on the Acts of the Apostles I mentioned that miracle of Paul’s as he preached in Lystra.  Lystra was a town in an area that today we would recognise as southern Turkey.  To place everything in context. we are talking today about a period of around AD 48-49, that accords with Paul’s first missionary journey, remembering again, how he and the apostle Barnabas had journeyed and preached through Cyprus, crossed over to the mainland of Asia Minor – that is Turkey, over the Taurus Mountains into Pisidian Antioch.  Proclaiming the gospel there – they were forced out of that city – to Iconium, where after a time, under real danger of death and persecution, they travelled 18 miles southwest to Lystra and once again, in spite of all that danger, they continued bravely to preach to that mostly pagan population – to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, to preach the Christian message so that there, it would be heard for the first time.


I think it is worthwhile, our hearing or re-hearing of that account of that miracle that accompanied the preaching of Paul did in Lystra as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles 14:7-10


And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked: the same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked.


And I think at this point having heard this story we just pause to reflect.  How we might wonder, how do such things come about?  And I think we have to realise, and I remind you once again, that book, that scripture, the Acts of the Apostles could quite easily also be known as the Acts of the Holy Spirit – and we could say this with some conviction – because from the very beginning of this account the Acts of the Apostles this account of the early church – those beginnings of the early Church were infused with a spirit-led ministry.  We know this because Jesus in his last appearance before his disciples had said:


And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised, but stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven. (Luke 24:9)


And we know that this promise came to pass on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, when, as the Bible tells us, ‘All the believers were gathered in one place – everyone there as it is recorded in that second chapter of Acts, everyone there was filled with the Holy Spirit – we might remember that Saul (before he became Paul), blinded on the road to Damascus, after his blinding encounter with Christ, three days later received the gift of the Holy Spirit at the hands of Ananias.  Thus, the church in those days was granted the powers – the signs and wonders – that accompanied the preaching of the apostles.  Signs that God was with them. And so now we come to our text, in the aftermath of that miracle.


And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, ‘The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.’ (11)


When we hear those words ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men’ it is quite apparent, that this incident did not take place in the Jewish synagogue because although Paul and Barnabas would always try to preach first in the Synagogues of each town or city they visited, in Lystra there was no synagogue. So, this preaching of Paul’s would have been at an open-air meeting, and this meeting by all accounts would have had a majority pagan audience.  These pagans in Lystra, in the audience would have no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, they in fact, in one form or another, very much worshipped the ancient Greek or Roman gods.  We could say that their theology was polytheistic, which means they believed that there were many gods and goddesses and quite a number of other lesser types of supernatural beings too.  The king of all these gods was known as Zeus and the Roman name for Zeus would be Jupiter. The same gods.


This man, then, crippled from birth – publicly, miraculously healed by God, through Paul and through his own faith! And then the text says – ‘and the people saw what Paul had done’ We should be clear about that – not that they heard what Paul had done, but that they saw what Paul had done. 


Think about that:  the impact of seeing it for themselves.  With a Jewish or Christian congregation, the conclusion would simply be that they had witnessed the operation of the Holy Spirit – but the pagans of the ancient world had no such reference, but they did know something about their own gods, the Greek or Roman gods – and this miracle had such an impact on them that they became excited – they lift up their voices – shouting that the gods had come down to then in the likeness of men (11) in human form.


You will recall that on this missionary journey, Paul was accompanied by Barnabas and that he was there when this miracle occurred. We know also, from other sources, that Paul was not particularly tall – and so he was not therefore seen, if you like, as the senior partner – that perception is rather given to Barnabas. It was Barnabas – who was seen on the occasion of this miracle as the king of the gods, Zeus, or Jupiter, because of his taller stature and his dignified or perhaps more noble countenance.  Paul on the other hand they called Hermes (or the Roman Mercury) – the god who is the messenger of the Gods.


Now we come to verse 13-15 which reads:


When the priest of Jupiter which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates and would have done sacrifice with the people which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul heard of, they rent their clothes and ran in among the people crying out and saying “Sirs, why do you do these things?


This was quite an unexpected development – and it seems at first that Paul and Barnabas did not realise what was happening. But in Lystra or just outside the town gates was a temple dedicated to Zeus/Jupiter, and the priest of that temple, like everyone else had assumed Paul and Barnabas were indeed the gods come down to earth and had brought garlands, wreaths of flowers, and bulls to offer as sacrifices.  Barnabas, who had been seen as Zeus, king of the gods, was likely to have been expected to lead them in worship.


Then we have that expression at verse fourteen: when Paul and Barnabas heard this, ‘they rent their clothes’ – it means that they tore their clothes and renting or tearing one’s clothes in the Jewish tradition is seen as a ritual response to blasphemy. So, for example, when on trial before the high priest, Jesus was asked if he was indeed the Son of God – Jesus agreed and said that he was – in response the high priest tore his robe to show his revulsion and said ‘Blasphemy!’ Matthew 26.


What gave impetus to this peculiar happening in Lystra was a tradition – a well-known story, and that story was, that a long time ago Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter/Mercury) had come down into Lystra dressed as beggars – seeking alms, food, and shelter, but there, none could they find.  The whole town turned their back on these gods dressed as two beggars and that would have been the end of it, but two old peasants, Philemon, and his wife Baucis – took pity on them and took them and showed them kind hospitality.  But in judgement the gods destroyed the rest of the population because of their callous indifference, whilst Philemon and Baucis received their reward.  They were made the guardians of a great and beautiful temple, and at the end of their human lives they became two tall, entwining, magnificent trees.  This traditional story was also recorded by the Roman poet Ovid (d. AD 17).


We can see perhaps why now; the presence of Paul and Barnabas should attract such attention. Particularly in view of such a public spectacle of the miracle healing of a crippled man.  Indeed, in the minds of the Lycaonians, what further proof would be required that Paul and Barnabas were in fact the gods Zeus and Hermes. These people knew the legend of Philemon and Baucis. This time they wished to make certain that they would not be condemned to die by the gods for their lack of hospitality.


There is a song that some of wish us might remember – written and sung by James Taylor (1976); it begins:


You can play the games

You can act the part

Though you know

It wasn’t written for you.


I am reminded of these words right now because, you know, potentially after all the stresses and strains, and the threats of death and violence in Antioch and Iconium – here in Lystra, using modern parlance we could say that Paul and Barnabas appeared to have gone from ‘zeroes to heroes.’  They found themselves holding sway over an adulating crowd, a crowd that had become convinced that Paul and Barnabas were divinity itself, even the priest from the local temple – the temple of Zeus, was worshiping them and preparing all the elements of a great celebration so that all due homage could be paid.


When we think about that sort of instant success, we might think how such success could be transformed in to a huge church congregation. How many times have congregations sat in churches, chapels and committee rooms and sought to uncover what it may take to restore their declining and dying numbers?  What is it we might ask that may restore the fortunes of the church?  How can we fill those empty seats with a large faithful and enthusiastic congregation?  You know what many of the churches say today?  They say to do this we must become part of the real world, move with the times – become relevant.  One response to our dying churches has been to employ media consultants, marketing experts or to embrace the secular agenda, or to embrace the current thing like climate emergency or the LGBT agenda – ‘calling our building ‘a chapel’ puts people off’, someone once said – let’s call it the One World Centre, let’s embrace ‘earth centred spirituality,’ paganism, atheism, and have ‘secular services’ and so on, to attract people, and all these ideas at some point have gained traction without much success.  And here we are in Lystra with Paul and Barnabas – it has got to be the media officer's dream, I mean, haven’t they got it made now?  It would surely be tempting, would it not, just to go along with this bonus, this unexpected turn of events, this sudden surge of popularity.


That’s why I mentioned those words of James Taylor ‘You can play the games, you can act the part, though you know it wasn’t written for you. This kind of stuff is just vanity, there’s a falsity to it, like all the rest of the religions of the world, an idolatry.


This kind of popularity, this desire for adulation, to fill the church at any price is a betrayal of the Christian faith, a betrayal of its churches that exist, that were built to glorify God.  It is not written for us to embrace the vanity of Godless atheism, the secular agenda, or the pagan gods. That is why Paul and Barnabas in this final verse of our text exclaim,


‘Sirs, why do you do these things?  We also are men of like persons with you, and preach unto you that you should turn from these vanities unto the living God which made heaven and earth and the sea and all things that are therein.


Turn from these vanities to the living God. Well, the language may be quaint, bit how true is that advice, how relevant today, that we too should turn from such vanities and turn to the living God. To turn from such vanities is to turn from the world, is to repent. The message of John the Baptist, the message of Jesus Christ remains today the same message, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.