- Main Text: Acts 13:1-4; 14:8-18
- Accompanying text: Matthew 10:40-42
What this passage means to us
After God’s revelatory visions to Cornelius and Peter, there was a gradual yet fundamental shift in the New Testament church’s theological thinking. Just as, when we understand something afresh or for the first time it can lead to a change in our thinking or approach, so the news that “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:45) altered the trajectory of Christian teaching and outreach. Jewish Christians saw their mission as incorporating new believers, mainly Jews and proselytes, into the end-time restoration of the messianic faith of their fathers, whereas Gentile Christians would view their mission as a beginning of an international outreach to teach the whole world the good news of reconciliation through Christ. Of course, both groups shared a faith in Christ, the Messiah, and together they proclaimed Christ’s sufferings for us and the power of his resurrection. Both practised baptism and the laying on of hands to signify the reception of Holy Spirit. It’s important, as we consider the book of Acts and Paul’s ministry, to remember that “Early Christianity was a living organism, developing all the time; it cannot be frozen into two mutually exclusive positions” . After hearing Peter’s testimony about Cornelius, the “circumcised believers” dropped their objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life’ (Acts 11:2, 18). There’s a lesson here for us, that we should put aside any prejudices we may have, and that we should give thanks for God for everyone or anyone who comes to repentance. In Jesus all nations and races get included.
The church in Antioch, probably a mixture of Jews, proselytes and some Gentiles, was excited about spreading the gospel, and this culminated in their desire to send out faithful people to preach Christ crucified. When it came to the idea of worldwide mission, “it was Paul who became the catalytic factor. He was the one who provided the theological basis for the Torah-free self-definition of Gentile Christianity…through the ministry of Paul and Barnabas the Antioch church became a community with a concern for people they had never met — people living on Cyprus, the mainland of Asia Minor, and elsewhere. They decided to send missionaries there…and went ahead and commissioned their two most gifted and experienced leaders to go” . The Antioch Christians set an example for us today in the way that they participated wholeheartedly in the work of Christ. How excited are we about being among those who are sent with the gospel of peace? Do we get involved through personal, relational evangelism, or do we leave the message of Jesus mainly to others to proclaim?
Latin was the official language of Lystra, but most spoke the local Lyaconian. Greek, as the lingua franca of most of the Roman empire east of Italy, was also spoken as the language of education and commerce. In all probability Paul addressed the crowds in Greek. It’s of interest that Luke does not say that Paul spoke in the synagogue — perhaps there was no synagogue in this Anatolian outpost. Luke does not supply all the little details that we’d like to know. What we do know is that it all went badly wrong. While Paul preached, a lame man was healed, and the onlookers were very impressed. Paul, however, “did not convert or attempt to convert people by working miracles upon them. He did not attract people to Christianity by offering them healing. He did not heal on condition that they attended to his teaching. In this he was illustrating which guided the Christian church in her administration of charity throughout the early centuries of her history” . Having seen the healing of a lame man, the crowd assumed that Barnabas was Zeus, the king of their gods (was Barnabas more imposing in stature than Paul?), and that Paul was Hermes, the messenger and often the spokesman of the gods. It’s interesting to compare Paul’s approach in Lystra to his approach in Athens when he spoke on Mars Hill. Both Lystra and Athens were culturally similar, full of superstition and religious confusion. In Athens Paul begins his speech by engaging his audience with references to things that they recognized, and he goes on to quote one of their poets as he begins to proclaim Christ. That was not the case in Lystra. The priest of Zeus rushed to sacrifice bulls to appease these men whom they thought were gods in disguise. In their legends both Zeus and Hermes had appeared before as mortals and had become angry that no one had worshipped them. Could this be happening again? Paul’s response was to explain that their gods were worthless and they should turn to the true God. Paul seemed more prepared when he went to Athens. How prepared are we when we decide to take the gospel to others? Do we get to know them first and find ways to speak to them within their own culture?
There is much more to be said about what happened at Antioch in Syria and at Lystra. The Holy Spirit revealed himself in an active and personal way, as Luke indicates throughout the all of book of Acts. Also, there is the historicity of the settings described. In addition, there are implications for church polity and management.
Context and Story-line
Remarkably and unbeknown to the Jerusalem church some believers had gone to Antioch and preached the Gospel to the Greeks after the martyrdom of Stephen. Now that the church in Jerusalem were in a better position to receive and accept such news, they sent Barnabas to investigate what had happened and to receive the new believers. Barnabas was encouraged. “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:25-26). In the meantime, Jerusalem suffered a famine, and the Antioch believers, “each according to their ability” (Acts 11:29), sent Barnabas and Saul with gifts for the Jerusalem elders to distribute. In addition, Herod continued his persecution of the Jerusalem believers. “He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also” (Acts 12:2-3). Peter was rescued miraculously, and the proud and pompous Herod “was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to increase and spread” (Acts 12:23-24).
After Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch from Jerusalem, it is then that they, along with Simeon called Niger (traditionally linked to Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry the cross in Luke 23:26 and Mark 15:21 — if so, what a story he had to tell!), Lucius of Cyrene (perhaps one of those who first preached at Antioch – see Acts 11:20) and Manaen (perhaps a childhood friend or adopted brother of Herod Antipas, not of Herod Agrippa who had just died so horribly) are commissioned, following divine worship and fasting, by the Holy Spirit “for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). The Antioch prophets and teachers confirmed this mission through the laying on of hands, and they sent them off. Thereafter Luke refers to the disciples as “apostles”, meaning “those who are sent”. Saul and Barnabas proceeded to Cyprus, where it’s noted that Saul is “also called Paul” (Acts 13:9). From Cyprus they made their way to another town called Antioch, where Paul preached in the synagogue. As they were leaving, “the people invited them to speak further about these things” and some Jews were converted and urged Paul, Barnabas and their companions “to continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:42-43). On the following Sabbath almost the whole of the city gathered to hear Paul preach, but the Jewish leaders became jealous of Paul’s and Barnabas’ popularity, in a similar way to what happened when Jesus preached. Paul quoted Isaiah 49:6 and many Gentiles believed, but the leading Jews expelled Paul and Barnabas from the region. Paul and Barnabas then went to Iconium, where their teaching divided the city, and a conspiracy to stone them was discovered, whereupon they fled to Lystra and Derbe.
After Paul’s preaching in Lystra, when both he and Barnabas were identified mistakenly as Greek gods, some of the same Jewish leaders and synagogue rulers, who had stirred up the crowds against the apostles in Pisidian Antioch and in Iconium, arrived there and they won over the crowds. Paul was stoned and left for dead outside of the city. “But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe”, and they, wherever they went, continued to strengthen believers “to remain true to the faith” (Acts 14: 20, 22). Eventually they sailed back to Antioch, the capital of the province of Syria and the third city of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. This was the city “where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples” (Acts 14:26-28).
- Galatians 1:1-23
- Isaiah 49
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- David J Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New Yorkm USA: Orbis Books, 1991). 44.
- Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours? (Michigan, USA: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1962). 43.