In the early centuries after his resurrection, Jesus’ kingdom grew remarkably. The writer of Acts – Luke – shows us the foundation for that spectacular growth. Key to his tale is Paul, an apostle not from the original twelve (1Co 15:8,9), whose task was to show that the church unites Jewish and Gentile believers (Ep 3:1-6). But this is not just history; Luke wrote to help Christians (Lk 1:1-4). The early church suffered so much opposition that Christians might wonder if it truly was God’s kingdom. Luke lays out the strategy, power and work of the Lord, to show that it is.
Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra (v8, southern Turkey today), having known trouble (Ac 13:45; 14:6). As Paul speaks publicly, a disabled man reacts well to the message, encouraging Paul to heal his inability to walk (v9) thus displaying the authority & power of Jesus’ kingdom (Ac 14:3). But when the man stands (v10), it triggers the wrong response from the crowd, who react in terms of their own religion (v11): a festival is launched to celebrate what looks to them like a public appearance of the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes (v12), and the local priest leads the way (v13).
So was Paul’s healing a mistake? Not necessarily, since such healings had been valuable in the past (Ac 3:8). Nonetheless, Paul probably does learn a lesson here which leads him to focus much more on the gospel message rather than the supernatural signs (1Co 1:22,23) – something which Jesus himself did at times (Lk 11:29). As Acts continues, miracles will appear less often.
Well, as the pagan fun develops, it takes time for Paul and Barnabas to grasp what’s happening since the folk are speaking a local language (v11). But once they do, they rip their clothes in a sign of grief and shout out to the crowd (v14). This is a bold decision. They could, so easily, have decided to go along with the festival for now, believing that in coming days they’d be able to say more about Jesus. As Christians we can feel such pressure upon us. We don’t want to upset others or lose the opportunity to speak, so – especially when the church is weak – we can be tempted to bring Jesus in alongside the ways of our society rather than confronting them; we can even feel that is more loving. But the gospel must challenge. From the beginning, Jesus built into it the core idea of a change of mind and of life (Lk 4:14-30); he calls us to repent (Mk 1:14,15). Christians, therefore, must refuse to give way to the pressure to conform with society.
Paul does just that. We know from his letters that he could be long-suffering with bad behaviour, patient in teaching and waiting for change (eg 1Co 3:1-3). But he didn’t pander to sin. So Paul and Barnabas say plainly that they are only men and not gods (v15)! Indeed, the gods are nothing – empty ideas – whereas they have come especially to speak of the true and living God. It’s true that that God has allowed the nations to wander in their own ways for a long time (v16). But even so, he’s not been silent and they should be aware of Him. How? Through the cycles of the world, the food they enjoy and the joys of life (v17). The fact is that they honour gods who respond with haphazard results at best, such that you might as well ignore them (as even some pagans admit). Yet, life on the earth continues to thrive in many ways, which has left a nagging question in the souls of men and women: if the gods don’t control the earth and our lives, who does?
That question is still relevant. We have very different stories of the universe in our modern world, built upon the discoveries of science. Yet none can explain where the stuff of the universe we study first came from. And none can explain why life matters so personally to us: why we are obsessed with exploring and enjoying the universe. So with all our greater knowledge, the question still nags in our soul: what or who is behind this thing we call life (Ec 3:9-11)?
But Paul’s challenge, sadly, isn’t really heard (v18). The miracle touches them but not the truth. So when trouble-makers arrive to blacken Paul’s name (v19), it all turns ugly very quickly. The Lord, however, is with Paul and he continues his mission (v20). The violent trouble in Lystra has not stopped a church from being born. Which is Luke’s lesson: Christians will clash with the culture around them, but that’s no reason to change who we are; we must remain faithful to Jesus.