Acts 14:1-28

The Power to Persevere

© 2000, J.W. Carter
Scripture quotes from KJV

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Chapter 13 saw the return of Saul and Barnabas from Jerusalem following the Passover when Peter was miraculously released from Herod’s prison. Upon arrival back at Antioch, the Holy Spirit led the congregation to send Saul and Barnabas out from their fellowship with the task of taking the gospel to other cities around the region. This initiated their first missionary journdy. They traveled to Seleucia where they took a ship to the island of Cyprus, Barnabas’ home. They preached at Salamis and Paphos. In Paphos they defeated the Jewish sorcerer, Bar-Jesus who tried to disuade the governor against his interest in the gospel. Saul, now using the Greek form of his name, Paul, led the governor to Christ, ensuring a relatively peaceful environment for the gospel to be spread throughout Cyprus. From there they sailed North to the Pamphylia mainland at Perga where John-Mark left them to return home. They went on to Antioch of Pisidia where they shared the gospel with power, only to be chased out by the unbelieving Jews. They left, shaking the dust from their shoes. Chapter 14 records the completion of their first missionary journey.

Acts 14:1.

And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.

The journey would have been difficult, as they traveled through the mountainous region between Antioch of Picidia and Iconium, a major city that was in a region at an altitude of nearly 4000 feet. Sitting in a mountain pass, it was a major trade center. We can see that the missionaries’ pattern was to travel to the major cities and enter immediately into the Jewish synagogues and there start proclaiming the message of the Messiah. This pattern of evangelism would be uniquely Paul’s. Though he testifies to God’s calling to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles, Paul followed God’s plan of presenting himself first to the children of Abraham, giving them an opportunity to come to Him. The first-century Jews had the background in the Law and the Prophets that would point to Jesus as the Messiah, and those Jews who believed found that their faith was completed by that knowledge. However, those Jews who did not believe interpreted this doctrine as cultic and a danger to Judaism. The pattern would continue when those Jews would raise up resistance to Paul’s message, and Paul would only then turn to the Gentiles where he was usually received much more positively.

The testimony of Paul and Barnabus was so effective in Iconium that many people believed, including both Jews and Gentiles.

Acts 14:2-7.

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren. 3Long time therefore abode they speaking boldly in the Lord, which gave testimony unto the word of his grace, and granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4But the multitude of the city was divided: and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles. 5And 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, 6They were ware of it, and fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about: 7And there they preached the gospel.

What was taking place in the city while Paul and Barnabas were sharing the gospel message? The city was beginning to polarize behind the two views of those who believed their teaching and those who actively rejected it. At the same time, Paul and Barnabas continued to speak boldly. When confronted with opposition they did not stray from their course. The passage states that as they stayed faithful, the Lord confirmed their message by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. We could easily speculate that such events included demonstrations of the Holy Spirit’s power through gifts of prophesy and healing. The fervent response of the believers continued as the number of believers grew.

The unbelieving Jews could not combat this threat on their own, so they enlisted Gentiles to work with them to orchestrate the sequence of events that could lead to the stoning of Paul and Barnabas. It is interesting to note that these Jews who were bound by their own tradition to refrain from dealings with Gentiles did not hesitate to take advantage of their presence with it was in their own interest. This further illustrates the hypocrisy of the unbelieving Jews, a hypocrisy that was neutralized in the hearts of those Jews who came to faith in God through Jesus. There is little wonder that the Jewish Christians were so zealous in their faith that the church and the city would become divided.

When Paul and Barnabas learned of the plot to have them stoned, they fled to the area of Lystra and Derbe, about 20 miles to the southeast, and there continued to preach the gospel message. Why did Paul and Barnabas flee the persecution rather than take a stand against the unbelieving Jews? Were they acting out of cowardice or out of wisdom? There is a lesson to be learned here that flies in the face of current cultural mores. If Paul and Barnabas had stayed and taken a stand, they would have increased the level of conflict, enflamed the animosity between the two factions, and most likely, would have been killed. Though God has described the persecution that those who stand for the faith would receive, His purpose is the spread of the gospel, not the waging of a war against unbelievers. The war is not with unbelievers: it is with the principalities and powers of darkness that lead natural men into sin (Ephesians 6:12). To wage war against sinful man is to focus in the wrong place, and by so doing, only the purpose of evil would be served. We are called to love one another, and even though Paul demonstrated anger towards the leaders of the conflict in Antioch of Pisidia, that anger was tempered by his love of the lost, a love that brought that anger under control.

Faced with the prospects of conflict, Paul and Barnabas knew that they had accomplished all they could in Iconium and it was now time to get out before the circumstances would fall under control of evil men. There were more places where God would have the gospel shared.

We can learn from this experience that when we experience opposition to the gospel message we should not assert ourselves in offense against the persecutors, but rather in the defense of the gospel of God, and when such defense can no longer hold ground, it is prudent and wise to retreat, taking the gospel message elsewhere, "kicking the dust off of our shoes" in the process.

Acts 14:8-10.

And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked: 9The same heard Paul speak: who stedfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, 10Said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked.

We have just seen that the Lord blessed the testimony of Paul and Barnabas with gifts of miraculous signs and wonders. It is easy to speculate that there were numerous instances of healing that took place during their missionary journey. This event would take on a unique significance, becoming the most noteworthy supernatural event of the trip, not because of the work of God in the life of the man, but in the response of the people. According to scripture, this in Lystra was lame from birth. Therefore, the event is obviously miraculous due to one simple fact: when Paul told the man to stand up, the man jumped up and began walking. How much strength should the man’s legs have had if he had never walked? Even those who have been struck lame by an injury and do not walk for relatively short periods often require long periods of rehabilitation before they can walk again. Muscles lose their strength after disuse and tend to atrophy quickly. This man’s legs would have been completely weakened, and short of a miracle, there is no way the man could even stand up, much less jump up. Furthermore, having never walked, he would need considerable rehabilitation to develop the interrelated skills of balance and coordination that would be necessary to walk. It takes a newborn baby approximately a year to develop this skill. As a result of this simple fact, the people who witnessed the event were astonished.

Acts 14:11-13.

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. 12And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. 13Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people.

The people had never seen such a miraculous event, though they may have heard of them. It is evident that the healing of the lame man was intended more for the individual man than for the crowd (vs. 9). Paul had not yet brought the people to the point of understanding the gospel, and when seeing this miracle, they drew on their own belief systems in order to explain the event. Their leaders started to proclaim that the gods had come to visit them, assigning Paul as the god Hermes, and Barnabas as the god Zeus. They had certainly never met the gods (since, of course, they were legendary fables) and inflamed this event into a pagan celebration. Even the priest of Zeus saw this as an opportunity to get into the limelight. He dressed sacrificial bulls and brought them to the city so that they could be sacrificed to Paul and Barnabas.

This event serves to illustrate just how much the lost world needs to hear the gospel. All men know of God, have seen Him in creation, and are without excuse, unable to claim that they are not aware that God exists (Romans 1). In their ignorance men have created elaborate religions that were designed to address that knowledge. However, no system of religion brings man to God. All religions preserve the sinful nature of man that separates them eternally from God. It was God’s plan to reveal himself, bringing Himself to man through Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. It is through faith in God through Jesus Christ, and only by God’s grace that we are saved. Christianity, at its foundation, is not a religion: it is a faith. It is only when people add requirements to the gospel message that it then becomes a religion, and many Christians have done so quite effectively. When Christianity becomes a religion its followers may act in a way that is very similar to the people of Lystra. The sacrifice of bulls is replaced with pomp and circumstance, ancestor and god worship is replaced with saint worship, ascetism is replaced by false humility. Paul saw the error of the people as an excellent object lesson from which to teach them the truth of the gospel.

Acts 14:14-18.

Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, 15And 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: 16Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. 17Nevertheless 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. 18And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them.

What did the apostles do first? They tore their clothes. This may sound like a strange thing to do, but had a purpose in their culture. The rending of clothes was a traditional expression of great sorrow and grief. Unlike the clothing that we wear, much of a Jewish man’s clothing was ceremonial in nature. Tradition had defined so much of their culture that each part of their clothing had a religious purpose. Consequently, it was not difficult to pick a Jewish man out of a crowd. The appearance of their ceremonial clothes had not changed much over the centuries. To tear these clothes was to testify to the tearing of the fabric of their faith. The rent clothing could no longer be worn in the Tabernacle or Synagogue. The restoration of the clothing would require their replacement by new garments. IN many ways this tearing of clothes is a metaphor for the challenge to their faith that they are experiencing in their sorrow.

This ceremonial rending certainly did not last long, as Paul and Barnabas ran out into the crowd and asked, "Why are you doing this?" From this context they proclaimed that they were not gods, but men, and they had come to turn them from these worthless expressions. However, we do not see a multitude of people coming to Christ. Instead we see that it was all that Paul could do to keep them from offering sacrifices to them.

The people had seen a miracle, and still, all they could see was the miracle. No rational argument would dissuade them from their sinful expressions of religion. Their belief systems were so entrenched that their hearts were hardened to the Holy Spirit, and no great work was possible among them. Likewise we live in a era where the population is hardened to the Holy Spirit and performing a great work in today’s society is challenging.

Acts 14:19.

And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead.

Those who had planned the stoning of Paul and Barnabas in Iconium were joined by some from Antioch and came to Lystra to find them. The confusion created by Paul and Barnabas was all they needed to incite enough of the people to organize them into a mob. Though Paul and Barnabas had broken no laws, the mob stoned Paul, dragged him out of the city limits, and left him for dead.

Up to this point in his ministry, Paul had experienced opposition and persecution. However, this was the most violent persecution he had known. He must have been reminded by the words of the Angel who told him that he would suffer for Christ. He had caused great suffering among the Christian believers prior to his conversion, and now he was experiencing the same treatment at the hands of the religious community of which he was a part.

Acts 14:20-21a.

Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. 21And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, …

Those who stoned Paul left him for dead, and the disciples gathered around him. Was his recovery miraculous? Certainly the mob was violent in the stoning, and when Paul fell under the stones, their anger was vindicated. Paul may have been struck unconscious, or may have wisely feinted when the stoning started. Or, Paul may have been miraculously revived. It is clear that when the disciples stood around to mourn, he got up and went back with them into the city to spend the night. He had a short time with them to continue to teach and encourage them. The next day they left for Derbe, another city just a day’s travel to the southwest. With the antagonists on their way back to Iconium and Antioch Pisidia, Paul was free to preach the gospel in Derbe and many people came to faith in the Lord.

Acts 14:21b-25.

… they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, 22Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. 23And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. 24And after they had passed throughout Pisidia, they came to Pamphylia. 25And when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down into Attalia:

Though the scripture does not specifically state that a church was started in Derbe, the context of the next few verses implies that one had. After leaving Derbe, Paul and Barnabas returned to the churches that they had started in Iconium and Antioch Pisidia. Without a doubt they recounted the experiences of persecution that they endured under the hands of the Jewish leaders in Antioch and Iconium. This would encourage the people of the church when they would come under similar persecution as they continued the evangelism of the area. To that purpose, Paul and Barnabas worked with the churches to identify leaders who would be appointed as elders, and with much prayer and fasting, they established the churches and placed their trust in those leaders. After this they returned south to the coast at Perga where they had entered the region and where John-Mark had left them. During this visit to Perga they stayed long enough to preach to gospel to the people there. Rather than jumping on a ship to return to Antioch of Syria from where they started, they felt the Spirit’s call to go to the city of Attalia, a few miles west of Perga where they would preach the gospel in yet another place before returning home.

Acts 14:26-28.

And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. 27And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. 28And there they abode long time with the disciples.

The return trip to Antioch of Syria ends the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. Certainly the people of the church were excited to see their return, and we can only imagine the smiles, the hugs, and the words of encouragement that were shared by all. The church must have been spell-bound as Paul and Barnabas recounted their experiences, particularly the conversion of the Proconsul of Cyprus, and the blinding of his Jewish sorcerer. His statement that he had taken the Greek form of his name, Paul, must have sent a spirit of astonishment through the crowd. Their recounting of the stoning at Iconium would produce a range of emotions in the congregation. However, more significant than all of these experience was the testimony of the opening of the region to the message of the Gospel of Christ with churches established at several cities, cities that Paul and Barnabas would greatly desire to return to in the future to continue to share in the joy of their experiences and to encourage them as they had done here in Antioch.

We are unsure of how long Paul and Barnabas stayed in the church in Antioch, stated only as a "long time." The people in the church in Antioch willingly gave up their leaders to the mission field and were blessed by having them return with reports of the tremendous work of the Holy Spirit everywhere they went. Now they would have their leaders back home for a while. The church in Antioch would be strengthened, becoming the most solid church in the first century. The zeal for missions expressed in Antioch would continue as they evangelized the region and would send Paul out two more times as an itinerant missionary.

How does this experience of Paul and Barnabas relate to our lives today? The gospel message has not changed, and the numbers of people who need to hear the gospel are still beyond our ability to reach. Consequently, we have just as much a responsibility to share the message as Paul and Barnabas had. When we do so we can expect rejection. However, it is not us who are rejected, but the gospel message. Therefore, the conflict is not between ourselves and the hearers of the word. When we face rejection we can move on to more fertile soil. This responsibility to share Christ is given to all Christians, not just a few selected leaders or full-time missionaries. All Christians are to be salt and light to a dark and decaying world. We are called to a faith that includes a commitment to Christ. A cliché states, "Jesus is Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all." As Christians grow in their faith, they should grow in their commitment to follow Christ in obedience, and part of the command that we have been given is to make disciples (Matt. 28:18ff). If we are faithful to that call, we will see great works done by the Holy Spirit in our own lives and in the lives of other people. The mission task is great, and working together, Christians can continue the work to its completion until Jesus comes.