A PLACE LIKE LYSTRA
April 30, 2006
I have been privileged to see in my life a number of examples of courage. I have seen people who were confronted with almost unspeakable bad news face the future with hope and with faith. I have seen sometimes people who were burdened by age or by illness or by disappointment bear up under it with the kind of dignity and strength that is so admirable. I have seen sometimes young people who dealt with the pressure to conform to a world which believes there is no standard but self resists that pressure to conform with honor that makes you admire their faithfulness to the Lord. Sometimes I have seen people engage in acts of humble service which other people never know about, but which takes the kind of submission to the Lord and love for other people that would be unimaginable to most of the world. And I have seen people at times give themselves in the interest of helping other people get to heaven in ways that displayed the courage either to go across the street and speak to a neighbor that maybe you would be afraid would reject you or to go across the sea into a land where there is not a believers already present to support one like you might find here.
Those examples of courage are always something to be thankful for, but even with that I don’t think I have ever seen the kind of courage that Paul and Barnabas showed at Lystra. I want to read the passage, and then we are going to go back and think through the implications of the kind of courage we find here. Lystra was the next to the last town that Paul and Barnabas went to on their first missionary journey somewhere about the year 58 AD. Lystra was a seemingly insignificant town. Some people believe that Paul and Barnabas went there in the first place only as an effort to try to get some refuge from danger they were facing. Lystra was something of a frontier town, a Roman colony which had been established apparently to be a defensive position against invaders. It was a place where there was a temple to Zeus, the so-called father of the gods, just stationed outside the city gates. And at this place, notice beginning in Acts 14:8 what happens.
“Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own way. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.’ Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
Now notice what this place like Lystra is. In this text, we have read first of them going to Lystra, having been driven out of Iconium by persecution. Lystra is 20-24 miles to the south of Iconium. When we get there, we might have expected them to kind of remain under the cloak of silence to avoid being treated like that anymore. But of all things, they go out here and speak the gospel and do a mighty work that is bound to draw the attention of the whole city and all over the territory. Then when that news gets out, people from Iconium and Antioch, more than 100 miles away, make their way to Lystra and have Paul stoned. Paul is dragged out of town like a dead man. When he raises up, he goes back into the town. The next day, instead of having learned his lesson by the way he has been mistreated, he gets up and goes on to Derbe, some 60 miles on to the east. Having made many disciples there, instead of going on through the Tarsus Mountains just a little ways ahead where he grew up, he goes back to Lystra again.
F.F. Bruce in commenting on this passage in his work on Acts said that we should not overlook what he calls the “pluck of the apostles in revisiting cities from which they had so lately been expelled with every circumstance of outrage and brutality.” Now in Arkansas, we didn’t use the word “pluck” except for pulling something off of a tree, so I looked it up. Do you know what he means by the “pluck” of the apostles? The word means “courageous. readiness to fight and continue against odds.” It is the courage of these men that draws your attention, or should, as a Christian.
Courage like that can only come from having a purpose that means more to you than yourself. Courage like that comes from having a purpose that you are committed to, that you believe has to be accomplished in life. In the year 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter in which he spoke of Meriwether Lewis who had died shortly before that. He said of Lewis that “this is a man of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction.” That sentence, of course, was turned into the title of a great book in recent years. But notice the courage that comes from a firmness and perseverance of purpose.
Someone wrote these little lines: “Courage isn’t a brilliant dash, a daring deed in a moment’s flash; it isn’t an instantaneous thing born of despair with a sudden spring; but it is something deep in the soul of man that is working always to serve some plan.” In this case, that courage was working to serve God’s plan. And God’s plan was that having given his Son for the sin of man and having raised him up for our justification and having seated him at his right hand to rule over his kingdom, that the news of that had to be taken to all the world, and that people had to hear of it. And that people who did hear of it, would be given life if they would believe it and obey it. That news is why Paul and Barnabas were out on this trip in the first place. That’s why they kept on doing what they did no matter how they were treated.
Now from their courage, we have to examine what we do when we come to a place like Lystra in our lives, a place when maybe we feel like we are under some sort of pressure or threat, a place when we have been through having someone not necessarily respond to our efforts to serve like we thought they should have, a place where it is unclear what will happen to us next or what lies just ahead or just down the road, a place when fear could defeat courage if it is allowed to do so. What do we do at a place like that in our lives?
There are at least three principles that come from this passage that can help us. The first principle for a place like Lystra is that no matter what, people should turn to the living God from whatever else has occupied the supreme place in their lives before. This poor man had been crippled from birth and not able to use his feet at all, but when Paul told him to get up, the Bible says he sprang up and began walking. That’s what it was that showed the power of God and that’s what it was that drew the people’s attention. Being uninformed of God himself, the God of heaven, they assumed that these two men were Zeus and Hermes, the Roman or Latin names would be different in the King James Version, for example, Jupiter and Mercury. But Zeus was thought to be the father of the gods, not the father of mankind, but the father of the gods, and Hermes was his messenger or his interpreter. He is the one usually pictured in mythology with wings on his feet to take him swiftly to bear the message. Maybe this means that Barnabas was the more imposing of the two physically, and that Paul was the one doing the speaking. But either way, the priest of Zeus brought oxen, and these oxen were decorated to be offered as sacrifices. Garlands would be put on their necks; their horns would be gilded in some ways. They would be sacrificed; their blood would be caught, and it would be poured on the alter to that god and then the animal would be eaten as a way of honoring or celebrating or communing with Zeus. Paul and Barnabas, of course, were mortified at that. That hadn’t come to promote the worship of these false gods, and they come out then and tear their cloaks as a sign of their anguish. Maybe these people speaking Iconium had to have some sort of a sign in order to know how urgent of a wrong this would be. This would be blasphemy. So Paul and Barnabas did not allow it to proceed.
Notice their reasoning. They say in verse 15 and following that “while we are only men like you are, the good news that we have brought is that you can and should turn from these vain things that are not real, that are made up by men that have no power to a living God.” We learn in I Thes. 1:9 that not only should people turn to this living God from these vain dead idols, but many did and we can today. Other things besides God do not have to take the preeminance in our lives. This living God is the god who has live in himself, the one god, the real god, who made everything, whether heaven, earth, land or sea. He is the source of it all. This great living God is the one who has allowed men to follow their choices and has allowed evil even to exist in this world, according to verse 16.
And yet, thirdly, this great god still is the one who sets limits and who holds people responsible and who, as said here “does not leave himself without witness.” One chapter earlier in Acts, when Paul and Barnabas had been at Antioch of Pos____, about 100 miles off to the west of Lystra, they had gone to a synagogue, and in that synagogue they had opened the scriptures and preached what God had said or done in the Old Testament. But here at Lystra they are not among people of the Jewish background at a synagogue. They are out by the gate where the priest of Zeus is about to offer a sacrifice to a pagan god. So they open up the book of nature. They talk to them in a language they understand. According to Romans 1:19-20, anybody can look at the things that are made, at the seasons of gladness and fruitfulness, and the things that God has given us that are so good and can understand something of his eternal power and of his divine nature – enough of it at least to be responsible in knowing this God. You and I, if our courage is to be renewed, have to understand there is a living God and that we should and can turn to him through Christ.
Secondly, notice that we learn here that people sometimes turn against those who are serving the living God. Isn’t it so odd that in one breath we can read here about them barely being able to restrain these folks who want to offer sacrifices to them as deity, and the next verse can tell us they have stoned yesterday’s god, as someone called him, and dragged him out of the city as dead. Here is the folly of living for human popularity and of pursuing religion based on human will and thinking. It is so changeable that it is destructive. It is so open to manipulation by the thoughts and desires of people that it is dangerous. They came from Antioch and Iconium. Remember, they have traveled over 100 miles to be here, and they persuaded the crowds that had wanted to offer the sacrifices. I don’t know how they argued. Maybe they said, “These guys embarrassed you yesterday when they didn’t accept your sacrifices. We are not surprised. They have caused trouble wherever they have been. We ran them out of Antioch; they have been run out of Iconium; they are just men who always are stirring up trouble. With your permission, we will get rid of them.” Stoning was the Jewish way of putting people to death, and they stoned Paul thinking they had done the job completely. I wonder if it entered Paul’s mind while that was happening what he had seen when he held the cloaks of those who stoned faithful Stephen to death. I do know from what I read otherwise that this stoning that may have looked like a disaster then, but it had a powerful meaning in the rest of Paul’s life and in his further ministry. What looked like an awful tragedy then, turned out to be something that made all the difference in God’s purpose. Remember that Paul writes to the Corinthians in II Cor. 11 that he had been stoned once. It was right here at Lystra.
Remember that when he is troubled by the Galatians (by the way, Galatians is written to the churches in this part of Asia Minor where Lystra was) that he wrote to them that he bore in his body the marks of Jesus. I wonder if he is talking about the scars from this type of stoning. And do you remember that there was a young disciple at Lystra named Timothy (Acts 16:1-2), and that when Paul writes to Timothy in II Timothy 1:3-4, he said, “I remember your tears.” I wonder if it could have had to do with what Timothy saw this day. He told Timothy, “God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and discipline and a sound mind.” (II Tim. 1:7) That he told Timothy, “You have seen my example in my persecutions like those I suffered at Lystra and Iconium and Antioch.” (II Tim. 3:11-12) Timothy became the friend and worker he was apparently partly because of this day. Can you see Paul dragged out here to a garbage dump, not buried like any honorable person would be, but left like a dead animal? And then, we hadn’t been told that there had been successes in what he had been teaching, but it says “that the disciples then gathered about him.” Can you imagine the emotions in their minds, what it must have been like, the heartbreak, the uncertainty, the fear? And then his eyes opened and he got up. What would it mean to that little group of disciples when he went back into the city that he had been dragged out of? There is Christian courage. It gets up one more time than it has been torn down. Then the next day, he went on. There is the key part about this. He went on (verse 20) with Barnabas to Derbe.
That kind of brings us to the third part of this. People can, not only turn to the living God, but people can turn into what God wants them to be. In verses 21-23, after they had made many disciples at Derbe, apparently without any persecution, Paul could have gone through the gap to his home country and rested awhile. But he turned around and went back to the very places that had mistreated him so badly. Notice what he was doing and why it was important to him. He was strengthening the souls of the disciples. He is still fulfilling the Great Commission. People who have been baptized for the forgiveness of their sins have to be taught to observe all things that the Lord has commanded them and do the work the Lord has given them. So he strengthens the souls of their disciples. I can see why disciples are going to need their souls strengthened. If you have to live in a place like Lystra which stones the servants of God, you can see why you would have to be strong. How did they strengthen them? First, by encouraging them to continue in the faith. Everybody always needs encouragement. To have courage in you, sometimes you have to be encouraged. Secondly, notice that they are reminded that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. For God’s purposes we are called not to a life of comfort and ease, but to endure difficulty. Paul’s own example would have been the best illustration of this point. And then third notice that he organizes them with the kind of leadership that they are going to need under the good shepherd to fulfill their commitment to the Lord. These people who live in Iconium, that region of Galatia (the word means rough translation – wolf country), to live in wolf country, you have to have a good shepherd, and you have to have shepherds who are doing what they have to under the leadership of a good shepherd. That is the place that these elders served. Notice that he appointed elders in every congregation. Where there were disciples, there was a congregation of the Lord’s people, and they were led and tended by the elders that Paul and Barnabas appointed with these churches’ help.
Courage is in this picture. We learn from the courage that we should turn to the living God, to be faithful even if the fickle turn against the service, and to remember that no matter what, we can turn into what God wants us to be. Maybe you are here this morning wanting to make a beginning. If they could do it at a place like Lystra, then you who hear the gospel and believe it can change your mind about living for self and begin living for God. You can be obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we can help you with that process, let it be known by coming right now while we stand and sing together.