Paul at Lystra (Part 1)

Lystra was an important Roman colony, having been established by Augustus in 26 B.C. The location of the city was clearly established when an inscription was discovered in 1885 (including the full name of the city was Julia Felix Geminia Lustra.)  Among the many inscriptions associated with Lystra is a dedication to Zeus of a statue of Hermes.  There are other inscriptions which mention priests of Zeus and an altar dedicated to the “hearer of prayer,” presumably Zeus (Witherington, Acts, 422. ).  The local Zeus was known as Zeus Ampelites and was pictured as an elderly man with a beard, accompanied by Hermes, a young male assistant (The krater to the left depicts Zeus and Hermes in this way, althoug it dates to about 450 B.C.)  Witherington suggests that we have a hint of the relative ages of Barnabas (called Zeus here) and Paul; Barnabas was the elder, Paul was likely no more than 40 by this time.

Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet.  When he heals the man he creates a sensation, and a crowd forms claiming that the gods have come in human form. Paul is called Hermes, (or Mercurias in the Latin, KJV, the Greek is Hermes).  Hermes was the messenger of the gods, Paul is given this name because he was the chief spokesperson. Barnabas is called Zeus (or Jupiter, Latin, KJV), Zeus was the “father” of the gods.  Why does the crowd make the connection between Paul and Hermes?  There is a legend which may shed some light on this incident.

In Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.626ff there is a legend that Zeus and Hermes had visited the towns and villages of the region in human form, but did not receive any hospitality.  When they came to the home of the poor and elderly Baucis and Philemon they were invited in, the couple gave them the last of their food and the best comfort they could.  As Baucis prepared the meal, there was plenty of food and the wine kept “welling up of itself.”  The couple became greatly afraid because of the miracle, so the gods revealed themselves and told them that they were the only people to welcome them; they would be blessed while the whole region was destroyed.  The couple asked only to be priests in the temple of Zeus and that they die at the same time, so that neither had to see the tomb of the other.

Paul spoke Greek, but the crowd spoke in the Lycaonian language.  As a result, Paul and Barnabas do not know what is going on! The crowd swells and preparations for sacrifices are made by the Priest of Zeus.  The Temple of Zeus was just outside, the city, perhaps on the main road into the city.  Bulls and wreaths are brought for the sacrifices (the wreaths were flowery decorations for the bulls). Notice that in the Ahenobarbus altar relief (right, click to enlarge), pigs are shown.  Pigs were sacrifices to Ares / Mars, so it is unlikely a pig was in this procession. If there is any connection between this story and the legend from Ovid mentioned above, then it is quite likely that the crowd was not going to allow Zeus to visit them again without proper worship.

What is the point of this story in Acts?  As far as we know in Acts, this is the first time Paul has preached the gospel to an entirely pagan audience.  The miracle generates a crowd which thinks Paul is a god.  There are priests there as well as people about to honor Paul and Barnabas as a pagan god. This is not a comfortable synagogue where people are ready to discuss  what the scripture might say about the Christ.  These people are as unprepared for the gospel as could be imagined!  Paul’s sermon will therefore need to be much different than what we read in Acts 13.  Here, he must contextualize the gospel for a pagan world.

This is another opportunity  to think about applying the book of Acts – should Paul’s sermon in Acts 14 be used as a model for contextualizing the preaching of the Gospel today?

14 thoughts on “Paul at Lystra (Part 1)

  1. I’ve always thought it was crazy that the people in this town would assume that Paul and Barnabas were gods. I always thought Barnabas was younger than Paul and did not understand why they would think Barnabas was Zeus. I guess the people thought that they were gods because Paul healed a man, and those people must not have experienced any other healings. When I read this story, I think oh they think he’s a god just because he healed a man? But I have read the Bible and have read about other times when people were healed by God’s power. If I had not already experienced that, I would probably freak out like these people did, but I do not know if I would consider them gods. . .

  2. I guess I always thought that Paul was always the elder on the missionary journeys. At the time, the people must have been in shock that the God’s were coming in human form. At the same time, it must have been weird for Paul and Barnabas too! They had no idea what was going on. All of a sudden people were preparing sacrifices and Paul has to tell them that they are following false gods. So some people role into town, you think they are gods so you get ready for a huge celebration, then you find out that they are not gods and not only that, they are telling you that the gods you are worshiping are not even real.
    I think that the main reason this story is in the book is to demonstrate the fact that the Gospel is spreading. It is now reaching even pagan cities. We read this story and begin to understand that the message of the gospel is meant for all men, and Paul is doing what he is called to do and share it with them.

  3. I can’t help but wonder if this is a dramatic movement from signs and miracles to preaching. The signs and miracles seem to be a way of showing the Israelites that a messenger is from God. However, with a pagan crowd they were not used to that type of display. For them, they celebrated gods as people. One only has to look at the myths throughout Greece and Rome to see that gods were described in a very humanistic way. Because of this I think that Luke is showing that methodology of signs and miracles are going away. Christianity has officially left being an Jew only religion and has now gone into the world for all.

  4. I think this sermon is a perfect example of how we should approach sermons today. The major thing I see in this, and that I’ve learned in my preaching/public speaking experience is that you need to adapt your sermons/speeches to your audience. Paul doesn’t get all theological or refer to the Old Testament. He doesn’t even bring up Jesus and what he has done. It’s a great example of how we need to be preaching. You cannot preach to a people who have never even heard about Yaweh, and get all deep with them, giving them deep theology, and rushing their decision. You need to meet them where they’re at, but at the same time give them something that is going to challenge them…

    • I could not agree anymore Andrew. I feel as if sometimes when preaching some people are trying to go up and beyond most peoples knowledge or understanding of the bible. Not saying that this is a bad thing or that this person is “showing off” their knowledge, but I think sometimes we rush and automatically think that everyone understands what we may already know and by doing that i think it becomes very easy to push some people away.

  5. The question posed from this post was should we contextualize the Gospel based on what we read on Acts 14? Interesting question, In Lystra they believed in gods so when they saw Paul filled with the holy spirit doing a miracle they thought he was a God, and refer to what Shaun comment to get a bigger picture. So in today’s age if I did a miracle people would not refer to me as a god but probably as a magician or a fake. So contextualizing the Gospel today would mean what, this is a great story that should be true? cause there is no absolute truth, or would it look like Rob Bells new book, which has caused a huge controversy before anybody has read it.

  6. I believe that if we look at the scripture we shouldn’t use what happens in chapter 14 to teach the gospel today. At verse 18 it says that what Paul told them and everything didn’t stop them and they still wanted to perform sacrifices for them. They wanted to do this because they thought they were gods that came down in human form. Now if the people stopped and listened and changed then I would say that this would be a great thing to use, but the people still thought they were gods so nothing changed in their beliefs. Therefore it didn’t work.

  7. I agree with you Kyle. Paul did tell them to stop making sacrifices to them, but they did not. Since Paul told them to stop in the this verse and they did not listen, how much more will people listen to us in today’s society when we tell them to turn from their wicked ways.

  8. Reading about this story, I cannot help but be reminded of different instances in the Bible where God’s works are compared/contrasted with pagan gods and idols. We see in the story of Israel numerous times where the Israelites become spiritually weak-minded and replaced the true God who consistently revealed Himself to them with physical idols. So, when we get to this New Testament example it is no wonder that the true God of Israel must “compete” with these pagan gods. It seems to me that fallen human beings crave spirituality, but are more often than not subject to their own laziness. The citizens of Lystra take their ideas of the gods and without question or hesitation make two mere men to be part of their pagan belief system. I don’t find any reason why these people would necessarily be expected to assume that God was behind this miracle healing, but the simple assumption that the people do make is that anything supernatural must be the work of the gods they grew up with.

    A connection I want to make is that all people do this. Whether science-trusting atheists, pagans, or even Christians. If I were to witness a healing like this I would assume that it was the work of my God, because only my God can heal a person or give people like Paul or Barnabas the power to heal. But is this appropriate? Are we to assume that all spiritual things that even resemble Biblical accounts are of God. The people of Lystra were quick to really on their presuppositions and trust in their pagan Zeus and Hermes. I know people who assume they have the gift of healing because they think they healed their dog, but can we know this for certain. I know people who think that certain types of prayer languages are scriptural, but are they? I assume that when my pastor speaks and the sermon’s effect on me are positive that it was influenced by the Holy Spirit. Is that true? Or could Satan and our own evil ways distort our hearts and allow us to put our confidences in things that seem spiritually healthy, but really lead us further and further from God.

  9. It is kind of curios to me that Paul and Barnabas did not speak the language that the people they were preaching to did. This is sort of amusing, and I wonder what Paul and Silas must have been thinking when the people began to think they were gods that had showed up in human form. This is interesting that God can use the different language barriers to his advantage. I wonder what Paul and Barnabas were really thinking?

    • This is a local dialect, Greek was a “universal” trade language, by this is a Lyconian dialect. Think of missionaries who know Swahili, but local ethic groups have a tribal language.

  10. The story in acts 14 about Paul and Barnabas being called Gods is an important one for a few reasons. First, as P. Long said, “As far as we know in Acts, this is the first time Paul has preached the gospel to an entirely pagan audience.” This being their first time would result in some mishaps. No one knows exactly how to do something the first time and this could be called Paul and Barnabas’ trial run or lesson learned experience. They didn’t think about the fact that they would look supernatural beings doing miracles and their not taking into account the language barrier. This could be the reason for the story in acts, to show that even the greats needed to learn through mishaps. Second, the story reveals the struggle that Paul and Barnabas went through when they changed from synagogue preaching to missionary work.

  11. I think that it is so crazy to think that the people thought that Paul ans Barnabas were false gods. With all of the miricales that have been happening, you would think that they would have no problem believing that this was the work of God. On the other hand, they think that it is gods coming to human form. This is so shocking to me. Paul and Barnabas have been proclaiming Christ as Lord, but the people completley turn on them. What do you think is going through their minds? What do they think God is doing? Heis controlling everything that is happening. I wonder if Paul and Barnabas still had such a strong faith after all of the rejections and things that they had to go through. How are they going to convince the people otherwise?

  12. One small correction is needed. Lystra was not an important Roman colony. Its population has been estimated as only 5000. Paul and Barnabas went there to escape persecution in Iconium and there is no reason to suppose that it had any strategic importance for them. Lycaonians were considered rustic people. They spoke their own language/dialect so where hardly cosmopolitan. I think it would be better to describe Lystra as a backwater.

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