Paul at Lystra (Part 2)

Paul and Barnabas finally realize what is going on they attempt to calm the crowd (verse 14-18).   Paul explains who they are and what God they represent.  This is an opportunity to see how Paul speaks to completely non-Jewish audience, in complete contrast to the synagogue sermon in chapter 13.  Later Paul speaks to a pagan crowd in Acts 17, but in that context the crowd is rather intellectual and philosophical.  In this case, Paul is addressing a group of average people, ones who can be described as real pagans since they worship Zeus with sacrifices.  It is unlikely that the Stoic and Epicureans on Mars Hill would have participated in this sort of thing!

When people discuss Mars Hill these days, it is usually in the context of preaching the gospel as Paul did in Acts 17.  We ought to engage culture and use the elements of culture in order to share Jesus with the unsaved world.  I agree, however, I am not sure that Paul would, based on this sermon to a crowd of pagans.  Paul is not seeker-sensitive, nor does he embrace their culture in order to preach the gospel, and in no way does Paul weaken the Gospel before this pagan crowd.

There are several things we need to see in this sermon.  For this list, I am following Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 164-6.

First, Paul states emphatically that the gods worshiped in Lystra are worthless (14:15). You have to see this scene in your mind in order to fully understand the impact of Paul’s statement that these gods are worthless.  There are priests standing right in front of him, about to sacrifice bulls to Zeus, and a large crowd of people are about to participate in that worship of Zeus.  Paul is not making this statement from a safe distance (from his academic office preparing a lecture, for example).  He is telling a priest of Zeus that Zeus is nothing at all.

Second, since these idols are worthless, the people of Lystra ought to turn away from them (14:15). This is culturally shattering. Schnabel points out that this means that the people of Lystra ought to no longer prayer to Tychos, the god of luck, before tossing the dice.  No more praying to Asclepius, the god of healing, when they are sick. No more praying to Artemis, the goddess of childbirth, for the protection of a mother and child before a birth.  The entire culture of the Greco-Roman world was integrated with the worship of gods, yet Paul says to turn away from them since they simply do not exist.

Third, if they turn from the worthless gods, they ought to turn to the living God. This is the demand of the Gospel, they must make a decision to worship the real God.

Fourth, that living God is the creator and preserver of life. Rather than point out the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible, Paul uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power.  In fact, this “general revelation” is God’s witness to the world, drawing the pagan nations to a knowledge of God (cf., Romans 1:18-20).

Face with a potentially hostile pagan crowd, Paul does not give up on the biblical story in this sermon.  He begins with God’s creation and provision.  He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own worldview, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them.)

This speech does not have the desired effect: the crowd still wanted to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas as gods.  It is only with “difficulty” that Paul is able to persuade the crowd to stop the sacrifices.  Perhaps this is a hint that out best efforts to engage culture will encounter “great difficulty.”  However, this is no reason to give up on that engagement.

14 thoughts on “Paul at Lystra (Part 2)

  1. In 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel…” Is this just one of the situations where a more dogmatic-type approach is necessary because an intellectual comparison of some sort will clearly have no effect, and Paul knows it? Paul clearly behaves differently in different situations, and it seems like this type of approach may just be part of his versatility, based on the necessity of the situation. It makes me wonder though…who is the real Paul?

  2. First of all, I do not think I could ever do what Paul did here. I could not imagine standing up against this crowd of avid pagan god worshipers. This wasn’t something small. They did not just say they believed in these gods, but they religiously followed, worshiped and sacrificed to them. It was a part of their everyday life as Schnabel mentions. This is a great example of the troubles faced when meshing into a different culture. I think you are correct P. Long in saying that even through our “best efforts” we are still going to face difficult situations and circumstances once you start dealing with another culture. Especially when you are trying to show them something different from their beliefs and flat out telling them they are wrong. Paul encountered these difficulties and faced many similar situations all throughout his missionary journeys.

  3. I have to agree that Paul does not appear to shy away from the potential offensiveness of the Gospel by which his life was radically transformed. I also agree with Joe that Paul has a gift of versatility, indeed a quality possessed by Paul that God intended to put to specific use when He “set [Paul] apart from [his] mother’s womb and called [him] by His grace…” But responding to Joe, I think that you, P.Long, answered this question saying, “Paul is not seeker-sensitive, nor does he embrace their culture in order to preach the gospel, and in no way does Paul weaken the Gospel before this pagan crowd.” It is too bad that Luke doesn’t record more of Paul’s speeches to the pagan crowds, however, I suggest that we can assume that each speech would include similar accounts of Paul’s testimony as well as common themes of the Gospel message, all delivered with a boldness of authority and sureness that Paul would have undoubtedly held. So who is Paul? Confident, passionate, fearless, an evangelist – all because of grace.

    • I have to agree with much of what has already been said here. It is truly amazing that Paul would make such a bold series of statements – demands really – to a crowd of people who have proven themselves idolotrous zealots. It is just astounding the courage that it would ahve taken to say those things in that situation. To share the gospel with a group for whom the reality is that if he succeeded in turning the hearts of a significant minority, the majority would be all the more enraged and would therefore be so much more likely do do bodily harm to Paul. I really don’t understand and can barely even imagine the sort of conviction and courage that he must have had at this time as well as several other times throughout his ministry. It brings new meaning to his words in Philippians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

  4. I have to say that when people talk about Mars Hill these days, they are not talking about Paul’s sermons:) Rob Bell has made sure that is not the case.

    Joe, you have posed a great question. Who is the real Paul? I think God set him apart because he was so many things, Roman citizen, Pharisee, devout Jew, Christian antagonist. He has a unique perspective that none of the other apostles could claim. I think that is what allows him to write what he did in 1 Corinthians. He was also singularly focused on making disciples of Christ. He was into theology, but as he says in 1 Corinthians “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” It is too bad none of us take this perspective. I know in my life I am myself to try and save some….I don’t try to be anything but. I think I need to look at what I am doing to win those to Christ.

  5. “Rob Bell has made sure that is not the case.” True, but there are alot of Mars Hill ministries in the world that are not at all related to the local GR church. My friend Kevin Crouse runs a cafe in Australia under that name, and it is not related to the Grand Rapids Church at all.

  6. Concerning who the real Paul is, and knowing that we’ve strayed off topic a bit, I’d like to interject that I, in particular, have quite the hard time “being all things to all men”. I become uncomfortable very easily. This isn’t because of nerves or stress, but flat out (and straight up) uncomfortability. This isn’t even to say that I’m such a “good Chrisian” that I can sense sin and hate it, but more that I realize how hurtful and impure I can be–and have been. So, for Paul, some of his evangelistic strategy would have to be rooted in forgiving and forgetting who he was before his encounter with Christ. Now, I’m not talking about his “persecution” of the church or even his pharisaical heritage, but maybe his “becming all things to all men” meant understanding and having empathy towards their misconceptions about their past.

  7. If it were me standing before a crowd of that situation, worshipers of other gods I know for a fact I would not be able to confront them to their faces of be able to speak against them, I would for sure loose my cool. If I was faced with God instructing me to speak against those in worship of false idols I would not have the strength or the persistence of Paul. I think how he changes throughout time and shows his changes and his new found Passion for showing God’s grace and forgiveness to those who seek other idols, and other worldly things. I think Paul’s way of speaking, starting with creation and going on through the story till his death was very risky concerning the crowd, but Paul shows his faith and diligence to his calling of spreading the gospel.

  8. Like most everyone else who has commented, I too think that it is pretty amazing how bold Paul was, and firmly believe that he was courageous in everything he did. For instance, referring to what Caleb is talking about, even though Paul was put in a very uncomfortable situation, he still spoke what he knew he had to and preached to people who belived basically the opposite of what he was trying to tell them. I know that not many people in the world today would do what Paul did. Putting myself in his situation, honestly I do not know if I could do that. It took complete courage from Paul to do everything he did, and I think we all need to gain a little more courage in order to do BIG things for the Lord.

  9. Paul certainly does know how to stand out. He tells the crowd that the way that they have been living all their lives is wrong and that now they must put their faith in a God that they have never really heard of. However, as christians are we not called to stand out from those around us so that others might see that differance and wonder at the cause of it. I think that so many people beat around the bush so that they don’t affend anyone with the good news but it is just that, good news. Paul didn’t waist anytime getting to his point and although the crowd made things tough on him he did as the spirit led him and God blessed him for it. This should be a lesson to us as fellow followers of Christ to be bold for Christ and stand out from the mold.

  10. I want to address the point of talking about the Mars Hill sermon. Yes there is something to be said about the culturally relevant theme that it carries but I want to echo the theme that is presented here. We see that Paul does not change the Gospel message at all. In fact, we see that he challenges the people right in their faces as a few people have already pointed out as being quite the bold feat. Paul doesn’t even take the time to get to build relationships let alone get to know the people he is addressing. He simply walks into the assembly and tells them how it is. This is only done through the power and confidence that comes from God. Paul understands this and has resigned himself to God’s will for his life. Paul sees every situation as one that could potentially end his life because of his boldness for Christ. If this is Paul’s attitude, should this not be ours as well? In a culture that seems to value Paul’s work more than the rest of the apostles and first century believers, should we not also preach and live out this example? Instead, our postmodern culture seems to want to focus on the relational and often times the theological rather than the lifestyle.

  11. I must say that Paul is doing something pretty incredible. This is something that not too many people can honestly say they would do if given the chance. Paul is confronting the pagan god worshipers. this is something that takes a lot of gut and I myself would be scared to do it. I am reminded of Jeremiah in the temple when he confronted the idol worshipers. That and social justice was something the prophets dealt with on very high levels in the Old Testament. Just like Jeremiah, Paul is facing some pretty harsh consequences. Paul is not the kind of guy who is going to beat around the bush like some people do. He is straight up telling it like it is and is standing very boldy.

  12. I just wonder how this speech fits into the context of passages like Romans 10:9,”That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…or the other way around, how Romans 10:9 would relate to this passage..Many people these days have a problem when Jesus is left out of the equation..
    It also seems that Paul was forced into giving this speech, that although it does seem culturally sensitive in the sense that he used terms they could relate to and understand…but i would not say that he was very worried about gaining their respect and forming relationships with the people first like many missionaries do today…im not sure if that is a personality thing and has been seen repeatedly on many of his missionary stops or if its because they are trying to worship him and he feels forced to ” blurt it out “and set them straight.

  13. This is one of the boldest moves i have veer heard of in my life and is nothing short of amazing. It is hard enough for most of us to even speak to random people, let alone walk into a slaughter party and bash someones fake gods and basically tell them everything that they have ever believed in is wrong. I am very impressed with these last two postings and hope that there are more like this to come.

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