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, although 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?

8 thoughts on “Paul at Lystra (Part 1)

  1. Today it seems like potential missionaries take so much time to prepare for the culture they are soon going to enter. From the time someone decides whether they are going to go overseas to another country it could take over two years before actually going. And throughout this time, they spend a lot of preparing and getting ready for the difficulties they might face. It doesn’t seem like Paul really prepares for the cities that he goes to. I know that he spend some time before going off on his first journey. But, his journey seems more led by the spirit then planned step by step. If he had any knowledge of Lystra before he got there, it doesn’t seem like he really plans for it in his speech. A lot of it was obviously impromptu as they didn’t expect the crowd the want to offer sacrifices to them (Acts 14:13). Having said that, his speech/sermon doesn’t show to much effort in contextualizing. In his previous sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch it is quite the opposite. He does things like, “The inclusion of personal names reminds the listeners not only of God’s specific intervention in Israel’s past” (Schnabel 159). He also knows where he is speaking, “When Paul speaks before Jewish listeners who regularly attend the synagogue services where Scripture is read and explained, he uses the techniques of the rabbis who explain Scripture with Scripture” (Schnabel 160). Paul was definitely well prepared for this setting because of his background. It’s possible Paul had not dealt to much with the culture in Lystra. His speech/sermon doesn’t expose anything about his intention to contextualize the gospel. You think he might want to use their belief in their gods in some sort. Kind of like how he does in Athens with the unknown god (Acts 17:23).

  2. While I don’t exactly have a firm grasp on what the clear definition of a model for contextualizing the gospel for a pagan world, I do think that Paul knew a thing or two about how to talk to these people. He brought the truth down to their level and didn’t talk to them as if he was above them…even though he could have and was definitely qualified to. He pleaded with them to turn from the ways of the false gods and fix their eyes on the living God who made the heavens and the earth. The God who could do miracles such as the one they had just witnessed. I think that his straight forward approach could be debated as to its usefulness today. Many people argue that we shouldn’t be so straight forward but ease into the truth so that others can see where we are coming from. I don’t know which way is better. Actually, I don’t know if one way is better. I do believe, however, that either way is better than no way and the fact that Paul tried and that he told these people the truth of the living God is an example worthy of following.

  3. I think that it’s admirable and courageous that Paul gets straight to the point. He does not mince words or try to ease his way into the topic. He blatantly states that their religion is wrong and that following the living God is the way to go. Now, I do not know if this approach is wise. Because this is the first pagan audience that Paul preaches to, it may be that he has no idea how to approach the subject of Christ. He grew up in the synagogues and learned to argue among Jews. No he is among a completely different religion altogether. If I were Paul, I wouldn’t know how to approach the subject. Nowadays, we know how to ease into the Gospel message when entering a completely different culture. Back then, Paul possibly did not know how to do it.

    In conclusion, I do not think that Paul’s sermon here is a good example of how to present the Gospel message. It’s possible that Luke included this story in the Bible because it shows what not to do, or that Paul was merely human like all of us. He made mistakes and wasn’t perfect in presenting the Gospel.

  4. I believe that Paul’s message to the people of Lystra has weight and presence to how we can share the gospel today. We have to understand that every situation is different and to generalize that every pagan unbeliever will react the same to the same presentation of the gospel is naive. When Paul and Barnabas are hailed as gods, i unfortunately think of the terrible Disney Movie, “The Road to Eldorado”. Paul’s reaction is quite the opposite however. The miracle that Paul performs to heal the man’s feet cannot be the go to when presenting the gospel to a new culture, but i believe his methods of pulling aspects of their culture to create a better and fuller idea of who God is a good example to the missionaries of today. You cannot simply create a new concept that no one has heard and expect the people to understand.

  5. Well the story of Ovid is definitely something that I would have expected from the Greco-Roman culture. Preaching to the Gentiles must have been an interesting command from God, considering that the beliefs of others had strayed so far from God even Israel was confused and didn’t know that they had murdered their Messiah. Speaking to these gentiles, Pagans, was a difficult task with the language barrier and even being filled with the Holy Spirit, they didn’t understand that Paul and Barnabas were speaking about the Messiah and not talking about Zeus. Thinking of ways to preach that Paul might be able to make them understand, confuses me because understanding and wisdom come from the Holy Spirit and if Paul had to dumb it down or preach in a way that was somehow different, I still think that as long as he was bringing God glory and it was in his plan, then they would understand it. I don’t think that Paul could have changed what he was saying and also that he shouldn’t have changed what he was saying. I do not think that we should base our preaching and reaching out to others on this passage. I guess you do not want to preach to someone who has just heard about Jesus, and you cant bible thump them. you pray that God gives you the words to say whenever His Gospel is being preached.I guess for different cultures you do change the context of what you say to match something that others would understand, so now I just talked myself out of not thinking that we should….o.k. I’m on the fence.

  6. The posts above have many great points. My opinion is that Paul could have prepared more for the crowd that he was speaking to because both him and Barnabas were confused, and when you are trying to preach to people, being confused is not a good state to be in. I think there is truth to both concepts that April is talking about. I think that Paul shouldn’t have changed what he said, but rather his approach. However, I agree with Scott on some of his ideas because you can’t prepare a perfect approach that will convince and speak the same to everyone. I think as we apply this to today, we have to understand that we are going to encounter situations when we are speaking to people who have different minds that will perceive what we say differently. With that said the argument can be made that we shouldn’t change what we say. I like the input that Fisher had about how this reminds us that Paul was not perfect, he was human, he even says this to try to convince these pagans (Acts 14:15). Often we get this idea that Paul couldn’t have made a mistake, he was flawless in his teaching. It’s true what Jon said, Paul could have prepared more, I don’t believe there is anything wrong about saying that. One observation that I have that could apply to today as well is Paul’s determination which we all know of. I like that even when these people were speaking a language that Paul didn’t understand and even when they were sacrificing to them, Paul didn’t just give up and say I don’t know what they are doing and I can’t speak to them (Acts 14:15-17). That is a concept that we can apply to our mission, that sometimes people are going to be confused, that doesn’t mean we give up.

  7. Paul shares a very convicting message with the people of Lystra. He tells them to stop worshiping their false idols and “turn to the living God” (Acts 14:15). Paul knew that God had given him a job to share the gospel with the Gentiles, and he was determined to do that no matter what the cost. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul was able to heal a crippled man. These people had never heard of the one true God. It would not have been unusual for them to think that Paul and Barnabas were their gods in human form. John mentioned that on Paul’s first missionary journey, he prepared for his sermons and had a game plan. When he got to the pagan city of Lystra, Paul probably did not expect them to start worshiping him. Paul needed to tell them who the one true God was right then because the message was relevant to their situation, and they were looking for something to worship. They were empty. Paul offered them God because God is the only one who could ever satisfy their desire. However, “These people are as unprepared for the gospel as could be imagined!” (“Paul in Lystra” post). Unfortunately, the people of Lystra did not receive Paul’s message well and were easily persuaded by the Jews of Antioch and Iconium to stone Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:19). When we are presenting the gospel to unbelievers, it is important that we state it clearly in a way that they will understand.

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