Paul at Lystra (Part 2) – Engaging Culture?

SacrificePaul 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!

I have read a great deal on how the modern church ought to “engage culture” and use the elements of culture in order to share Jesus with the unsaved world.  For the most part I agree with in general, even if specific attempts to do “cultural engagement” are sometimes embarrassing  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).

Faced 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.

13 thoughts on “Paul at Lystra (Part 2) – Engaging Culture?

  1. Engaging a different culture is difficult as P. Long pointed out in his post. It was extremely difficult for Paul to get the people of Lystra not to sacrifice animals to Barnabas and himself. The town already had its ideas and beliefs of worshiping Zeus and any miracle must come from Zeus. They probably where not too pleased that Paul stopped them from sacrificing and insulted their God, because soon after they stoned Paul. In Costa Rica almost everyone was Catholic about 15 years back but that has slowly changed. The people are incredibly touchy feely and energetic in a way and so have really adopted the Pentecostal movement. They love to go into a church that blasts the music, dances, speaks in tongues and heals people. They don’t put a lot of importance in teaching what the Bible says but in what these services make them feel. My parents have had many people come and say that our church isn’t wild enough for them! While the people who have had a bad experience at a Pentecostal church will have nothing to do with any church. But it is still so important to reach out to everyone, because God moves people and opens their hearts to know Him!

  2. Paul was very bold to tell the people of Lystra that their god is nonexistent and encourage them to “turn from these worthless things to the living God” (Acts 14:15). Paul tells them like it is. “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” (“Paul at Lystra – Engaging Culture?” post). Cam had a good thought that they probably were not too happy that Paul and Barnabas told them to stop sacrificing animals to their god. Paul told them that their idols could not do anything for them. He tells them to turn from their false idols to the living God. Most people do not like change, and they do not like people they have never met before or heard of before telling them what to do. If it would have been me living in Lystra and sacrificing to my false god, I do not know if I would have been so willing to change either especially if it was a cultural tradition. It is so hard to encourage people who are walking one way to turn around and walk in a totally different direction. However, Paul wanted everyone to know the truth of the gospel and know that they could have a relationship with the one true God. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that people can turn from following idols to seeking after the Lord. No matter how difficult it is for Christians to spread the gospel to unbelievers, they should never give up sharing the truth of the gospel.

    • The people of Lystra always worshipped gods, and here comes two men who calls their gods false.
      Paul heals a man, so he must be a god.
      He talks harshly of their pagan ways, and makes them sound foolish. These were smart people with temples and statues of alabaster.

  3. It is also important that Paul and Barnabus immediately say, “…we are also men, of like nature with you…” (Acts 14:15). They first of all declare they are not gods, for God healed the cripple man, he was not healed through their own power. But this statement also draws a connection between Paul/Barnabus and the audience. They are showing they are both are in common (a sort of relationship), they both are only human, both are weak and imperfect, and both are in need of a living God, even though they are of a different culture. When witnessing with people, a powerful tool is connecting with the individual, building on a relationship, gaining trust.

    This story is also a good example of never giving up. P.Long blatantly says, “This speech does not have the desired effect.” Not all people will understand and turn to God the first time they hear the Gospel. I have heard before that the average non-believe has to hear the Gospel 7 times before they actually give their life to God. Even with Paul’s courage and powerful words these people did not refrain “from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:18). Just like Cam said, “God moves the people,” not us. It is our job to continuously spread the gospel.

  4. It is interesting to think about what we believe in. If you sit down and really think about it, I hope that what you believe is all based on what the Bible says about it. The reason we agree or disagree is based on what we believe. When I don’t know how to feel about something, I search my Bible for the answer.
    From everything I have learned about being a missionary, there needs to be a certain amount of understanding of the culture you are going to be immersed in. There is a line that needs to be drawn obviously though. Where does someone draw that line? Someone told me that it needs to be drawn where you will not engage in or endorse activities that are against the Bible in order to adapt to the culture. This is in order to have an effective ministry.
    Paul doesn’t adapt to the culture in the slightest. He doesn’t put up with the things he very clearly knows is wrong. Hillary and Anna made a good point in saying not to give up. Just because Paul doesn’t tolerate everything in the culture does not mean his ministry is ineffective. It takes longer but God changes hearts in His time.

    • People. Oddly enough, I am leading a discussion on application of scripture in a Greek class today where I point out that a particular text which talks about “sons” ought to be read as all children, not just the sons. Mea Culpa.

  5. Dealing with the idea of entering or preaching the Gospel to a culture that has a completely different worldview from which you are trying to confront them with is extremely difficult. The area of youth ministry constantly deals with this issue, and the cultures in which youth ministry is trying to engage are constantly changing. This however, does not mean that youth pastors or volunteers should give up on the mission but rather try that much harder.

    P Long states Paul’s view on culture engagement as “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.” (Acts Post) I think Paul has a very accurate interpretation of this idea of cultural engagement. There is time for public service, for taking care of the poor, for acts of ‘works and services’ but Paul is not in the mission to do this. He is by the grace of God the Apostle to the Gentiles to preach the good news. He is also addressing a fundamental issue that the ‘pagans’ are dealing with which is a form of idolatry. The pagans believe that Paul is a God, and in his efforts to communicate with this crowd, he doesn’t accept the title of God until he has time to show them different but rather he quickly refuses to be called a God of any kind and professes that there is only one God.

    Just like Schnabel states, “Paul declared that he was bringing the good news” ( 167). Paul was not there to be a servant but to spread the good news. That was his mission and when trying to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, modern culture may be more intrigued in trying to spread the Gospel.

  6. As a youth pastor it frusterates me when I read something like “Perhaps this is a hint that our best efforts to engage culture will encounter “great difficulty.” Now that being said, I do not disagree with the statement! Its only been about 8 months and I already understand how difficult it can be to connect with people engulfed in our American culture. The most encouraging thing to see in the Bible is that while Paul did not really try and join people during his initial missionary journey, Jesus certainly did! He joined people and went to where they were in order to minister to them! Paul did not join the culture because he had to show the people that Christianity was so much different than the culture! Where as today, we need to show people that becoming a Christian does not mean that you ignore culture. Its a fine line, but a fun one to walk across for sure!

  7. Regarding the post and “engaging in the culture,” I too think that Paul’s lack of engagement is rather interesting. I think the type of boldness that Paul displays in this passage is admirable. For example like the post talks about, Paul disgraces their Gods by calling them worthless to their face (Acts 14:15). This is directly opposite of engaging the culture at this time, because there was a crowd around Paul that believed in different Gods and were trying to worship Paul and Barnabas as Gods but Paul and Barnabas refused to accept this praise. Paul is directly countering their worship of these Gods telling them about the blessings that the true God offers (Acts 14:17). I think that it is so interesting that Paul could not convince them on his own to stop worshipping him, but the Jews came and won the crowd and convinced the crowd to instead stone them (Acts 14:19). I think this shows the social clout that the Jews had in their society. What I believe we can take from this incident with Paul, relating to engaging the culture, is that we should not change or modify our beliefs in order to get people to agree with us. That being said I do think we as Christians need to be accepting in order to reach the lost. I believe that we can use Paul’s reaction to the crowd as a starting point to not waiver on our message or beliefs. Furthermore, there are tactics that we can use like music and media to help us engage the culture that do not cause us to change our own beliefs or change the message.

  8. nick_mascorro made a good point when he said that we should not “modify our beliefs” simply to fit in with the surrounding culture, but we should also be “accepting” of those who disagree with us. I believe that Paul modeled this well by maintaining his belief in the One True God. At the same time, he built a relationship with the people by reminding them that he is only a mere mortal who has come to bring the Good News. (Acts 14:15) I am not sure what the proper contextualization model is but we can certainly apply Paul’s actions to our method of missions. In relation to cultural evangelization today, we need to be aware of a culture’s ideologies in order to adopt Paul’s actions to our own methodology of missions. Like Paul,this will help us to maintain our faith in the One True God while we seek to build relationships with the people to whom we are sent to preach the Good News.

  9. I liked the opportunity to read about Paul speaking to a completely non-Jewish audience. I found it interesting that Paul plainly presents the gospel before this pagan crowd without “watering” it down for them so that it mixes with their culture. I can only imagine that since this crowd worshiped Zeus with sacrifices they probably believed in many gods with Zeus as head and therefore the idea of one God was absurd. Paul does not even sugar-coat it but tells the crowd that their gods are worthless! This is probably very offensive to them! Also Paul tells them to turn away from these idols and this is pretty much telling them to turn away from their entire culture and view of life. However, Paul does present God as the creator and preserver of life in a way they can understand; he uses the illustration of the giving of rain and crops (Rom 1:18). I really liked this encounter of Paul and Barnabas experiencing difficulty in their attempts to share the gospel in a pagan setting. I think it is realistic that the crowd did not decided to turn from their way of life, but it also illustrates the importance of persevering and planting a seed.

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