Paul and the Pagans

Paul’s mission to the Galatia brought him into contact with people who were not only Gentiles, but “pagans” from the perspective of the Jews of Judea.  When we read the book of Acts, all the Gentiles described prior to Lystra (with the exception of Sergius Paulus) are “God Fearing Gentiles” like Cornelius, a man who was already living a Jewish-like life both morally and religiously.  But when Paul arrives in Lystra, he encounters Gentiles who are so unlike Cornelius it is difficult to find ways to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul heals a man in Lystra who was crippled in the feet.  This miracle in intentionally parallel to Peter’s healing in Acts 3, although the results are much different!  In both cases, the man is crippled from birth (3:2, 14:8), in both cases the man responds to his healing by “leaping” (3:6, 14:9), and in both cases the verb “look intently” is used (13:4, 14:9).  While these seem like common enough vocabulary for such a healing, these words are only used in these two stories in Acts, indicating Luke’s intention that we read these two miracles stories together.

Paul in Lystra ash_ashmHowever, the setting of the two miracles could not be more different.  In Acts 3, the miracle takes place in the temple courts, Paul is in a Gentile town which is more likely to believe he is Hermes incarnate than a representative of the Hebrew God!  When Paul was among Jews in Iconium he did many miracles and saw great success.  The working of a miracle among the Gentiles of Lystra is counter-productive and results in Paul being stone and left for dead.

There is only the briefest hint at the sort of “sermon” Paul might have preached to this crowd.  This is unfortunate, since this is the first time in Acts that Paul addresses a pagan audience.  Often Paul’s speech in Acts 17 at Mars Hill is set up as an example of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentile world, rarely is this speech in Acts 14.

Paul states that there is a living God, as opposed to the worthless idols that never show their power. Like Acts 17, Paul does not allude to the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Rather, he uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power.  This might be called “general revelation,” since the crowd would neither know about the God of the Hebrew Bible, nor would they care what he did for the Jews.

But Paul is not giving up on the biblical story at all 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 world view, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them).

But notice that Paul more or less attacks the gods of Lystra: they are worthless things.  This is even more powerful when you realize that the priests of Zeus have brought out bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas.  Paul could very well be pointing at these prepared sacrifices when he says, “worthless idols.”  The noun used here (μάταιος) means that these idols and their sacrifices “lack  truth” and it is pointless to worship them because they are not true at all!

This does not sound very emergent to me. . .how can this brief sermon of Paul be used as a model for contemporary evangelism?  Should we directly attack another world view as “worthless”?

13 thoughts on “Paul and the Pagans

  1. I could see Paul being very frustrated with these people. Not only because of their beliefs, but because they are holding Paul up to something he does not want to be. Calling the other beliefs worthless may be an account of Paul actually getting angry. Especially if they were going to sacrifice an animal to him. I could see Paul throwing a little temper tantrum and then getting chaced out of the town with Barnabus.

  2. We live in a culture that stresses “tolerance” to the extreme. The issue with this is that tolerance has come to mean accepting everyone else’s beliefs as truth. Tolerating other beliefs is a very important aspect of contemporary evangelism, but at some point the goal of evangelism must be to create a change of that person’s beliefs. The frustration I find with evangelism is that trying to get someone else to believe what you believe is quite frowned upon due to what society calls being “tolerant.”
    Using Paul’s example in Acts 14, I cannot imagine any situation in which I could tell someone that their beliefs are “worthless,” and it would be received well. In fact, if I attempted to do so, I would probably be labeled ignorant and elitist, and I could hardly blame anyone for labeling me as such. What I do think we can take from Paul’s sermon is one of humility and service. Paul showed compassion and served the crippled man by healing him. He then showed humility by giving credit to God. The people of Lystra were worshiping him as a god, and he directed their attention to the one true God.

  3. I think that Paul’s time on Lystra actually provides a great outline for how evangelism can be done today. Paul’s first step was to reach out with love and compassion. Next, he tells them that what they are relying on cannot save them. Finally, Paul closes by describing God and inviting the people to turn to Him. Ultimately, Paul provides a sound example of well-rounded evangelism that we would do well to follow today.

    I also do not see Paul acting out of line in any way when he calls out the Lystrian peoples’ idolatry. When witnessing to a polytheistic culture there is always the concern that the people will simply add God to their pantheon. In order to prevent this, Paul needed to make it very clear that the Roman gods could not save anyone. The message of Christ would have been ineffective unless Paul could convince them of the truth of monotheism (Polhill, 95). Paul attempts to do this by describing the idols as “lack[ing] truth.” He was not so much insulting their way of life as revealing their faulty belief system. In the same way, Christians are in error when they try to convince people to believe in God without making it clear that Christ is the only source of salvation (Acts 4:12).

  4. I think what Paul did in preaching the truth in saying Yahweh is the only living God is awesome and is what we should not stray from today. With saying another world view is worthless is a very strong thing too say in today’s world but we cannot take away the power of the Truth. we are to proclaiming the truth. I really think that Paul did not say this to tare down them but he knew the time and place to say this. We can see this in Acts 17 when Paul talks about the unknown god and talks relates this to Yahweh. He dose not just go on rants for no reason but uses the doors that open to him. In today’s world, it is hard to say these things to people especially when we live in a world where it is ok to believe in whatever you want but there are doors the open and that is when people well be willing to listen a lot more and I think this is what Paul knew and was good at find, those open doors.

  5. This sermon of Paul can be used as a model for contemporary evangelism. It is a perfect example of how to approach and reach a culuture like ours today that puts many other idols and gods above the one True God. People constantly give credit to other people or gods when something good happens and they never give credit to the real God. They always praise others when they help them or do something great but they never praise the one true God that sent them and that blessed them with the ability to do that task. I think that there are better ways to approach other world views rather than pointing them out as worthless. I think that in some cases it could be a good thing, for instance if someone claims to worship God or claims to know God but is blatantly worshipping other idols. I think that there is a better way to approach people in this culture because people take offense too easily and don’t like to be confronted for being wrong or for doing wrong

  6. There are certain aspects of Paul’s style of evangelism to Lystra that we ought to be paying very close attention to. I feel that modern christianity misses the idea of our old gods being truly worthless. Paul begins his short sermon by “urging his listeners his listeners to renounce their worthless idols and embrace the living God” (Polhill 95). I think that christians, particularly evangelists are so caught up in the “come as you are” mindset that we forget, the call to be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2.20), and to become a “slave to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). So much of Paul’s later teaching talk about a complete renouncing of our old lives, so that we may fully enjoy a new life in God. I think that this has become an almost foreign concept in the modern church. In Lystra Paul’s command to “renounce” is so offensive to them, that they try to kill him. I’m not saying that evangelists should start driving people to murder, but i think that people should start getting offended, even angry about the things Pastors are telling them they need to renounce. If we don’t renounce everything that defined our old life, how can we ever even attempt to start building a new one in Christ?

  7. In a world where tolerance is preached in the schools, advertisements, and churches (yes, even church) it’s hard to know how to approach Biblical evangelism. Paul set a great example on how to present the work of Christ to other religious groups in his sermon in Lystra. Paul chose to go to an area that was more unfamiliar to him than he was used to, filled with pagan Gentiles. When arriving them dubbed him a god and began to sacrifice to him. He was then stoned when they came to realize that he was in fact only human. Evangelism then persecution, a reoccurring theme to Paul.
    Polhill discusses how Paul had to first convince the pagan worshippers of monotheism. He writes, ” he [Paul] could not share the message of Christ until he had first convinced them of basic monotheism–that there is only one God and no others” (95). In a way, Paul had to attack there religion because it was false and must be proven false before he could lay the foundation of monotheism and work toward the Gospel message. We as believers today can learn from this example. As the Body of Christ we can not sit back complacent and tolerant to the false religions around. God has not called us to be idle and comfortable. Paul has given us an example of how we must get uncomfortable (even to the point of persecution) and be willing to dive a little deeper to “attack” the religions of others, in order to shed light on the fallacies found within and the truths found through Christ.
    It is important to note that Paul did not, however, attack the people themselves. That is never part of the Gospel message. God has called us to be love and show kindness to others. So, yes we must be willing to attack other religions, but we must never compromise our Christ-likeness when it comes to evangelizing. After all, Christ should be our main example of how to relate with unbelievers. Picture him with the Samaritan woman at the well, he approached her with all love and no judgement, yet subtly did attack her sin. We should, in a way do the same thing, always with the consciousness that we ourselves are sinners saved by Jesus Christ. We can shed light on the sins of others, but it is always God who works in their hearts to bring them to salvation. Paul serves to give us an example of how to relate to those with beliefs so very different from ours and should be considered when we come to a situation where we will need to present our faith to those whose thought of truth is swayed from the Biblical truths.

    (Post for Ch. 4-5)

  8. There are many things that we can learn from Paul’s teaching methods. Paul was not known for sugarcoating fundamental aspects of Christianity. Paul was bold, and willing to teach whatever God had laid on his heart. It is never good to criticize other people for what they believe in, especially when you are trying to win them to Christ…Criticizing one’s religion will most likely turn into a fight, and become a matter of “winning” the argument. In which case this completely misses the point of evangelizing. Evangelizing is about planting a seed, and allowing God to take control of their lives. Paul was very passionate about his ministry, which can come off as him being critical to other religions. I think the one thing that we really can learn from Paul is that it is definitely crucial to remain passionate about sharing the gospel, but to not take it too far to where it turns into a debate.

  9. Paul sermon is a great intro to who God is. God is all things to all men. God is a part of everything in our lives, from the rain the nurtures the plants we eat, to the trees that give us wood to build house for our family. This sermon/intro is a model for contemporary evangelism by showing the importance of showing God in a way that is relatable and understandable to a people, but without compromising who he truly is according to Scripture. In my opinion I belief never bashing a culture or a peoples beliefs as worthless; unless, possibly they truly know they themselves are in sin and they are leading others to sin. Paul became all things to all men, by showing the Creator God (all ways to all men) in many diverse scripturally sound ways that make God characterized in way that are understandable within a culture.

  10. I think that looking at Paul’s sermon can be a great example of how we need to approach people in evangelical ways. I believe that too many times we sugar coat things, and we make them less than what they really are, but we need to let them know that what reality is, and that their “idols” are truly worthless, and they will not give them what they are looking for. I like how Zac brings up how Paul is “urging his listeners to renounce their worthless idols and embrace the living God” (Pohill 95). If we continue to sugar coat things, or stay on the path that we should come as we are, then how are the “idols” in our lives, and others lives really going to be able to get out of the way of us getting to know the living God as He is, and how He can truly work in our lives. I think that it is important to let people to know that they can come as they are, but we also then need to allow them to see and know the things that they are doing are wrong, not pleasing to the Lord, and are more like “idols” in our lives, and may overtake our relationship with the Lord. If we don’t come out boldly, and tell people what is wrong with their “worldview”, but rather sugar coat things, and let the “little things go”, then how are they ever going to know what is okay and what isn’t in order to have a relationship with the Lord? I believe that we need to let them know what is worthless in their lives, but not attack it, but rather show them better options, and why theirs do not work.

  11. I think there is something to take out of the passage found with Paul’s assertion of Lystra’s idols. It is really interesting that you beg the question whether the verb form found in this chapter propagates as “worthless things” lacking truth. Well I certainly hold the same type of speculation that is exemplified in this blog. I do not necessarily believe that other religions (or groups proclaiming some form of faith) are completely inaccurate with their beliefs. Some of these groups understand the concept of faith, for example. As Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” We need to make sharp that Jesus is the only source through which we can be saved, therefore we need to be intentional with letting unbelievers comprehend “our” train of thought. Consequently, this passage acts as a perfect semblance of modern day evangelism. Nevertheless, without impartiality these worldviews might not be holding on to their faith in the correct way necessarily, but the fact that they understand the concept of faith in and of itself is accurate. So in essence, I believe we should be careful about dismissing every element if different worldviews, for most worldviews incorporate some sort of universal truths, though intentional or not.

  12. Paul may have chosen a harsh tactic in dealing with the Lystrians because he was quickly running out of time to finish his speech. The priests of Zeus are about to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods. Paul vehemently attacks the very symbols that the people of Lystra are about to worship him with in an effort to dissuade them. Considering that many religions can be used as tools of wicked people to manipulate people based on their fears and needs, harsh words may have been in order. While perhaps not to be taken as a template for a Sunday morning sermon, Paul’s speech could be a reminder that sometimes blunt truth is in order.

  13. I could see a couple of aspects of Paul’s sermon to be helpful to evangelize today, but usually in today’s world if we try to evangelize to someone, and they already believe in something. They can quickly tune us out if we start saying that their way in believing is wrong. One of the aspects that Paul does show is how that he tries to talk with them on how their gods cannot save them. That God is the only way that can save them. Even though the Lystrians didn’t listen to him, and try to start worshiping Paul as a god (96). That is a good aspect that God is the only way that you can be saved. Paul then moved to another one that can be a good one if no one is listening to you, and if they are still listening to you, is that he bluntly put out there that he wasn’t a god, and that God was the only way. As what David said, “Paul’s speech could be a reminder that sometimes blunt truth is in order.”

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