Acts 14:8-10 – Preaching to the Pagans

[This is Adam Renberg’s second contribution to the blog. Adam is an Advanced Studies in Acts student this semester.]

After Paul’s preforms the miracle in Acts 14:8-10, he is met with an unanticipated response from the crowd. While miracles have been used to authenticate prophets in the Jewish context, the case was very direct in a pagan society. Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, and the priests and worshipers bring out a procession of animals to sacrifice to them. Apparently Paul and Barnabas did not speak the Lycaonian language, as they did not stop them until they saw the sacrificial animals being brought to them, where they quickly refuted the claim that they were gods.

In 14:14-15, they tear their clothing, shout that they are only men and not gods in disguise, and begin to preach a short but unique sermon. Paul starts this discourse in saying that they have good news (the gospel) and that they should turn from “worthless idols” to the living God. This is obviously a very bold move, as the priest of Zeus and his followers were apparently directly in front of them. To call this group of gods “worthless idols” is a deep stab at their worldview, on a political, economic, and philosophical level. As the polytheistic way of life was so ingrained in Graeco-Roman culture (everyone at that time believed in the gods), a challenge to follow the one true God and turn away from idols would be offensive to say the least (it also makes it seem more apparent as to why Paul was stoned).

Paul continues in declaring who the one true God is, as the maker of “heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them.” Paul does not appeal to any scriptures through this sermon (as the Lycaonians would not have known them), but still uses the language of Genesis.  He declares in Vs. 17 that God has left testimony to this creation through the rain and crops, giving food and ultimately joy.

This would have been directly applicable to this city, as the main occupation would have been agricultural, so most of the audience could have been able to relate to this statement. While it is a direct appeal, it could also be considered a challenge against their pagan gods as they worshiped and underwent rituals and sacrifices for rain to their Greek gods. In this sense, Paul is not only calling their gods worthless, but also telling them that the gods that they depended on for the sustaining of crops and foods don’t actually do anything, that the one true God has been sustain their lives and crops from the beginning.

An interesting element of this sermon is that neither Jesus nor the cross is mentioned in any capacity. While it is possible that this is a summary or portion of a larger discourse by Paul, you would have assumed to see some trace of the Savior. This passage (as well as the similar Acts 17 sermon) has been long used in showing that in a missional sense, we need to meet people where they are. The pagans knew nothing of a monotheistic worldview, so Paul had to start from the ground up before he declared the cross of Christ.  In comparison to Acts 17, where Paul used stronger vocabulary and philosophical rhetoric when talking to the Athenian council, he chose simpler language to engage with his less educated audience in Acts 14.

While there can be missiological applications from this passage, should it be used as a main passage in talking missionary strategy? What was Paul’s missionary strategy when it came to Lystra in Acts 14:8-20?

25 thoughts on “Acts 14:8-10 – Preaching to the Pagans

  1. It is not out of line to say that the church can use this passage to help understand missions. Paul needed to make a clear statement concerning the fact that there is one true God. This is a polytheistic group of people who could very well have decided to add this God onto the list of gods that they were currently worshiping. Perhaps Paul saw that certain ground work had to be laid and so before he could mention Jesus or the cross it was necessary to explain that this was not something to be added to a list but that it was the One true God. I think that this still needs to be done today. In doing missions work it is sometimes necessary to lay ground work before continuing on to the next step. For instance, if a person has no concept of sin they may not see the need for salvation. This concept should be covered so the person understands what you are presenting. It appears to me that Paul was interrupted by the rioters who came to stone him. Perhaps Paul was unable to continue. He may not have mentioned Jesus but in verse 15 we see that he makes a clear statement that they ought to turn from their pagan lifestyle and serve God. This may not be the most cut and dry example of missions in the Bible but it does help the reader understand the importance of meeting the audience where they are.

  2. I think what Paul does in this passage is key for any sort of apologetic or missional outreach we want to do in broader culture. While in a 21st Century American context it is harder to imagine someone without an idea of what monotheism is (even if they don’t know it by that term), it is crucial that we not tailor our message, but our approach in accordance to our audience. For some group of atheists in farm-country middle America, it would make more sense to speak about God in an agricultural, natural, simple sense, and not use intense theological language. And with Paul, we see time and time again, similarly to Acts 17, where he uses his philosophical knowledge in his approach to God in order to be a better witness to his audience. So, in answering the question of whether or not this passage is a good model for the interaction of God’s message with the people of the world, I think it gives us great insight into the most effective ways to share the good news we have with those around us.

    • Trent, I really like what you say in this post, specifically when you said “…it is crucial that we not tailor our message, but our approach in accordance to our audience.” I completely agree with that statement and I think that more people should keep that in mind when asked the question Adam posed in his post, “While there can be missiological applications from this passage, should it be used as a main passage in talking missionary strategy?” I would also say that the way you present your message can vary as long as the message you are giving does not. You wouldn’t speak to a group of third graders the same way that you would to a group of college students. You tailor it so that it can be most understood. The people in Lystra were the polytheistic people and probably would not have understood the idea that Christians serve one God. It would have taken a while to get to that point, and that is why I think that Paul did not mention the name of Jesus or the cross. I would also say that because of this, the way that Paul spoke is a good outline to use in present-day missions.

  3. I think Paul’s strategy when ministering to the Pagans was to start at the very beginning and that is sonething that we can learn from. It is easy for us as college students to start talking to someone about Jesus and start talking way over their heads. It is important for us to start where they are. If we address topics that are too complex for a non-believer or a new believer to understand, it is very possible for us to lose their interest since they have no idea what we are talking about. I think that this is something that is very important for us to learn. It doesn’t matter where we are when we are teaching unbelievers, what matters is that we speak in a way that they can understand and connect with. That is what Paul did when he did not speak about Jesus at Mars Hill. He knew where the people were and he started there.

  4. I really like what Adam said, “we need to meet people where they are”. I think that this story of Paul is one that opens our eyes to the idea of meeting people where they are. The fact that Paul was aware of the barriers and cultural differences where he was, makes him one of the memorable “missionaries” of the Bible. Paul was one of the prime examples of how we are to Go with faith. Many times I think that as believers trying to spread the gospel we forget that some people do not know all that we know and are not familiar with the gospel, so starting right at the death and resurrection of Christ could confuse them. Now I am not saying that this has to be a main passage used for missions but I do think that it is a very good one.

  5. Just like Jessica said, I agree with Adam. Adam said that “we need to meet people where they are.” I think that it is important to accept people the way they are. It is not our job to judge them because we are all sinners. Romans 3:23-24 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Because of that no individual has the right to judge another person. With that being said, this is what Paul tried to represent. He tried to do this thru the way that he ministered to others. I think that Paul set a perfect example of how a Christian should love and accept people. I think that is what Christ wanted. Christ wants us to do a lot of things, but one of the most important things that Christ wants us to do is love people.

  6. As bible college students we often get caught up in our learning and forget the world does not look at things as deeply about the bible as we do. If i was to walk down 28th street and stop in a place and ask a person “so whats your opinion on Christ’s hipostatic union?” or “could you explain the trinity to me?” the looks i would get and answers i would get probably would be far from a well educated or kind answer. Paul in this verse is going to people who have no idea who Jesus is, they do not understand sin, or really any picture of scripture. this verse is useful but not necessarily the model I would choose, given we live in a country where a lot of people at least understand the fly over of sin and Jesus. The only parallels i would draw is the deities of the greeks like zeus is about the same as the gods of this age like miley cyrus with the live life to the fullest for tomorrow we die mentality.

  7. It really comes down to the interpretation of the passage in the context of the time of Paul and of Luke’s writing of Acts. Originally, I would have been quick to claim that this passage was filled with the missionary strategy of “meeting people where they’re at.” However, now I have become less sure that this is really the missionary strategy of Paul, at least in the sense that we believe that statement today.

    For instance, Paul definitely was a man who met people where they were, 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 rings of this truth. That being said, in this context Paul would not have become like the pagan worshipers of Zeus to meet them where they were. If he were to do that, then he would have compromised the truth of the Gospel and his proclamation would have turned up void. Instead, I now see that Paul was bold and clear on what he said to those in Lystra–Zeus and the other gods must be cast out and the one true God must be followed. There wasn’t any wiggle room or “feel good” room where the Lycaonians could ease there way into Christianity–it was all or nothing. In a sense, Paul brazenly calls out their gods as being worthless, meaning stupid, pointless, and powerless. Paul’s missionary strategy was one of boldly proclaiming the truth in a way that would be clear to the people. Yes he used his words carefully and wisely, so that his message would be understandable and simple. In that way Paul met the people where they were at, yet he did not participate in any part of their worship, so as to win them to Christianity.

  8. Paul was very bold for speaking to the pagans the way that he did. He was not worried about the reactions of the crowd of idolotrous zealots. Paul had a lot of courage and God was able to use him to be a witness to others. As Tyler had mentioned, Paul’s strategy when speaking to the people was to start at the beginning. He began by using terms they could relate to and understand. Paul does meet the people where they are. I think that it is a good reminder of how we should meet people where they are. We should not speak over people’s heads but begin by speaking of things that they already know and understand so that they can have a better grasp of who God is.

  9. It is important for us to realize that when we are trying to share the gospel with someone, it is important to start at a place they understand. Throwing the gospel at someone who doesn’t even have the faintest idea about a heavenly Father will often confuse them or even scare them off from the gospel.

    One thing that struck me though, and Kim Holstad talked about this as well, is that Paul may have “met them where they were at” in the sense that he didn’t jump directly to the cross with the Lycaonians, or quote scriptures to them that they wouldn’t know, but he also was incredibly bold in letting them know exactly what they were doing wrong in a polytheistic worship. He is unafraid and bold as he stands before the priests of Zeus and tells them that the gods they worship were worthless. This really is a model of the way we need to be presenting the gospel today. Jesus wants us to come to him as we are, whether we are drunks, sex-addicts, gamblers, or any other breed of sinner, but once we come to him, he doesn’t want us to stay that way. Through him, we are supposed to be reborn into a new creation, and work through our sins with his guidance. This being said, when we are presenting the gospel, we need to let people know that their sins are what is holding them back from God. This means we often have to put their sins directly in front of them and let them know that what they are doing is wrong. Paul was unafraid to do this, and wasn’t worried about hurting people’s feelings by showing them that they were wrong, and I don’t think we should be either.

  10. I think that the idea of evangelism should always mean meeting people where they are. After all, that’s what Jesus did, too. He would begin with an Old Testament passage that His audience was familiar with, and then explain how it referred to Himself. Or He would begin with a commonly known commandment (do not murder) and take it a little farther (don’t even hate). This kind of strategy in witnessing should not seem foreign to any of us. The issue that we have in using Acts 14 as a model for evangelism is that Paul’s audience is a completely pagan group, immersed in a polytheistic culture and with no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. Our idea of meeting people “where they are” becomes a bit more difficult at this point. Whereas Jesus’ preaching to the Jews was kind of a redefining of terms, Paul and Barnabas’ preaching here in Lystra is like a whole different language (Literally!).

    Paul acknowledges the huge gap in his audience’s understanding, so rather than overloading them with specific information which they wouldn’t understands, he paints in much broader strokes and shares with them the basic framework of Christian (Hebrew?) monotheism.

    While that was certainly a good place to start, I’m not sure we should assume that Paul was planning to just leave his audience without actually naming the name of Christ. Considering the fact that a mob of Jews (whose timing was impeccable) came into town and interrupted Paul’s preaching, we really don’t know where he hoped to get in his sermon. That being the case, I think we should draw a lesson from the general framework of Paul’s message (here’s what you understand and believe, here is where your belief falls short, here is how the true God fits into the picture) rather than using this as an example of the perfect Gospel sermon.

  11. I bring back P. Long’s statement “The method of communication is adaptable, the message is not.” The thought of presenting Christ without using Scripture seems unusual for any situation, but the thought that Paul related the message directly to the audience. However, I tend to think (as is proposed in this post) that this portion is just that, a portion of the larger discourse. This part, specifically, to me seems like the introduction – much as a modern day missionary would begin relating to a culture before exposing them to the need for a Savior, and who that Savior is.

    From a personal perspective, I do believe this is a successful missions basis passage. Paul’s strategy shows an emphasis on first setting a foundation, before explaining who the living God is. There are some missions groups that still use this method successfully, especially when meeting a new, unreached people group (such as in the jungle). Should it be the basis in every situation? Probably not necessarily, in situations where the audience would already have a previous foundation of knowing who God is.

  12. The work that missionaries are called to do is a difficult path. They have to as Remberg says “we need to meet people where they are at” and also stay there with them, in sort of speaking. Sometime I think that bluntness is necessary, but most of the time I don’t think that it should be used in a missionary sermon. I would say that using this for inspiring people to become the hands and feet for God or rather teaching them to have a missionary strategy is not my idea of the way to go. I think that the best sermon that a missionary could give is having 90% of it come from the testimony of the people that they have helped. Showing that God has used them to “meet the [person] where they are at”. By showing the testimony of others it gives the people from churches, conferences, and from everywhere the passion that God is using to further his kingdom.

  13. Wow, I never noticed before that Paul never mentioned the name of Jesus here either –

    You wrote, QUOTE:
    “An interesting element of this sermon is that neither Jesus nor the cross is mentioned in any capacity. While it is possible that this is a summary or portion of a larger discourse by Paul, you would have assumed to see some trace of the Savior. This passage (as well as the similar Acts 17 sermon) has been long used in showing that in a missional sense, we need to meet people where they are. ”

    So both these passages have long been MISUSED.
    Both these sermons by Paul were complete failures, which produced no good fruit at all, as far as we can tell from the Scripture record. Did I miss something? Can anyone in the world show me any good fruit from Paul’s sermon here in Lystra, or at Mars Hill in Athens?

  14. In Acts 14, the people in Lystra confuse Paul and Barnabas as other gods, and they know just how wrong they are that they tear their clothes. Probably then they realized how little these people had knowledge of what they were trying to teach. I think their tactic of sharing worked for their situation to start explaining the beginning parts of their faith. What can we learn from this? I think of little children in our churches today, and we start by teaching them the very basics of Bible stories, and that is including stories of Jesus, but children are much more impressionable. When using the way Paul and Barnabas did as a mission tool, I think we can relate it to sharing the basics, and just little by little working up to a relationship with Christ so people can be saved.

  15. The way that Paul presents the good news to this group of people knowing that he is directly going against the beliefs and the views of almost the entire group of people is bold and admirable. It is representative of the fact that when we go out and spread the message and we share the good news with others, we can compromise in the ways in which we use strategies to share the gospel, but we can’t compromise the message itself. It comes back to Paul’s on words in Romans 12:2, which says “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will”. We do need to have a thoughtful strategy of how we are going to share this message to groups of people, but even if the message is uncomfortable for others and even if the message completely clashes with the ideals and beliefs of certain societies, we still need to share it anyways.

    • Great post Sean! I really like your thoughts on how Paul still preached his ministry even though he knew that he was preaching against the group. I think this is relevant to the world today because there is always a side that people chose and sometimes that’s against what is right in the Bible. You said Paul was bold when preaching to this group and I think that is exactly the example we must follow when preaching to others about God. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong I feel like when hearing people talk to non-believers about being Christians it seems like they are trying to convince them that they can still do certain things even though is against the Bible. That is wrong and makes it sound like God is weak because he is going to forgive them anyway. Being bold shows what Christianity is truly about and showing how strong of a God we have. I really like how you also acknowledge that we must be bold even if it makes others uncomfortable.

  16. It is important as believers to be bold on our stance of the one true God. I do, however, believe we should adapt to a certain extent to the non-believers around us to evangelize to them in a way that they would understand. Then again, if they are actually interested in knowing about Jesus and the Gospel, they might ask questions for further information about what we believe and we can break it down for them. It is very easy to offend those around us by being so open and bold about our beliefs. If someone who worshipped Satan was trying to convince me to do the same, even though I am firm in my belief in Jesus, I would feel very uncomfortable, nor would I even for the slightest second consider such a thing! I would immediately be offended and want to hear nothing further! However, when things like this happen it can be left open for debate, potentially changing the other persons’ mind but that is rare. These people that Paul bluntly preached to knew nothing other than worshipping their multiple God’s and looking to them for harvest and goods and what not. I can’t necessarily blame them for their response of offense because Paul is deliberately attacking what they have only known. I’m not sure there would have been a better way necessarily to go about it other than being more extensive in the speech and providing more information. Paul did not mention Jesus or the Gospel and this is one of the number one things we need to share when we are evangelizing because in order for these people to be saved they need to know about Jesus!

  17. When it comes to talking missionary strategy, I believe that we can use this as a main passage. Today, we talk about missionaries going into places and immersing themselves into cultures so that they can understand the people better. Now, Paul and Barnabas understood the Roman culture more so that helped them. As it states in the passage, they did not start yelling at them until they realized that they were trying to make sacrifices to them. I believe that Paul and Barnabas yelled at them to stop the sacrifices. If they would have had more time to immerse themselves in the culture, that would have helped the people learn more about them and what they believed instead of having to start yelling at them because they mistook them for gods.

  18. I’ve often thought the concept of being a Pagan was a little weird especially that there are still people today that identify themselves as Pagans today. With any sort of evangelism of missionary message, you have to understand that the gospel is more than likely going to be completely against the teachings of those you are preaching to and that’s exactly what Paul knows when he brings forth the Gospel to the Pagans. There is much opposition around the world today and Jesus talked about this opposition (John 15:18). Acts 14 discusses when Paul and Barnabas went and preached to the Pagans and “when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they torn their garments and rushed into the crowd crying out men why are you doing these things ? (Acts 14:14-15). I don’t blame there response as Paul was attacking their believes. I think we have come a long way as Christians in how we communicate the Gospel to others.

  19. I’m sure there are Missiological aspects to pull from this passage. However, I would say that the most prominent thing to know is the difference between Paul’s reaction to a group of people who partake in an established pagan religion and our reaction to a similar situation two thousand years later. Paul is very confident and abrasive with these people (v.15) and speaks against their beliefs quickly. The difference that I see today is that we are more likely to make friends with an individual of a different religion, then through a long and hopefully successful process, lead them into right relationship with the Lord. It is not often that you hear of group conversions in the twenty-first century or in this case for Paul a group stoning. If we take into consideration the difference between our culture and theirs would it be possible to adapt and being presenting the Gospel to groups of established pagans again? Or are entire sermons devoted to the conversion of hundreds obsolete?

  20. In terms of mission strategy, I do not think that the way Paul and Barnabas go about this is the ideal way to reach out to people you are trying to talk about God with. It is important to understand other people’s cultures so that you do not offend people. Walking right up to people and insulting them because of their beliefs would come across as aggressive and offensive and would immediately anger people and shut them down to any chance of listening to what you want to say. Instead, you should be open to hearing about other cultures religions and customs and if you are open and understanding about what they believe in as opposed to insulting their beliefs, you might have the opportunity to share your own beliefs with them. If you are open and respectful to them, they will be the same way to you when you share your beliefs, and maybe they will be curious and want to hear more and I think that is a better way to approach missions work.

  21. the thing that I think I like about this sermon that Paul gives is how blunt that he is. he really does not toil around, or try to gain the crowd’s confidence in him or gain them as a friend. He really just comes out and says that they are not doing the right thing in believing in all of the different Gods. Paul really just is very upfront with them, and I think that there is something to learn here and that is if you have that gift to confront people, do it. but if you are shy like a lot of people are seave the Lord in different ways. no matter how you can serve the Lord, and tell others about Him, do it.

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