Acts 14:8-18 – Paul and Pagans

When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, Paul heals a man 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 some intentionality on Luke’s part. In both cases, there has been a paradigmatic speech and then a miracle, with both positive and negative reactions to the miracles and the speech.  Eventually that reaction will turn violent, threatening the lives of the Peter (in Acts 4-5) and Paul (who appears to have been killed!)

However, 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 modern or 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”?  Or perhaps Paul learns something from this “failure” and changes the way he approaches the “pagans” later on in his ministry.

21 thoughts on “Acts 14:8-18 – Paul and Pagans

  1. To me is seems very interesting that Paul called thier idols worthless. But, this doesn’t surprise me much. It reminds me of the Paul we see just a few chapters earlier who devoted his life to the persecution (or correcting) of those “Christians” who were part of The Way. Paul has a reputation for being quite straight forward when confronting those who adhere to a worldview that could threaten what he knows or feels to be true. That started as a zealous and hostile reaction to the disciples of Rabbi Yeshua and is now almost carried over to his reaction to the pagans; however more grace-like his response might be, he does not seem to be putting his personality aside. Even when trying to be a Greek to the Greeks,

    I also think that the specific word that Luke uses in quoting Paul and Barnabas is worth some attention. The word used here is the Greek word “Mataios” which when translated can mean; devoid of force, truth, success, useless, or of no purpose. Paul and Baranabas could very well have been intentionional insulting their pagan idols. But, I think there is room to argue differently. Mataios is an adjective that is derived from the adverb “Maten” which means to to do something fruitlessly or in vain. I think that the intent behind Paul and Barnabas’s seemingly quick response to the pagans was not to anger them by insulting them but to bring to their attention the fact that in all their worship of the idols, nothing came of it. Perhaps he was simply pointing out that their beliefs that idol worship was valuable was mere superstition and that no matter what sacrifices they made or did not make, nothing would come out of it. Paul performed a miracle which was mistaken to be an act by the pagan gods. So, for Paul to be mistaken as Hermes and then tell them that the gods that they have been worshiping all this time were not finally blessing them, but were really a fruitless goose chase of spirituality.

    But, then again. What do I know?

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  2. The story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14 is by no means a post-modern way of evangelism. I’m not even sure that we can get any parts out of it that could serve as a model in any way. However, I think that Paul did what needed to be done. Jared makes a great comment when he says Paul, “devoted his life to the persecution (or correcting) of those “Christians” who were part of The Way.” It’s obvious that the people of Lystra were not believers but Paul wanted to show them the real truth. I am sure Paul was preaching in a loving way before they called him Hermes, but that probably sent him over the edge. Acts 14:14-15a says, “But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: Men why are you doing this!” Paul speaks with incredible passion here and it’s clear that he wants to show them the truth that can set them free of these “worthless things”. In Luke 17:3 it says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Although I know Paul didn’t have knowledge of this verse I certainly believe he lived it out in his own life.

    Even though through this strange event where it looks like Paul is just attacking them for worshipping idols he turns it around for a chance to evangelize. Polhill says, “Paul used this opportunity to tell the crowd about the real God” (95). We see Paul using the things, experiences, and people around him to better relate to the people of Lystra. Polhill goes on to say, “He could not share the message of Christ until he had first convinced them of basic monotheism- that there was only on God and no other” (95).

    Perhaps this is how Paul’s experience in Acts could be applied to the emerging church culture? We first need to understand the people; what and why they believe in the things they do. We can then go from there to try and show them who Christ is.

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  3. There are a few things that I want to discuss in this post. The first being the attitude Paul has against the people of Lystra. I agree with Jared, it does not surprise me much that Paul would call Lystra’s god’s worthless. Paul is a very zealous man. He was passionate about killing the Christians that ‘threatened’ to contaminate his religion when he was Saul, and that passion, or zeal has just been carried over to the passion to spread who Jesus Christ is now that he is converted. Jared does a really good job at summing up the point I am discussing when he says “Paul has a reputation for being quite straight forward when confronting those who adhere to a worldview that could threaten what he knows or feels to be true.” He wants everyone to hear the Gospel and repent and it is clearly shown through scripture that he will do anything it takes at any cost to further the kingdom of Christ (Acts 14 19-20, Acts 16:22 1 Thessalonians 2:2 to name a few).
    The second point I would like to discuss is one that Jared brought up. I read Acts 14 where Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra and after reading the blog I want to say that I really don’t feel that Paul is attacking Lystra’s gods as meanly as it is portrayed. I believe that Paul and Barnabas were more trying to (in a rather quickened haste due to the certain circumstances found in Acts 14) clarify why they had come in the first place. Acts 14:14-18 describes Paul and Barnabas tearing “their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting…” (The Bible). It is in that frenzied state where they said “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (The Bible). To me it seems that instead of using that word, as Jared has it in Greek Mataios meaning “devoid of force, truth, success, useless, or of no purpose” (Jared), he was instead using the adverb meaning “Maten” which means “to do something fruitlessly or in vain” (Jared). He wasn’t more so attacking their religion as much as he was trying to explain himself so that he wasn’t himself being considered a god. By the way, thanks Jared for bringing up these two meanings.
    Thirdly I would quickly like to discuss a few of the questions asked at the end of the blog. For one, I do not believe that we should attack other people’s world view as worthless. If we do that we could be risking the one chance we have at telling them the truth about Jesus Christ. We can disagree with a person’s worldview and make it clear that it is not a correct view, but we can always do it in a way that makes them feel less threatened. I think that Paul does learn from his ‘failure’ of what went down in Lystra and does what he can to change without lessening his point of who Jesus was and what he did. I do not, for one second, think that Paul softened his message to cater to the needs of the nonbelievers, but I think that he was aware of how he expressed his feelings and tried to use that in other instances where he was sharing the Gospel.

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  4. Well, Greg just stole all my Thunder, So lets see if I can come up with something else… The Bible seems to be full of people failing. David and Bathsheba, Adam and Eve, etc. So it should be no surprise when we are shown a time that Paul fails. He directly attacked these people and their beliefs and they took that in a terrible way. Almost killing him for crying out loud! Paul going to these people would be no different than be going into downtown Detroit and yelling on the streets that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven and all other things will send them to hell!
    Its odd to see that the people still wanted to sacrifice the oxen to them even after Paul told them not to. They continued to tell the crowd not to do this thing, I must say, that seems a tad postmodern in itself. The crowd believed they were right in thinking Paul and Barnabas were Greek God’s, so no matter what they said, the crowed was going to do what it wanted. Postmodernism has a major theme in “What do I think about this”? Then they focus on that and make it their own. So, I’d say the crowd is doing something rather similar!

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  5. Paul started out talk in Lystra in a way that would catch the attention of anyone whether modern, post-modern or whatever their worldview was. I wonder though was Paul aware of the possibility that “the Lystran” people would think that he and Barnabas would be mistaken as Greek gods. Paul must have known about the story of the Metamorphoses of Ovid where “Zeus and Hermes… where disguised as two weary travelers (p.94).” If Paul being from Tarsus was not aware of a Lystran myth there was plenty of “Greek folklore where the gods are said to have come to earth in human disguise(p.94).”
    No matter how bad this attempt at evangelism seemed to go it is always good to remember that God can work through any channel no matter how fuzzy we think it is from our perspective. No matter how well we do it is not us who can meet the high expectations of the people we share the message of hope with. Only God can do that. “Lystra was no exception (p.96).” With that said Paul was able to share the message much easier with the people at the “meeting of the Areopagus” in Athens (Acts 17:22). The time did not end in a riot instead it ended in “we want to hear you again on this subject” (Acts 17:32). This seems much more encouraging than almost dying at the hands of the Lystran people. The conversations that he had with the philosophers later seemed to be the closest thing to a modern way in which the gospel could be shared.

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  6. I really like Jared’s point about this situation being a reflection of Paul’s reaction to the Christians before his conversion.

    I also believe that Paul truly felt an urgency to spread the Gospel that most of us don’t feel today. Paul’s conversion was brought about by a personal encounter with Jesus himself, speaking to him from heaven. Paul was also blinded by his encounter, and later healed of that blindness. With that kind of experience, how can you not believe fully in the story and power of the Gospel?

    If we today felt the urgency, and believed the Gospel as deeply as Paul did, I fell like we would be getting angry at idol worship as well. To know that the Pagans were worshiping false gods, when you have encountered the Christ himself, and know he is the only one worth worshiping is something that is understandably upsetting. It must have been really hard to stay gentle when you see this kind of worship. It also probably didn’t help that the one they were worshiping was Paul himself. Paul knew he couldn’t let himself be mistaken for a god and be worshiped. He was probably strict in saying their gods were worthless as being accused as one.

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  7. oh Ok thanks…i guess the picture didn’t want to show up. I cant delete comments sooo…. guess its staying up there til P long sees it…

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  8. I think that this can absolutely be used as an example as contemporary evangelism. With that being said, I do not think that we should attack another worldview. I believe that we need to attempt to listen to the other worldview or belief. Then, it is our duty as Christians to spread the Gospel to them. As Mark 16:15 states, “And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Jipp mentions Paul’s mission that God has given him. He shows how it moves forward. Jipp shows that Paul’s ministry moves from place to place and it reaches different people (Jipp, 87). I believe that one can learn from any situation. This is something that I try to do. I try to figure out what I can fix from something that maybe didn’t go the way I expected, or I didn’t approach it in the correct way. I think Paul may have done this. Specifically, when he is approaching people later on in his ministry. As we know, ministry is a lot about love. We need to love everyone even though we may not agree with them. But, maybe our love and compassion could put the idea of the gospel in their mind.

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    • I do agree with you Chris that we should not attack another worldview. Later on in the ministry of Paul he writes “not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33). Yes, we were given the command to spread the Gospel, but Jesus would have done it in a loving manner, rather than attacking another’s worldview. He may have questioned it and then revealed the truth, but he would not have deliberately attacked them. I think that Paul may have just lost his cool for a second, like we all have at different times. I think that there could have been a better way to handle this situation, but he just lost his cool.

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      • Bree totally agreeance in we should not attack another’s perspective on a worldview. We should engage with people in a way that they may understand, yet is still biblically accurate. When we can understand how people operate and draw a connection of their cultural background we begin to explain and phrase things in ways that communicate the message. In the same ways when we approach the issues of false doctrine or gods we need to do so in a firm yet loving manner. (Galatians 6:1) Bree eluded to this idea in her post. In the same way as Paul and Barabas did they rebuked and taught that they need Christ and not these false teachers or gods in their lives. (2 Timothy 4:2). In general, we all interpret Paul’s actions and attitude in different formats based on our insight on how we perceived the event to have occurred when we were not there for the context of the physical situation. Yes, I believe as well Paul could have handled the situation better than what he did yet that is how we read and interpret it now.

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  9. Listening to others worldview or perspective is something that I think is important to reach out to others. By listening to others this shows that you are willing to hear them out gaining that respect where they will hear you out. As Christians I think that is the most important thing, so we don’t jump right into calling them out on their perspective. We want to provide the right answer to them which is Jesus but, we can’t go and force our faith onto them that will only turn them away. There are multiple stories in acts of Paul telling his conversion and leading people to be believers. This shows that if we just listen to others we might be able to reach them on a deeper level that can lead them to a life with Christ. Jipp mentions that Paul is constantly moving from city to city preaching to others and leading them to his ministry for Jesus (Jipp, 87.) Many of the people who he preached too hated Christian but, Paul was still able to reach out to them. I think in the modern world we are to eager to force our faith onto others which pushes them farther away. By showing them that we respect their decisions and are willing to hear them out we can lead them to be believers. Everyone grows through different experiences that’s why getting to know someone before you are to quick to judge is important.

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  10. In Acts 14 we are set up for a similarly structured miracle like Acts 3, but there is some difference like the location. Peter was in the temple courts and Paul is in a Gentile community. This detail makes a similar situation, have a different ending and Paul is stoned and left for dead. We look to the order of events of what happened and what Paul said to lead up to the events. Paul speaks on the living God, finding a common basis with these people. This is important when sharing the gospel even today, you have to catch interest and find a connection with the other person about what they believe. Paul explains that God is the creator, this is something most people can understand, the world was formed, and we can see with our eyes this creation. He also uses simple language and quoting how Genesis writes it. This is also important when sharing the gospel because not everyone will know big “churchy” terms. Along with this, you want them to know it is not just your opinion, but the Bible records them as facts and that is something they can go to for proof. The next part is where Paul got in trouble. He started to tell the truth, but in my personal opinion, he did not do it in a very loving way. Paul attacked their belief, calling it worthless and offending their practices, as their sacrifice. This did not make them happy in the slightest way.
    I try to put myself in Paul’s shoes in thinking of the right judgment call in this situation. One side you want to be cautious and understanding of their belief, as a loving believer. On another side you want to be frank, tell the direct honest truth of pointing out their sin. I think you have to meet in the middle of these two sides and understand that people will not listen if you rip out their entire identity, but also nothing will change if you coddle them. I think this is a humbling and teaching situation for Paul. He is doing great things, but he is still learning. He goes further teaching with an approach of teaching the truth, with their best interest in mind. We see a difference in Paul in Acts 17 when he teaches the sermon at Mars Hill, although this is part of a different situation and audience. I think he learned from his experience’s.

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  11. I think Paul’s reaction to the pagans believing that he and Barnabas are Gods was appropriate. Tearing their clothes to show that it makes them distraught and immediately running into the crowd in order to set the record straight, that they “also are men, of like nature with you”. However, his reaction to the false gods reminds me very much of Moses’ reaction to Israel’s false prophets upon his return in Exodus 32. Both are rightfully angry toward the worship of a false god. But Moses is among his people and they should know better! They just had a powerful and life-changing experience with YHWH and they turned so quickly to false gods. Paul, on the other hand, is showing rightful correction to the wrong crowd. They obviously do not yet understand why they shouldn’t worship them as gods. He is “casting pearls before swine” (Matt 7). Now the interesting thing to me is that it does not seem like the pagans reacted violently at all on their own. The Jews were the ones who stirred up a commotion so that they would stone Paul. This is equally as disappointing as it is not surprising. The Jewish elites constantly pushing to see the downfall of the Gospel is a theme that is ever present throughout Acts.

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  12. I think Paul’s model of evangelism is quite incredible since he does not allude to any known Hebrew text. Rather, he takes what is universally known, that being there is a maker of heaven, earth, the sea and everything in them. These Gentiles would have related to such a statement. What was different for them is that Paul states there is only one God in contrast to their polytheistic beliefs (v. 15). Similar to that of Acts 17 when Paul observes they worship many Gods but there is one reserved for the “unknown god” (Acts 17:23).

    Paul’s first concern upon their witness of the healing of the crippled man is that they not be treated as gods and be treated as men just as they are (v. 15). Polhill states, “Any religion is pretty empty that would venerate men as gods ” (Polhill, p.315). These men had believed in their gods in the abstract or via a shrine of worship and or little statues. But to Paul and Barnabas the worship of man, to even be treated as gods was complete folly and so blasphemous that they tore their clothes (v.14).
    Concerning Paul’s brief sermon, he hits three main points (Polhill, p. 315)
    1.) God is the Creator of all life (Monotheism)
    2.) God’s forbearance and mercy
    3.) God’s divine providence

    I do not find Paul’s confrontation of “turn away from these worthless things” as offensive. You would not necessarily say in a modern context “Hey Buddha is worthless stop worshiping him” rather you would make it plain through experience and proof that he indeed is worthless, and God is the merciful originator and divine provider of all their crops.
    Based on Paul’s speech to those in Athens in Acts 17 I would think he gave a very similar speech of repentance and being held accountable to what has been clearly revealed. What is really interesting is that what Paul says here concerning these Gentiles ignorance and not being held accountable seems to contrast with his remarks in Romans 1:18-32. Nevertheless, I think Paul’s ministry to the Pagans was successful and there is not much to be adjusted other than the different cultural ethics in the way you would communicate the timeless truth Paul displays.

    In both contexts of Peter and Paul, and Paul in Athens, there is a preaching that stirs up a crowd and as a result some have faith to be healed and faith to turn from their sins. This is a beautiful model of evangelism for today

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