A Great Harvest in a New City
When they left Antioch in Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas moved southeastward along one of the principal roads in the empire, extending all the way from Ephesus on the western side of Asia Minor to the River Euphrates in Mesopotamia far to the east.1 The portion running through Antioch (near modern Yalvaç2), as we noted earlier, was called Via Sebaste. The name was a tribute to its builder, Caesar Augustus, who in Greek was known as Sebasto.3 The apostles walked about eighty miles through hilly country,4 with scenic glimpses first of a broad lake on the right (Beyşehir Gölü) and later of a imposing peak on the left (Ala Dağ), before they came to Iconium (modern Konya5), another city in Phrygian Galatia on the high plateau of central Asia Minor.6 The native language was Phrygian.7
The residents of Iconium, itself poised at an elevation of about 3400 feet, enjoyed a spectacle of grandeur whenever they went outside, for in every direction, especially in the west, they saw rugged peaks, some rising to 6000 feet.9
Iconium was another city where the population was a mixture of Jews and gentiles. It was a Roman colony, but unlike Antioch, the prevailing culture was Greek rather than Roman.10 In its political structure it was modeled after a Greek city-state ruled by an assembly of citizens, known as the Demos.11 Strabo, the ancient geographer, complained that the surrounding region was cold and dry and bare of trees, although he conceded that Iconium itself was less forbidding,12 but modern scholars who have explored the region insist that ancient Iconium must have been pleasant and verdant, with plenty of water. William Ramsay observed that a stream flows "right into the city, making the land around into a great garden, green with trees, rich in produce."13
Following their customary practice, the apostles made the synagogue the base of their ministry. The ruler of the synagogue here, as elsewhere, gave them permission to speak during the Sabbath service. So, for many weeks, they declared Christ to the Jews and God-fearers who gathered for worship. Their preaching was hugely successful, apparently with greater fruit than they had seen in other places. The number who believed among both Jews and gentiles was a great multitude.
But no work of God proceeds very long without opposition. Some of the Jews resented the new teaching and angrily rejected it. In their daily interaction with gentiles, they slandered Paul and Barnabas, causing many citizens of the city to view the newcomers with a dislike quickly descending into scorn. What the unbelieving Jews said to turn their neighbors against Paul and Barnabas, we do not know. It was certainly not fair or reasonable.
The moving force behind the opposition to Paul and Barnabas was Satan, who is a liar. Some years later, he provoked enemies of the church to say that the wine of the Lord's Supper was really the blood of babies sacrificed to the Christian God.14 This scurrilous accusation was widely believed and led to ruthless persecution. The lies told in Iconium were doubtless less far-fetched. The hostile reaction of the gentiles suggests that these lies painted the preachers of Jesus as followers of a rebel against Rome.
At first, however, the opposition did not gain much momentum. Paul and Barnabas continued preaching in the synagogue for a long time. They preached with boldness, even though their Jewish opponents did not desert the synagogue but kept up their attendance. Perhaps they sat sullenly in the back, or even raised vocal objections as Paul spoke.
The divine grace available to all who would believe in Christ was always the main subject of Paul and Barnabas as they preached. Here was the secret of their success. They never exalted themselves, or groomed themselves to be objects of admiration. Instead, in every word they exalted God. God confirmed the truth of their message by granting them the power to perform signs and wonders.
An Evil Plot
The success of Paul and Barnabas fanned to greater intensity the flames of opposition. Everyone in the community felt under pressure to take sides, either with the apostles or with their enemies. As in Antioch, the opposing faction enjoyed the support of powerful men, including both Jewish and gentile rulers, who consulted together and decided to take strong action against the preachers of Christ. They resolved that first they would use them despitefully. In other words, they would discredit them with insults and accusations. Then they would create a pretext to execute them by stoning. The plan to use stoning shows that the Jewish leaders were spearheading the plot and intending to condemn Paul and Barnabas under Jewish law, for neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever used this method to execute people.
But the plotters failed to maintain secrecy. Someone sympathetic to the apostles overheard the plan and tipped them off. Since the apostles had no means of defending themselves from the local authorities, they fled from the city.
The apostles then went to preach the gospel in the region of Lycaonia, also in the province of Galatia.15
Still following the Via Sebaste, Paul and Barnabas soon came to Lystra, a Roman military colony about twenty miles south-southwest of Iconium.16 Lystra was quite different from previous stops because much of its population was a mix of retired Roman soldiers, who served as civic leaders, and a somewhat impoverished group from a local tribe who spoke their own language, Lycaonian.17 Strabo remembered this tribe as originally a wild people. Before the Romans gained control of Lycaonia, the mountainous areas were full of robbers living in caves.18 But the founding of Lystra by Augustus in 25 BC helped to civilize the region. Two legions were stationed there, and plots of land were apportioned to veterans. By Paul's day, so many veterans had settled in the colony that Lystra was growing and prosperous, with spillover radiating along incoming roads.19 Within the city itself resided some Greeks and a few Jews (Acts 16:1–3), no doubt taking advantage of opportunities to make money.20
Probably because they failed to find a synagogue, the apostles resorted to street preaching. One who heard was a man lame from birth as a result of a disorder in his feet. In all his years he had never walked. What he knew of a normal life was only by observing others. His own life was a daily cause of frustration and sorrow. The narrative does not say that he was a beggar, like the lame man that Peter healed as he went into the Temple (Acts 3:1–10). But doubtless this man in Lystra was no less a familiar sight to his fellow citizens.
As Paul preached, the man listened with rapt attention. Paul looked at him intently and debated within himself whether he should attempt to heal the man's affliction. He knew that before God would work a miracle for this man's benefit, the man himself must have faith. At last, being satisfied that faith had taken root in the man's heart, Paul commanded him in a loud voice to stand. Without hesitation, the man obeyed. Like the lame man Peter healed, he obeyed with enthusiasm, not as though he was unsure whether he could do it, but as though he had no doubt. He did not simply rise in a slow, dignified manner. He leaped to his feet in an outburst of pure joy. Again, we see the touch of realism here. Anyone healed of this kind of affliction would surely feel a rush of complete delight.
The miracle led to results that Paul and Barnabas never anticipated. Paul performed it in a public place, so within a short time, everybody in Lystra knew what he had done. A wave of religious hysteria swept over the city. The people flocked to Paul and Barnabas and began shouting with frenzied voices that the gods had come to them in human form. Probably under the influence of a local tradition that the gods Jupiter and Mercury had once visited their forefathers, the people gave these names to the apostles, in the belief that the same high deities were visiting them again.
The translators give us the Roman names of these gods in place of their Greek names, employed in the original text.21 In Greek, Jupiter was known as Zeus and Mercury as Hermes. Jupiter was chief of the gods and supposedly reigned from his throne on Mt. Olympus in Greece. His messenger and spokesman was Mercury. We see a great deal of tact in Luke's remark that they identified Paul as Mercury because "he was the chief speaker." No doubt that was the main reason. But we know too that Paul was not much to look at (2 Cor. 10:10). The pagans in Lystra would not have easily believed that splendid Jupiter appeared to them in the form of homely Paul. Barnabas must have been rather more good-looking.
The account strongly suggests that as Paul and Barnabas saw people running to the scene and heard them shouting back and forth, they did not realize what was happening. The likely reason is that the people were using their native tongue, Lycaonian, which the apostles did not comprehend.
When the excited chatter about the newcomers reached the local priest of Jupiter, he received it as wonderful news that the object of his devotion had put in a personal appearance. Imagine how excited he was—how his heart must have fluttered at the thought of seeing the very Jupiter who ruled the sky with his mighty lightning and thunder. He quickly gathered the best gift he could for two gods and hurried to the scene, his joy somewhat diminished by fear that the gods might find fault with him or his offering. As portrayed in Greek myths, the gods were hard to please, and their hair-trigger wrath was capricious. The gift he brought was a few wreathed oxen to be slaughtered in honor of the Hebrew preachers mistaken for gods. Evidently without any effort to speak with Paul and Barnabas, he started to lead the people away toward the temple, where he intended to preside over sacrifices at "the gates"; that is, the temple gates.23
A Sermon to Superstitious Gentiles
In awe of their divine visitors, the people of the city must have been standing back from Paul and Barnabas. As a result, the apostles did not immediately perceive that the crowd was preparing to worship them. When they realized that a priest had arrived with oxen for sacrifice, they were appalled. They rent their clothes as a sign of their distress and ran into the crowd, pleading with them to stop. They protested that they were just ordinary men, not gods in disguise.
The account does not tell us which of the two apostles spoke the words recorded here, but it was likely Paul, who by now was accustomed to take the lead. He told the people that he and Barnabas had come to teach them about the true God, the God who made heaven and earth.
He was mounting a frontal attack on the pagan beliefs of his audience. The Greeks revered Jupiter, but did not imagine that he created heaven and earth. Rather, he himself was a created being. Long ago he rose to supremacy when he emerged victorious from a struggle against another god, Cronus, who was his own father. According to pagan mythology, heaven and earth, under the names Uranus and Gaia, were his grandparents. Not only did the Greeks worship a chief deity who was less than the creator of all; they denied that the creator of all was a living God. They thought that the first beings, Uranus and Gaia, sprang from a universal darkness called Chaos, but Chaos was not a person. It was a mere nothingness without life.29
By identifying his God as the Creator, Paul was showing them a God far superior to any they worshiped, and he was offering them a religion far loftier in its concepts than Greek mythology.
Paul told them that the real God had never been remote from their lives. He had always been the source of every good thing. From Him came refreshing rain and bountiful harvests and satisfying food. From Him also came joy and gladness. Until now He had suffered the nations to walk according to their own desires and to invent their own religions. But now He was sending out His spokesman to demand that all men turn from their superstitions and worship Him.
The words of Paul hardly made an impression on the people. The miracle he performed had convinced them he was a god, and with their pagan worldview they could not see any other way of explaining it. Paul's words made no sense. What god was he talking about? At the very moment when they were full of ardor for Jupiter, thinking he had come to see them, they were hardly interested in hearing about another god. At last, though, it became obvious that Paul and Barnabas refused to be worshiped, and the people backed down. They all finally went home, greatly puzzled by what happened. Who were these men, and how did they work a miracle?
The Fickleness of Public Opinion
In the days following, the apostles no doubt kept preaching in the city. The writer says nothing about the results of their work, but apparently some received the gospel. Later in the same missionary journey, the apostles returned to Lystra to teach and strengthen the disciples who were the fruit of their first visit.
After a while, enemies of Paul and Barnabas arrived from Antioch and Iconium. These were Jews whose hatred of the apostles was so bitter that they followed them to Lystra and sought to turn public opinion against them. We do not know what lies they told to vilify the apostles, but the people accepted the lies as truth. Soon the same mob that had been ready to worship Paul and Barnabas were ready to kill them.
The account says simply that after the outside agitators won the people to their side, they stoned Paul. Exactly who murdered him? Literally, Luke says, "Thither came . . . Jews, and having persuaded the crowds, and having stoned Paul, drew [him] outside the city."30 We conclude that the stoning was done not by the Lystrans, but by the agitators themselves. Apparently they had come to carry out the execution that the leaders of Iconium authorized before Paul escaped from their grasp. After stoning Paul, the assailants dragged his body outside the city, thinking he was dead.
The disciples he had won to Christ during his ministry at Lystra gathered around him and mourned. If his executioners thought he was dead, his friends too must have thought he was dead. But suddenly he came to life, stood, and assured them he was all right. Doubtless with great joy, but also with a measure of secrecy, they returned to the city, where Paul hid overnight. The next day, he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
Before recounting the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Iconium, Luke revealed that their intention when entering Lycaonia was to reach not only Lystra and Derbe, but also "the region that lieth round about" (v. 6). It is therefore likely that as the apostles traveled down the Via Sebaste to Derbe, they stopped and preached at all the significant towns along their route: Dalisandos, Kodylessos, Posala, and perhaps also Laranda.37
Revisiting the Churches
Derbe, a city of Lycaonia probably still within the province of Galatia but bordering the kingdom of Commagne,38 lay about sixty miles southeast of Lystra.39 Compared with the other cities the apostles had visited recently, Derbe was a smaller town where the culture was more indigenous than Roman or Greek.40 Its people gave Paul and Barnabas a very different reception. The account implies that they conducted their ministry in peace, without savage opposition. The new place for preaching was apparently far enough away from previous places that their enemies did not bother to pursue them. The apostles saw many turn to Christ, and they were able to spend time discipling them.
Afterward they retraced their steps through the cities where they had already established churches. It appears that they entered each city unnoticed and stayed only a short while, because there is no record of further opposition. Yet they stayed long enough to accomplish several key objectives:
- They "confirmed" (strengthened) the souls of the new believers by teaching them sound doctrine, in recognition that their faith needed a broader and deeper foundation in the Word of God.
- They warned them that the only path to the kingdom of God leads through many troubles. What child of God would not agree? Therefore, the new believers must not let troubles stop them from continuing in the faith.
- They ordained elders for every church. That is, they chose men who could serve as pastor-teachers.
- They gave time to prayer, and for the sake of single-minded concentration on prayer, they fasted also. The theme of their prayer was to seek God's blessing upon His work. The apostles wanted God to pour out His grace on the new believers so that they might continue in the faith, grow in spiritual understanding and in holiness of life, and at last come to their eternal reward.
In their return journey, Paul and Barnabas wended their way through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch—all the cities without exception where they had planted churches. It is evident from their willingness to go back to places where mobs had to sought to kill them that their motive for leaving these places earlier was not cowardice. Rather, it was merely to avoid untimely deaths that would irrevocably halt their productive ministry of saving souls.
From Antioch, Paul and Barnabas began the trek back home. They had to descend through the mountainous region of Pisidia before reaching the coastal region of Pamphylia, but at last they came to Perga, the first city they visited after disembarking in Asia Minor. Back then, they apparently had not done much preaching, but now they corrected the omission. Before setting sail from the nearby port of Attalia, they shared the gospel with the people of Perga. Luke does not disclose the results, but probably he expects the reader to assume that Spirit-filled preaching normally leads to souls saved.
Finally the apostles reached their destination, Antioch of Syria. How much time had passed since their departure from this city is uncertain. A common estimate is that the first missionary journey of Paul lasted about one year.
The brothers who had sent out the apostles with much love and prayer no doubt gave them a warm welcome. Without delay, Paul and Barnabas summoned the whole church and told them everything that happened. They rehearsed in detail all their successes and failures, sufferings and joys, dangers and deliverances. It must have been evident to all that their missionary expedition had produced a major advance of the gospel. God had displayed His supernatural power by starting, within a short time, several strong churches in the heart of Asia Minor. From these the gospel would spread throughout the whole region.
Luke does not record the reaction of the church, perhaps thinking it unnecessary to state the obvious, for the church must have rejoiced greatly at the news of what God had done .
After coming home, Paul and Barnabas lingered for a while in Antioch, helping the work of God in that city and recouping their strength before attempting another grueling work for God.
Here in the sequence of events we should probably place an incident remembered by Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians (Gal. 2:11–14). While Paul and Barnabas were resident in Antioch, Peter came to visit the church. He apparently found upon his arrival that all social barriers dividing Jew and gentile had broken down, to the extent that Jewish believers had no scruple against eating with their uncircumcised brethren. Since he had learned from the Lord Himself that the distinction between clean and unclean was obsolete, he readily joined in the meals shared by the whole congregation.
But during his visit, some men associated with James, evidently on a mission that James authorized, came to Antioch from Jerusalem. Peter, fearful that they would carry back a report that he was eating with gentiles, decided to pretend that he still lived according to tradition. He restricted himself to fellowship with Jews only, and some other Jews, even including Barnabas, followed his example. Paul, upset with Peter’s hypocrisy, publicly rebuked him, asking, "If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?"
We infer that to make a good impression on the associates of James, Peter had gone so far as to preach that gentile converts must obey the law of Moses. Whether circumcision was an issue, we do not know. Probably not, because James had already agreed that gentiles should be exempt from this requirement (Gal. 2:1–9). The main issues probably concerned what foods were permissible and what ritual cleansings had to be performed. It is possible that on some matters of ceremonial or civil law, James still held that gentiles should meet Old Testament standards.