A Great Harvest in a New City

Acts 14:1-3

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 ninety 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

Getting Practical

Natural beauty all around

In his writings Paul seems indifferent to the glories of God's creation. He makes scarcely any reference to the natural world.8 He alludes frequently to warfare, athletics, farming, and the world of business, but never does he point to the beauty of the flowers, as Jesus does (Matt. 6:28–29), or to the wonder of a star-filled night, as James does (Jas. 1:17). May we then suppose that as Paul and Barnabas traveled the Roman road past lake and mountain, they were blind to their surroundings? Certainly not. The Holy Spirit guiding their steps would surely have alerted them to the kind testimony of friendly breeze, warm sunshine, and green expanse that theirs was a loving God of unlimited power, who was always at work to provide the best for His people. Surely they responded to the Spirit by looking around, and their hard exertions were relieved by joyful gazing at the beauty of nature, exhibiting the same mighty hand of God that was using them as tools to build His church.

Likewise you should never let your eyes stay rigidly on the hard path ahead. Look around at the work of the Creator. The soaring ingenuity and unstoppable implementation of His plan for the natural world will refresh your confidence in His plan for you.

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.

Getting Practical

Opposition as a test of our work for God

Anyone in Christian service who never meets opposition should examine himself. If the devil is not continually throwing roadblocks in his way, the only possible reason is that the devil sees him as no threat to the kingdom of darkness. He has fallen into debilitating sin or compromise, although the sin might be no worse than fearful refusal to leave the safe confines of his routine, his small circle of friends, and his sequestered church property in order to engage a lost world.

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.

Getting Practical

Angry looks in the congregation

A modern preacher may have much the same experience when Satan persuades members of his congregation to turn against him. The rebels may still come, but they face him with angry looks that would shrivel up his courage except for the grace of God.

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

Acts 14:4-7

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.

Pondering a Question

Was it not cowardly for Paul and Barnabas to flee? Was it not better for them to continue in the work and trust in God's protection?

To remain in the lion's mouth sounds like the most spiritual option. But Jesus Himself counseled otherwise. He told His disciples, "But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another" (Matt. 10:23). In spiritual warfare as in the clash of human armies, there is a proper time for retreat. We must certainly be prepared to die for Christ if we find no honorable way of escape, but we should not scorn any escape that God provides. There is no merit in throwing our lives away foolishly, thus ending our usefulness to God. The wisdom in the flight of Paul and Barnabas is evident later in the story, for after a time they were able to return to Iconium and continue the work of building a church in that city (v. 21).

The apostles then went to preach the gospel in the region of Lycaonia, also in the province of Galatia.15

Unwanted Acclaim

Acts 14:8-13

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.

Getting Practical

Spiritual lameness

Few of us are crippled like the man Paul healed. Yet though we might not be crippled in our feet, we may be crippled in our souls, with sin perhaps, or with fears, or with doubts. These moral afflictions immobilize us spiritually. When we should be having communion with God and meditating upon His Word, we let our minds be prisoners to harmful thoughts. So, we sink deeper into our disability. When we should be out doing God's work, we languish in unhealthy self-preoccupation. So, we stay at home in our little Christian enclave and do nothing.

The Bible says that they who carry the good news of salvation have beautiful feet (Rom. 10:15). But the things that cripple our souls make our feet useless to God.

How do we escape from spiritual lameness? In the same way the man in Lystra escaped from bodily lameness. Faith is the remedy. Let us grow in faith by nourishing thoughts of praise and love until faith brings healing to our souls.

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.

Delving Deeper

Evidence for this tradition

The tradition underlying the reaction of the Lystran townspeople to Paul's miracle is preserved not only in Acts, but likely also in a story told by Ovid, the Roman poet.22 He says that Jupiter and Mercury visited "the Phrygian hill-country" in disguise as ordinary men who sorely needed food and lodging, but nowhere, not even at a thousand doors, did they find a helping hand until they came to the poor cottage of Philemon and Baucis, an old couple with little food to spare. Yet the two aged ones of humble means hosted the two gods, treating them to a much finer meal than they could afford. Afterward, the gods destroyed the homes of all who turned them away, and transformed the cottage of Philemon and Baucis into a splendid temple, where the two mortals served as priest and priestess until, instead of dying, they became beautiful trees.

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

Getting Practical

Proper gifts for our God

What cheap, lackluster gifts if Paul and Barnabas had truly been divine! Yet they are like the trifles we are inclined to give the real God—a dollar here, an hour there. No, He wants our whole being (Matt. 22:36–38).

Delving Deeper

Local deities

Several archaeological finds confirm that Zeus and Hermes were worshiped in Lycaonia. The clearest evidence comes from three inscriptions. Of the two found at Sedasa near Lystra, one speaks of a statue of Hermes being dedicated to Zeus.24 The other refers to priests of Zeus.25 An inscription on a stone altar near Lystra affirms that it was dedicated to these same gods: Zeus (called "Hearer of Prayer") and Hermes.26

Delving Deeper

Another touch of realism

In a minor, outlying city like Lystra, it is probable that the local temple was a small building just beyond the city gate and the attendant was a single priest.27 "Priest . . . before their city" (v. 13) can be translated "priest . . . in front of [outside] their city."28 The limited resources at his disposal explain why his gift to the presumed gods was so humble.

A Sermon to Superstitious Gentiles

Acts 14:14-18

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

Delving Deeper

Roots of evolutionary theory

Notice that the modern theory of evolution is simply a revival of ancient paganism. Like the pagan worldview, this theory imagines that the ultimate source of everything was nothing. Nothing, according to modern science, is an inventor of such skill that it can bring into existence wonderful things although it has no mind guiding its work to a preconceived outcome.

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.

Delving Deeper

Natural revelation

Even without God's self-revelation in His Word, the pagan peoples of the world had no excuse for failing to recognize and worship the true God. They had traditions, although garbled, about His workings in man's early history. Some had distant awareness of His workings centered on the descendants of Abraham. All, without exception, saw in His colossal feat of creation the undeniable proof of His existence. And all learned of His moral character through the testimony of their own consciences (Rom. 2:14–15). Thus, in God's eyes, they were "without excuse" (Rom. 1:20).

The truth evident in the world of nature is known as general revelation, or natural revelation.

Getting Practical

The right approach to pagans

Paul's strategy in Lystra was the same he employed when he later appeared before philosophers in Athens. On both occasions, he addressed people with little or no prior exposure to Jewish religion. Therefore, in his opening arguments he said nothing about the gospel. Rather, he built a foundation of ideas essential to understanding it.

Modern missionaries in regions dominated by animistic or Eastern religions should follow Paul's example. They should provide a thorough grounding in the concepts they will use to define critical terms in their gospel appeal. For example, before they say much about the God who came to this world as a man, they should teach creation, so that their hearers will have an exalted conception of God. Before they invite anyone to be saved, they should teach the Fall, so that their hearers will see their need for salvation.

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

Acts 14:19-20

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.

Getting Practical

Swings in popularity

The apostles’ experience in Lystra illustrates perfectly the changeableness of man's esteem. Soon after their arrival, Paul and Barnabas were gods in the eyes of the people. Not long afterward, the people saw them as base criminals deserving of death. Was there any adequate reason, any real justification, for the turnaround? None at all. The last prevailing view of the apostles was as foolish as the first. Paul and Barnabas were neither gods nor villains. Like people everywhere, the Lystrans were fickle. In response to mere shadows of solid information, they scurried from one baseless opinion to another.

We all have tasted the disappointment of people turning against us. When abused by wild swings in popularity, we can take comfort in the character of God. He is constant in His love (Jer. 31:3), dependable in His grace (John 1:16-17), and reliable in His Word (Psa. 119:160).

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.

Pondering a Question

What really happened to Paul when he was stoned? How badly was he hurt? Was he killed?

The injuries Paul suffered must have been serious indeed. He was not just knocked down by a stone thrown by someone lying in wait. His enemies evidently took him into custody first. Thus, they were able to throw as many stones as they felt necessary to kill him. Afterward, they had complete possession of his body, and without opposition, they dragged it outside the city. They left it there, having no doubt that Paul was dead.

These were men who doubtless knew from experience how to do stoning. Moreover, stoning was extremely deadly. The victim was generally pushed into a pit, and then actual rocks, not little stones, were cast down upon him. The procedure at Lystra may have been more spontaneous. Yet the assailants were plural in number, and they did their work without hindrance from defenders. Thus, as in any stoning serving as capital punishment, Paul must have sustained direct strikes on the head delivered at close range. Normally one was sufficient as a deathblow. Before taking away Paul's body, his executioners must have examined it and satisfied themselves that there was no sign of life. In light of these considerations, is there any chance that Paul survived the stoning, that he was only knocked unconscious for a short time? Hardly any.

As Paul's friends were grieving beside his body, he awoke and stood up unaided. A man with a severe head injury does not regain his feet so quickly. Then he walked back into town and set off on a journey the next morning. Again, this is not the behavior of a man reduced to near death by stoning. Clearly, God healed Paul as he lay on the ground. His recovery was miraculous. The question is, how great was the miracle? Did stoning leave him dead or barely alive?

In the tradition of Adam Clarke,31 yet also in line with quite a few other commentators,32 I think it probable that God raised Paul from the dead. If indeed he died, his subsequent recovery from death is the second recorded in Acts. The first was when Peter restored Dorcas to life (Acts 9:36–42).

Delving Deeper

Luke's noncommittal wording

Some commentators have come to very different conclusions on the basis of Luke's comment that Paul's persecutors "drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead" (Acts 14:19). They argue from Luke's usage elsewhere of the Greek word translated "supposing" ("suppose," "supposed," or "supposing" in Luke 2:44; 3:23; Acts 7:25; 16:27; 21:29; "think" or "thought" in Acts 8:20: 17:2933) that he never employed it except for an erroneous way of thinking. They conclude that the stoning did not kill Paul.

Yet the Greek word in question, nomizo, is nearly the exact counterpart of the English word "suppose.34" An English speaker might favor use of "suppose" for false suppositions, yet occasionally choose it for suppositions that prove correct. Paul illustrates such use of nomizo in First Corinthians 7:26.35

Yet we dare not be simplistic in our reading of Acts 14:19. Luke may indeed be accusing Paul's killers of a false idea. They thought he was dead in the sense that he would stay dead—that they had achieved good riddance—but after a brief time he was alive again and ready to continue his ministry. After some delay, he even resumed his ministry in Lystra, the place of his stoning.

Delving Still Deeper

Paul's translation to Paradise

Most who believe that Paul died at Lystra also believe that he is remembering his experience there when he speaks in Second Corinthians of a man caught up to heaven (2 Cor. 12:1–7). He does not identify the man, but the context makes it clear that he is none other than Paul himself. Paul’s reference to this unnamed man comes in the midst of his own life story (2 Cor. 11:16–12:10).

Linking this passage with Paul's stoning is, however, disallowed by a correct dating of events. Paul says that the man's passage to heaven took place fourteen years earlier; that is, before the time when he was setting down his words to the Corinthian church. Known dates for key events in the Book of Acts, taken along with information Luke provides on the duration of certain stages in Paul's ministry, allow us to determine roughly when every important development in the early church took place (see Appendix 1). As rough estimates, the year we can assign Paul's first visit to Lystra is 47 or 48, and our best choice of a year for the writing of Second Corinthians is 56. The time span between these events was therefore not fourteen years, but eight or nine years.

More decisive, however, is Paul's comment in Galatians that fourteen years after his conversion, he visited Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1). We have argued that this was his visit to bring famine relief. To compress the interval from his conversion to his writing of Second Corinthians, we can assume that he used inclusive reckoning, and we can place no more than a year between this visit and his stoning at Lystra. The interval is therefore no less than 27 years. If we very unrealistically push Paul's conversion all the way back to the year of Christ's death, in AD 33, we conclude that Second Corinthians dates from AD 60. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that Festus succeeded Felix no later than AD 60.36

So, we have come to contradictions beyond dismissal. Paul in Second Corinthians must be referring to an experience he had many years before his first missionary journey.

Getting Practical

Inescapable justice

We dare not overlook that Paul’s stoning was the just penalty for his murder of Christians while he was still Saul the persecutor. His later repentance delivered him from the eternal punishment due him as a sinner against divine law, but not from the punishment he deserved in this life as a capital offender against criminal law, as ordained by God (Gen. 9:5–6). Although he had official backing for his attacks upon the church, the killings he perpetrated or assisted were no less than murder.

We can be sure that Paul always carried some guilt about the terrible crimes he once committed. The capital punishment he suffered was, therefore, in some degree a stroke of divine mercy as well as divine justice. It was mercy because getting what he deserved helped to salve his conscience.

In dealing with criminals who have come to Christ, we must not encourage them to hope that God will spare them from the consequences of the evil they have committed. God may substitute His chastening for the world’s, but never will He sidestep the principle that we must reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). Although Zacchaeus the rich publican responded with faith when Jesus came to his home, he still had to make restitution for all his ill-gotten gain (Luke 19:1–10). When the thief on the cross confessed Jesus as Lord, Jesus granted him eternal life, but did not spare him from finishing the capital punishment he deserved as a criminal (Luke 23:39–43).

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

Acts 14:21-23

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:

  1. 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.

    Getting Practical

    Importance of follow-up

    In the Bible, firsts are often important. This account of the first missionary outreach shows that Paul and Barnabas did not neglect follow-up. Before leaving the field, they went back to the churches they started and made sure that these new outposts of Christian faith could survive on their own. Their work to strengthen recent converts is obviously meant as an example for all church planters.

  2. 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.
  3. They ordained elders for every church. That is, they chose men who could serve as pastor-teachers.

    Pondering a Question

    Since all the new churches had no members except new Christians, how did Paul find qualified people to serve as elders?

    Each new church no doubt included some Jewish men who had known the Scriptures from their youth. They were well-acquainted with the mind of God in many matters. Even before learning about Christ, they had been devout in serving the God of Israel and faithful in obeying His will already revealed to them. Therefore, they had a spiritual maturity far beyond what we would normally expect in new converts. It was likely from these men that Paul and Barnabas chose pastors.

  4. 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.

Returning Home

Acts 14:24-28

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 .

Getting Practical

Returning to a sending church

The return of Paul and Barnabas after their missionary journey is another first. It was the first time missionaries went back to a sending church. What they did upon returning sets another example. The missionaries recognized their obligation to give the sending church a full account of their sorties into enemy territory.

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.

Delving Deeper

Timing of Peter's visit

The incident bears marks setting it at a time prior to the Jerusalem Council.41 The Council, which we will study in the next chapter, was convened to resolve the controversy that flared up when Jewish teachers from Jerusalem descended on the church in Antioch and aggressively argued that male gentile believers must be circumcised.

  1. During his visit to Antioch, Peter was still wishy-washy on the question of whether gentiles should keep the Mosaic law, but at the Council he publicly affirmed in the strongest terms that they should be excused from it (Acts 15:10, in response to the Pharisees’ contention in v. 5), and he supported the verdict of the Council limiting their obligation to the four rules proposed by James (Acts 15:23, providing the equivalent of Peter’s signature).
  2. Paul would certainly have referred to the verdict of the Council if his rebuke of Peter came some time afterward.

The incident also bears marks distinguishing it from events in Antioch just preceding the Council.

  1. During Peter’s visit, Barnabas masqueraded as a traditionalist, whereas in the controversy that erupted when Judaizers came to Antioch, he stood firmly with Paul as an advocate of gentile freedom (Acts 15:2).
  2. Luke’s record of this controversy omits any mention of Peter. If he had been present, it is inconceivable that he would have taken no part that Luke thought worthy of mention. Indeed, the church decided that to end the controversy, they would seek guidance from the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2), the implication being that all were absent from Antioch.
  3. During Peter’s visit, his about-face followed the arrival of Jews said to come from James. These could not have been the same Jews who disputed with Paul and Barnabas about circumcision of gentiles, for in the letter that the Council issued, the apostles and elders including James repudiated the legalistic doctrine promoted by these teachers and seemed to disclaim any connection with them (Acts 15:24).

We conclude that Galatians 2:11–14 refers to an earlier incident, perhaps not long after Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey.


  1. Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 431.
  2. F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 300.
  3. Longenecker, 431.
  4. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul & the Early Church, vol. 2 of Early Christian Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 1074.
  5. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 316.
  6. Schnabel, 1111.
  7. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 319.
  8. D. A. Hayes, Paul and His Epistles (n.p.: 1915; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1969), 74–82.
  9. William Ramsay, The Cities of St. Paul: Their Influence on His Life and Thought (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1908), 317–318.
  10. Schnabel, 1111; Longenecker, 431-432.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Strabo Geography 12.6.1.
  13. Ramsay, Cities, 317.
  14. Roland H. Bainton, The Church of Our Fathers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941), 22; Henry C. Sheldon, The Early Church, vol. 1 of History of the Christian Church (n.p., 1895; repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 1.137; F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), 171; Frederick Spanheim, Ecclesiastical Annals (London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1840), 157.
  15. Schnabel, 1109.
  16. Schnabel, 1112.
  17. Longenecker, 434.
  18. Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007), 471: Strabo Geography 12.6.2–5.
  19. Schnabel, 1112–1113.
  20. Longenecker, 434.
  21. George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (N.p., 1897; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), 480.
  22. Ovid Metamorphoses 8.626–724.
  23. Schnabel, 1116; Bock, 476.
  24. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 322; Longenecker, 435; Schnabel, 1116.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Bock, 476; Longenecker, 435–436; Schnabel, 1116.
  28. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 322.
  29. Hesiod, Works and Days, in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1914), 87––91; Edith Hamilton, Mythology (n.p.: Little, Brown and Company, 1942; repr., New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1953), 63–64.
  30. Berry, 481.
  31. Adam Clarke, The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: The Text, with a Commentary and Exegetical Notes, vol. 1 (Baltimore: The Book Company of the Methodist Protestant Church, 1835) 808.
  32. Henry Morris, "The Acts of the Apostles," in The Henry Morris Study Bible, King James Version (Green Forest, Ariz.: Master Books, 2012), 1663–1664; John Phillips, Exploring Acts: The Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1986), 283-284; H. A. Ironside [Lectures on the Book of Acts (1943; repr., New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1988), 341–342] says that the real Paul left his body and visited the third heaven.
  33. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, reprinted in An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, by W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 1108.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.—A.D. 135), A New English Version, rev. and ed. Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd, 1973), 466.
  37. Schnabel, 1120–1121.
  38. Schnabel, 1121; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 326; Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 278.
  39. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 325.
  40. Schnabel, 1121.
  41. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 327.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.