Even pagans should know better - Acts 14:8-20

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 1st July 2007.

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I guess that you have to be a special creature to engage in open air preaching. For instance you have to deal with the heckler. Once the Reformer Martin Luther was doing a bit of preaching in the market place when someone thought he could put him off his stride by shouting, ‘What was God doing before he made the world?’ And without missing a beat Luther replied, ‘Making a hell for people who ask stupid questions like that.’ But this is not the preserve or challenge of the Christian alone. There is the story of the atheist speaker on his soap box at Hyde Park corner attacking all ideas in belief in God and that the world just happened without any personal or intelligent being responsible. As he spoke a soft tomato sailed through the air suspiciously close to his head. “Who threw that?” he demanded angrily and a small cockney voice from the back of the crowd piped up, ‘No one. It threw itself!’ 

There is no doubt that you have to have your wits about you and be prepared for anything. But who could ever be prepared for what was to happen to Paul and Barnabas? I know some preachers have been put on a pedestal and lionised, but very few have been worshipped and deified. But that is exactly what happened in Acts 14. So do turn with me to that passage as we see Paul proclaiming the Christian message to what is in effect a biblically illiterate culture, that is a culture very much like our own. So if we are going to be effective in reaching our family and friends for Christ we can’t do much better than learning from a master like Paul.

But first just let me fill you in on the background which is sketched out for us in vv 6-7. Lystra was made a Roman colony in 6AD for retired veterans. But it would have been pretty down market. This is, as the Americans would say, ‘Hicksville’. It is a rural backwater made up of people who spoke Lycaonian, and not the upper class Latin. So we are to think blue collar worker in contrast to the University educated gin and jag crowd of Athens of chapter 17.  So Paul is teaching the Christian message to a non-book culture if you like. It is the first time that the Gospel is being presented to a pure Gentile, non-Jewish audience. Sure, the Roman soldier Cornelius had heard it from Peter back in chapter 10, but he was a ‘god fearer’, so he had some understanding of the Jewish scriptures, but these people have none. So does Paul have to change his approach and maybe ‘dumb down the gospel’ to get it across? Well, as we shall see, his starting point is different from what it would be with Jews, but the content is pretty well the same. What is more, the message and what is required by people by way of response is not that much different from what is presented to the egg heads in Athens as we shall see next week. And the reason for that is simple: The Gospel message remains the same because God and people remain the same. The essential problem these rustics had is the same as that of the Greek philosophers- the problem of the sin of idolatry. And the solution is the same, namely, to abandon that way of life and turn and trust in the one true God as he is found in Jesus Christ. There is not one Gospel for the working classes, another for the middle classes and yet another for the upper classes. There isn’t a message of salvation for the intelligentsia and another for the hoi polloi. There is one Gospel for everyone.

So let’s begin by taking a look at a Gospel opportunity vv 8-10. ‘8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.’ Now does that story sound at all familiar? It should do because it is very much like the episode we looked at a few weeks ago in Acts 3. In fact it seems that Luke who wrote this book deliberately intends to make the comparison. As in the courts of the temple of Jerusalem here is a man lame from birth. Just as Peter looked directly at the crippled man there, Paul does the same with the lame man here. Both command the crippled beggars to stand up and they do so immediately with the healing being total and instant. So what happened to a Jewish invalid with Peter happens to a non-Jewish invalid with Paul. And notice that the man’s faith came as a result of Paul’s preaching in verse 9. So it was not the case that the healing led to the man becoming a believer, but the preaching and so then the healing. It is the message which gives rise to faith. And since Luke is drawing a parallel between Peter and Paul it is highly likely that the healing in this instance was a result of the same power as back in Jerusalem, it occurred in the name of Jesus. After all, it was a result of Paul’s teaching that the man came to have trust or faith. Faith in who? Well, Jesus of course. So here we see that it is the same Gospel which brings wholeness regardless who it is who believes.

The result? A misguided response-vv 11-13. 11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. There is pandemonium as the crowd go crazy for they have never seen anything like it. Notice how they are shouting in their own language, which probably means that Paul and Barnabas hadn’t a clue what they were talking about- the man they healed probably spoke common Greek like most people and that is the language Paul would have used. So, why this reaction? Well, there is a story behind the story which is preserved for us by the 1st century poet Ovid which relates the legend that the two gods Zeus and Hermes visited this region and were mistaken by the people as mere mortals and so were not given any hospitality, except from an old couple Baucis and Philemon who gave them a few scraps of food. Not a good idea to upset the gods. So not wanting to make the same mistake twice, the Lyconeans go overboard in presenting a lavish meal for those they thought were Zeus and Hermes in the hope of getting a second chance. And neither Paul nor Barnabas was going to let an opportunity like this pass them by, they are  going to get the gospel in ,hence our third heading- a timely apologetic-vv 15-18.

Now what do we mean when we talk about giving an ‘apologetic’? Well, this is a fancy term to describe what Christians do when they want to defend and commend the Christian faith in a reasoned way. You see, whilst no one can be argued into the kingdom of heaven, God does use argument, appealing to the heart through the mind to bring people into his kingdom. Just because these people had no formal education didn’t mean they were stupid. People can reason, there is such a thing as common sense which can be appealed to. And that is what we see Paul doing so as to lead these people by the hand so that they can come to know personally the wonderful God who made them, who day by day cares for them and who sent his Son into the world to save them.

And any reasoned presentation of the Christian message has both a negative and positive aspect to it, there is attack and defence.

First of all notice how Paul and Barnabas are horrified by what these pagans are doing-v15. "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you.’


I guess that Paul and Barnabas could have taken advantage of the gullibility of the crowd and played up to their superstitious beliefs. It would have been tempting to perform one or two other miracles to work the crowd and getter a more ready hearing for the gospel. You just have to switch on the ‘God channel’ to see how that is done to great effect. But not these two. Note they call the people, ‘men’ and say that we are ‘men’ just like you. There is no question of elevating themselves above their audience; rather there is identification with them. That is the first rule in evangelism- identify with the people you are dealing with. Many non-Christians are under the impression, sometimes sadly justified, that Christians think of themselves as better than everybody else and so are calling people to join them as part of some sort of moral elite. We should never give that impression. Paul and Barnabas put themselves on the same level as everybody else-including these idol worshipping pagans, because that is where we all belong. In this regard there is no difference between the student and the sales assistant, the doctor and the docker - for as we shall see in a moment, we all engage in the same addictive vice which offends God-idolatry.  It was John Stott who beautifully described evangelism as ‘one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.’ Which is exactly what Paul goes on to say in the second half of  the verse, ‘We are bringing to you good news.’- bread.

That is what had been going on when the lame man received faith; it was the good news which created that trust. Now we are not told here by Luke all of what that ‘good news is’ because he has been spelling that out to his readers in the previous thirteen chapters- namely that it is the great news about the person, life and work of Jesus Christ. But what is interesting here is that we are given a glimpse into the way Paul begins to get that message over to people without Bibles, how he apologises for the Gospel without being apologetic.

First, the negative. What is one of the demands and consequences of this good news? It is ‘to turn from these worthless things’. That is the negative. Both in Greek and Hebrew- worthless things refers to idols. They are empty things, lacking substance and reality, but which nonetheless hold tremendous power over people. Now for these people the idolatry is obvious at the religious level, it is worshipping myths, the Greek mythology of Zeus and Hermes-non-gods. Worse still it involves the vastly mistaken idea that mere men are gods- like Paul and Barnabas. Idolatry is the root sin. It is giving to someone or something else the trust, reverence and devotion which belongs to God alone. It is that which occupies the centre of your life, which shapes your values, which excites and motivates you, or as people might say today, ‘a buzz’.  As such we live in a land of idolatry full of idols. This is why, strictly speaking there is no such thing as an atheist in the sense that everyone is a worshipful creature and will have something which is the object of their devotion. The problem is; it is not God, but a god substitute. And it all goes back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve chose to trust a creature –the serpent- rather than the Creator- God. Instead of God being the supreme object of their desire, it became a fruit hanging on a tree and what the fruit promised-knowledge and with that-power. What’s changed? List your idols- pop idols-fame and celebrity. Football idols- do you remember the billboard poster of a few years ago which dropped the pretence altogether and had a picture of Old Trafford with the simple caption- ‘Come and Worship’? Hedonism and the Greek god of drink Bacchus is the religion of the masses. And although there may be some fine sounding philosophical wrapping, it is the religion of the intelligentsia too, so we as a nation are in danger of pretty well drinking ourselves to death. And the Bible is dead set against all idolatry. It may the idolatry of our pet religion- the traditions of doing church, the idolatry of career, family, food and fashion. And one of the main reasons why the Bible is against it is not only that it breaks the first great commandment- ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your being’ it leads to a  breaking of the second great commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Idols demand total allegiance and they will brook no rivals in other human beings. So if the career becomes all consuming expect a price to be exacted- a neglected family or body. If it is drink and drugs, likewise the children can go without and the liver can suffer. If it is an ideology like communism, then reality will have to be re-shaped and millions have been sacrificed on the altar of that god. In other words, God hates idolatry for not only does it rob him of his glory it robs us of ours- we become less than the thing worshipped. But God wants to liberate us from that and the danger the Christian constantly faces is to be drawn back into it. Here are blue collar workers going in for it, in Athens it will be university lecturers. Either way, both are enslaved and the tragedy is that most aren’t even aware of it. That is the bad news which is part of the good news.

For the really good news is that the way is now open to know and worship the one true God- ‘Telling you to turn from worthless things to the living God.’ Now notice that although the Bible is not  being quoted it is being used, for all the things Paul is about to mention are found in the Old Testament- including the attack on idolatry. So, Isaiah 44:9; ‘All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless.’Psalm 104:14-15. ‘He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-- bringing forth food from the earth: 15wine that gladdens the heart of man.’ You see, there is no problem in drawing on the Bible as we present the good news even with those who don’t know the Bible. You don’t have to quote chapter and verse all the time, but we do need to present the Christian view of reality, which is reality, to show there is a different way of looking at things which makes sense and which gives hope. So what is that?

Well, it all centres on God, that is who Paul begins with, ‘The living God’. Our problem is that we have dethroned God and put ourselves or something else in his place. So, right at the outset, Paul puts God where he rightly belongs- at the centre. He is the living God, not a product of the human imagination; we are a product of his. As such he can’t be domesticated like a poodle, he does whatever he will to do, like any living creature. Because he is living he is able to move, act, respond, unlike idols. And so we are beholden to him, not he to us. Then Paul further unpacks further the character of this God.

He spells out that he is a great God- ‘who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them.’ This focuses for us God’s claim on us as owner because he is our Maker and so we are accountable to him for the way we live our lives- he will judge us. Secondly he is a gracious God-v 16, ‘In the past he let all the nations go their way.’ That is, he did not come down hard in judgement for he is patient and forbearing giving us time to repent. Thirdly he is a good God, a goodness which shows itself in two respects. There is his goodness shown in giving us his revelation- v 17 ‘Yet he has not left himself without testimony’. In letting people go their own way he was not abandoning us. There is revelation in what is all around us- the divine artistry which speaks of the divine artist. The instinct of the Hyde Park atheist was right- he drew the inference that behind the thrown tomato was a thrower, he should likewise have drawn the inference that behind the universe is a Creator. The problem is not that God hasn’t spoken but that we haven’t listened. Instead of picking up the signals and following them, we stopped our ears to the signals and turned out backs. But even in pagan mythology God may have spoken. This was something C.S. Lewis made a lot of. And that might be the case here. I have mentioned how the poet Ovid relates the myth of the appearance of Zeus and Hermes appearance in this area and eventually being given hospitality. But did you know that in Homer, (the Greek writer not Simpson) portrayed Zeus and Hermes as patrons of ambassadors and those who guaranteed the truthfulness of whatever ambassadors said?  So here we have Paul and Barnabas mistaken as Zeus and Hermes, and yet they are God’s true ambassadors testifying to the truth of what god has spoken. Also, the response of the pagans in offering lavish food is misguided at one level but correct at another, for that is how people should treat God’s messengers according to Jesus in Matthew 10.Belief in God is not that difficult, atheism is much harder. But in addition to divine revelation, God’s goodness is shown in divine provision- He has shown kindness by giving you (note it is personal) rain from heaven and crops in their seasons and he provides you with plenty of food and fills your heart with joy.’ We do not give God food like these people were trying to do with the apostles they thought were gods, but God gives us food. He is a generous God, who loves to give and to give. Now, does that not make you want to know this God so you that can at least thank him? Well, now you can. Sadly for us, the sermon breaks off at this point before we find out the answer as to how. But we can take a pretty good guess of what did or would have come next by reading what Paul preached to a similar group of pagans in 1 Thessalonians 1:10: ‘They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.’.  Sooner rather than later we get on to talking about Jesus. The logic is there for because we have turned our backs on such a good God who owns us, unless something is done we are going to face his anger for that. Well, that something has been done in Jesus. That is the message which rescues us. Sure we can’t imagine fully what that rescue is like yet but we will on that day, then when the full deluge of God’s anger is unleashed on the world, we will be eternally grateful that we have been saved from that, because we shall see it. But now we believe it, as many of these people did- v21 ‘they returned to Lystra strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.’ V27 ‘They reported all that god had done through them and how he opened the door o the Gentiles’ We are not to lose our nerve-there is  One Gospel for one world. Lets pray.

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