A reflection on Acts 14:8-20 for Sunday, November 1, 2020 at Mosaic Baptist Church
In Lystra there was a crippled man, lame from the time of his birth, who had never walked. He heard Paul speaking – who – staring at him and seeing that he had faith to be whole – said in a loud voice, “Rise upright on your feet.” He sprang up and started to walk.
When the crowds saw what Paul did, they shouted in the language of the Lyconians, “The Gods have come down to us as people!” They named Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes – since he was the speaker. The priest of Zeus – whose temple was just beyond the city – brought oxen and garlands to the gates wanting – along with the crowd – to present a sacrifice.
When the apostles Paul and Barnabas heard, they ripped their clothing and rushed into the crowd shouting and saying, “People, why are you doing this? We are human like you and bring the gospel – so you may turn from these empty things to the living God who made the heavens, earth, sea – and all that is in them. In the generations gone he permitted the nations to follow their own ways – and even so, has not left himself without a witness to his goodness – giving you rain from heaven, seasonal fruit, satisfying you with abundant food, and keeping your hearts joyful. Even with these words they scarcely contained the crowds from sacrificing to them.
Then Jews from Antioch and from Iconium arrived winning over the crowds stoning Paul and dragging him from the city – thinking he was dead. Yet when their disciples encircled him he got up and returned to the city. The following day he went – with Barnabas – to Derbe.
Acts 14:8-20 (Own Translation)
Not all the wonders of God are understood.
We all bring our lenses – so to speak – to the action of God. God’s symbolic healing of the man unable to walk in the Zeus-worshipping city of Lystra is a sobering example.
Miracles do not always bring clarity. In fact, this gracious and faith-filled healing brings something akin to chaos.
Looking through the cult the city was known for – Paul and Barnabas are interpreted as gods-come-down – an affirmation of Lystra’s existing practices. The priest is called. Sacrifices are prepared.
This is no denial of the miraculous. Rather, it is misinterpretation.
The Apostle’s ripping of their clothing reveals their heart-felt response to the city’s predicament. Paul and Barnabas do not present a detached, philosophical argument. Rather, they are deeply disturbed by what they see. The emptiness. The lostness. The worshipping of something too small.
Something far too small.
And so they begin – amid the surrounding pandemonium – to offer a radically different alternative to their understanding of this man’s healing. This is no revelation of the presence of Zeus and Hermes they insist. Neither is it a revelation of the other-worldly character of the apostles.
Rather, it as a revelation of the ‘living God’. This one is much greater that the empty – and hungry – gods of Lystra. This one created all that is, responds graciously to ignorance, and is the source of every good in the created order.
And there is more. This one has a ‘gospel’ to declare. Even as the people misunderstand the source of this man’s healing – and all the good gifts of life – there is a message – a heaven-initiated declaration over them.
Unsurprisingly this message is one of possibility – inviting a ‘turn’ from what is empty to one who is ‘living’. Their attempted sacrifice reveals fear and a belief in the need to appease an unsatisfied deity. Paul and Barnabas – from this miracle and now their few words – are clearly bringing a message of hope and possibility.
How challenging it is for us – and the Lysterians – to imagine the generosity of God – even while it so abundantly surrounds.
The gospel Paul and Barnabas proclaim is the polar opposite to all the people of Lystra believe about the gods of the universe.
You see, they believe God wants to take – and so the offer their goods in sacrifice. Paul believes God wants to give – and so declares the generosity of God revealed in this healing, the rain from heaven, and the annual harvest. God’s giving – not taking – heart is celebrated here as the unrecognised source of their ‘joy’.
These two perspectives on God are worlds apart. For one God is a taker – requiring sacrifice. For the other God is the hyper-generous giver of everything good.
No wonder their heart as – and garments – are torn. Paul and Barnabas are here to share the abundant life they have found in the source of all things – and it is tragically misunderstood.
Yet Paul’s understanding, of the Lystran’s lives is anything but morbid. He knows they experience joy – and abundance. Even as they sacrifice to an imagined deity of greed – they still experience the generosity – and abundance – of God.
For Paul, the gospel, is the good news of a giving – not a taking – God.
Are you prone to imagine God as a taker or a giver? What do you think is the source of this perspective?
How does ‘ignorance’ of God change – or influence – your approach to mission? How does the generosity of God alter your approach to mission?
Are you more likely to consider people who have not heard the gospel to be sad – or to be joyful? Why do you think you have answered this way?