Acts 14 spans nearly the entirety of Paul’s first missionary journey. From Lystra forward we have no record of the missionary tram ministering in Jewish synagogues; it appears for at least the time being they are focusing heavily on Gentiles. This narrative also demonstrates Paul’s indomitable spirit (a gift of grace, to be sure, but his own character nonetheless), and the power of the gospel to both save and upbuild.
A. The Superstition of Sinners (vv. 8-18)
In Lystra, Paul is preaching outdoors and a pagan man is listening to him intently. Evidently believing the message (or at least that Paul was a powerful representative of the true God), he begins to believe God can heal him. For this man has been paralyzed from birth, and Luke underscores the fact by saying he “had no strength in his feet” and “had never walked” (v. 8). (Would that a prosperity gospel televangelist could perform a miracle on this kind of sick person!) Seeing his faith, Paul commands wellness into him and the man immediately stands up, completely healed, and begins leaping and walking (v. 10).
This is where things get interesting. The Lystrian people are pagans. Evidently there is either not a Jewish population, or one so small that there isn’t a synagogue—and with that lack of even a compromised Jewish witness there comes a profoundly deep entrenchment into paganism. According to local folklore recorded by the famed poet Ovid, Zeus and Hermes had once disguised themselves as humans and sought lodging and hospitality in the area. All the people turned them away except a poor farmer and his wife, at great sacrifice and cost given their poverty. In vengeance, Zeus and Hermes flooded the entire region, but honored the peasant and his wife by turning their house into a temple and them into priest and priestess. Not wanting to face the impetuous judgment of fickle gods like their forebears, the people immediately seek to honor Paul and Barnabas as gods. Because of his eloquent speaking abilities, they assumed Paul was Hermes, who had the task of speaking on behalf of the gods. Why they thought Barnabas was Zeus is unknown, though it may have been simply because they only expected two gods to show up and Hermes’s spot was already taken.
Horrified at the people’s worship of them, Barnabas and Paul use the opportunity to point away from themselves and to the Lord. Paul will later use the same language about the Thessalonians, except this time it is to fellow believers, who have “turned from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). Paul emphasizes the Creatorship and sovereignty of God to these pagans, saying how He—not Zeus, Hermes or anyone else—created the world and witnesses to His Lordship and ongoing personal presence in His world by doing good to all men (cf. Psa. 145:9) and giving them food and times of harvest (vv. 15-17). But because God has handed the nations over to demonic influence, rule, and deception (v. 16; cf. Psa. 82; Deut. 4:19, 32:8-9, 16, 17, 21; 1 Cor. 10:20-22), the people remain blind, and it is only with great difficulty that they keep the people from offering sacrifice to them (v. 18). The superstition proves too great, and God’s regenerating grace absent, at least for now.
B. The Sabotage of the Self-Righteous (v. 19)
Recall in the earlier periods of the missionary journey Paul had had run-ins with the Jewish populations of Antioch and Iconium (they were driven out of the former and nearly stoned in the latter). Adept as they are at inciting crowds and creating mob violence, they somehow find out where Paul is and influence the Gentile crowds against him. Paul is dragged out of the city and stoned. It is notable that the subject of the verb “stoned” is not the pagans, but the Jews. Enraged that Paul is continuing to preach the gospel, furious he is offering it to Gentiles, they view him as ab unforgiving threat and want to stamp it out. Doubtless they are possessed with the same zeal Paul once had against the church. Eternity will show if God had mercy on some of them as He did Paul. His words in Romans 10 are most helpful in understanding the wrath of his fellow Jews. “They have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (vv. 2-3). Paul came as a herald of God’s saving righteousness in Christ. Those relying on their own detest the humility required to receive God’s and what it says about their own sinfulness and inability. Instead of humbling themselves and accepting God’s grace, they seek to neutralize and destroy they very thing threatening their self-righteous house of cards.
The next chapters record further conflicts with Jews, and even Paul’s ultimate missions trip—the journey to Rome that closes the book of Acts—is due to an altercation with them. Why does Paul keep going despite the challenges? Why does Luke continue the narrative? Because in setting Israel aside for the duration of the present age, God has opened a door of faith to the nations through the church. It is to the ministries and the transformed lives of these church saints we now turn.
C. The Service of the Saints (vv. 20-28)
Paul is assumed to be dead by the Jews and possibly by the small crowd of believers who surround his limp form outside Lystra (v. 20). But he isn’t—indeed, he gets right back up and goes back into the city! This man fears no one but God. However, he and Barnabas and the rest of the team leave the next day and go to Derbe, a city about forty miles away. God blesses their efforts and they win many people to Christ. They then go back through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, visiting the Christians there (evidently some Lystrans had come to Christ), encouraging them, and exhorting them (doubtless in the face of persecution) that it is only though walking a path of tribulation they will enter the kingdom of God (v. 22). What are they proclaiming as the source of the strength? Well, what was the focus of the only thing explicitly stated? The kingdom! They proclaimed the dawn of fulfillment of God’s promises in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus. The kingdom age has dawned in the church. It is the mustard seed that grows quietly and hiddenly and seemingly powerlessly, but is of a unity with the millennial empire that will come and the resurrected, redeemed earth that will follow in eternity (Matt. 13:31-32). Is the mustard seed that grows to cover the whole world the church or the (millennial) kingdom? Yes! Jesus uses a passage about the millennial redemption to describe the advance of the church. Does this mean the two are the same thing? No—they are distinct phases of the one eschatological, promised kingdom ruled by Messiah—but it does mean from the divine perspective there is a great amount of continuity, and in one sense the millennial reign is the culmination of the work begun in the church age.
Paul writes frequently about the kingdom, bit one of the most succinct and yet sweeping statements comes in 1 Corinthians 15, his magnum opus about the resurrection. Verses 23-24 describe the panorama of history from Christ’s resurrection to the close of the millennial kingdom, when he offers the subdued world to His Father as a love offering. But is this subduing merely coercive, punishing rule over His enemies and entirely future, as many traditional dispensationalists have claimed? Or is the reign and the subduing of a kingdom going on even now? The text indicates the latter. “Reign” is a present infinitive, indicating Christ’s present and ongoing rulership. It is not everything it will be, but it is real and it began with His resurrection-ascension. Note the “for” at the start of verse 25. This most naturally means that verses 23-24 are an explanation of Christ’s reign. Because He reigns until the subordination of all enemies (cf. Psa. 110:1-3), this is actually an excellent proof for His current reign. Are not there still enemies that must be subdued? Does He not subdue some even now through His gospel, making them humble servants? Is He not directing the whole world and everything on it and that happens within it to an appointed, predetermined end of summing up all things in Himself (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:13-20; Eph. 1:10). Is He not already in the highest place of authority, ruling as Lord and Messiah (Eph. 1:18-23; Phil. 2:9-11). Is He simply sitting at His Father’s side doing nothing until He returns? Or is He actively, intentionally, orchestrating events, answering prayer, executing His divine predetermined plan, and pushing the entire world and the course of history towards the ends He, Father, and Spirit have chosen—and in initial fulfillment of Messianic promises made to David about a king who would come from his family and rule the world for God?
Though the kingdom in its fullness is yet future, it is also present, and the unity between them—and thus the assurance that what God began He will complete—is the ground of our hope. This is the hope that carried the first disciples, the message that Paul proclaimed as he continued his missionary journey, and it was the power behind the grace that enabled them to do what he did and which carried him back home to Antioch, and eventually safely home to heaven. That grace from the ruling Christ is what opened a door of faith to the Gentiles, and it is that ruling Lord who still works in and through us today. We, too, are a part of His plans for the world and for the establishment and flourishing of His kingdom. Though much hope is yet future, the future and the present are inexorably connected. What we do today touches the farthest reach of eternity. May God keep our gaze immovably fixed upon our certain hope, and may He give us grace to bank on it utterly, for our usefulness and His greater glory!