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Preaching in and Fleeing From Iconium
What happened in the Pisidian Antioch, is repeated in Iconium. Paul and Barnabas again first go to the synagogue. The persecution in Antioch has not diminished their courage and zeal to bring the gospel. They speak in a way that leads a large crowd of people, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles, to come to faith. Their speaking must be such that the Lord can use it (cf. Ecc 12:10). It is about an ability that must be of God (2Cor 3:5), which is His gift, but which must also be used. The Word has power and bears fruit.
As in Pisidian Antioch, the unbelieving Jews are the fierce opponents of the gospel. Here, too, they know how to manipulate the minds of the Gentiles and to make them bitter, so that they come in opposition to the brethren. But the brethren do not give way to the rage of the people. They remain for a long time, without worrying about the attempts of the Jews to expel them. They speak boldly of the Lord and bear witness to Him.
In turn, the Lord gives testimony to the Word of His grace by giving to His witnesses that they perform signs and wonders. These signs and wonders serve to confirm the Word. This is as the Lord promised when He commanded them to proclaim the gospel (Mk 16:20; cf. Heb 2:3-4). Yet we do not read that every preaching in Acts is accompanied by doing signs and wonders. So it is not an automatism.
If the gospel is so strongly preached, there is division in the crowd. The preaching of the gospel brings division. The opposition in Iconium grows and takes on a threatening form. The enmity becomes so great that there is mention of a plan to mistreat and stone the apostles. This plan was conceived in a conspiracy between the peoples and the Jews with their rulers. The forging of such a plan shows the deep-rooted hatred against the proclaimers of the gospel. Not only death by stoning, but also a preceding mistreatment is part of their plan.
Though they did not give in at first to the bitter mood among the Gentiles, the moment comes when it seems advisable to flee (Mt 10:23). It is just how the Holy Spirit wants it, because through Him they let themselves be guided. The apostles were not characterized by a kind of heroism, but by something much better: the simplicity of grace. This is how they come to flee into Lystra and Derbe, cities that are in Lycaonia, which thereby get the chance to hear the gospel.
Healing a Lame in Lystra
There is no synagogue in Lystra. It seems to be a strong pagan city. When they walk through Lystra, they see a man who has not been able to walk since he was born. Luke directs our attention to this man who, as far as his condition is concerned, strongly resembles the man we met in the beginning of Acts and who was healed by Peter and John (Acts 3:2-8). There it was a Jewish man, here a pagan. As a true evangelist, Paul sees that the man listens with great interest to what he says.
Paul can discern whether it is just curiosity or a deeper need for interest. He sees that this man has faith to be saved, both in his body and in his soul. Therefore he does not need a long consideration to know what to do. He speaks with a loud voice to the man the words: “Stand upright on your feet.” The man obeys directly. He leaps up and walks. The healing is immediate and complete.
That is the case with all the wonders in the New Testament. They all have a direct and perfect result. There is no question of gradual or half work. The wonder of the healing of a blind person by the Lord Jesus in phases is no exception (Mk 8:24-25). It is a conscious work of the Lord through which He wants to teach the disciples a lesson (see the explanation of the Gospel according to Mark).
By the way, Paul was not looking for someone he could heal. He didn’t make the sick better looking for them everywhere randomly, but he noticed something special with this man.
Preaching of Paul in Lystra
In light of their erroneous view of things, the crowds misrepresent what is happening. They live by the faith of descending gods. There is no intellectual idolatry in Lystra, but primitive idolatry. They immediately give Barnabas and Saul the names of their most important idols because it is clear to them that these idols appeared in human form among them. They call Paul Hermes because Hermes was the messenger of Zeus. Barnabas is the silent one and therefore they worship him as Zeus, the main god. Because Paul speaks, they give him the place of messenger.
The temple of Zeus stands in front of the city as a forward post to protect the city. That temple has a priest who quickly arrives with bulls to sacrifice them to these ‘gods’. Because everything happens in the Lycaonian language, Paul and Barnabas at first don’t realize what is going on, but as soon as their intention is clear, they come in defense. They immediately and radically reject the tribute that these people want to pay them.
This whole movement is a huge danger to the Christian faith, greater than any opposition. In this way, countless people allow themselves to be honored. Herod has therefore been punished by God with a terrible death (Acts 12:23).
Paul and Barnabas do not want any tribute from them. To get out of the commotion, they have to cry out. They cry out to the crowds as to why they are doing this, for it is utterly reprehensible because they too are only creatures (Acts 10:26; Rev 19:10). The situation is urgent and they need to change their minds quickly.
They take the opportunity to preach the gospel to them. On this occasion, Paul does not quote anything from the Old Testament, which he does when speaking to Jews. Here, however, he speaks to primitive pagans. That is why he starts with the Creator and creation, a theme that interests the Gentiles very much. For us this is the lesson that it is always good to think about who we have before us and to connect with that in the preaching. Paul goes on to say that after creation God let the nations go their own ways. That this is the result of the falling into sin, he does not talk about.
Nor does he speak about the election of a people for His Name out of all those nations. He does talk about the fact that God, although He has let the nations go their own ways, has taken care of them. His care for them has been – and still is – expressed by giving rain from heaven and fruitful seasons. “From heaven” means from God’s presence. Every harvest is a proof of His goodness. He has also filled their hearts with food, i.e. with satisfaction about good results of efforts made, which also goes hand in hand with joy.
There are many earthly blessings that also fill the hearts of unbelievers with joy. Even unbelievers know the satisfaction and joy of a good marriage and good family relationships, of health and enjoyable work. The joy that God gives in natural relationships is a testimony of His goodness towards people in general. It is a gift from Him. God is the Savior, that here means Sustainer, of all people (1Tim 4:10; Psa 104:27-28). That same God now comes to announce the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Having said this, the people of Lystra refrain from sacrificing to the apostles. It seems that the danger of devil worship has been averted. But other dangers arise.
When the Jews of Antioch and Iconium come to Lystra, they are not displeased with the idolatry of the pagans. Nor are they on the side of Paul and Barnabas against idolatry. On the contrary, they turn against the two servants of God. Their hatred of the gospel is greater than their abhorrence of paganism and its idolatry.
The Jews of Antioch and Iconium are not satisfied that they have driven the bringers of the gospel out of their own cities. They pursue the apostles and through their malicious imputations manipulate the crowds here in Lystra as well, resulting in an uprising against Paul and Barnabas. The crowds seize Paul and stone him as if he were a false prophet. Then they drag him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.
When people start to worship people, they exalt themselves, someone equal to them, a human being. When someone comes to condemn this worship and points to the Lord Jesus as the only One Who may be honored, he gets the hatred of those people on himself. At first they wanted to worship Paul as a god, but when it turns out that he condemns their religion, they turn against him and kill him. At least that’s what they think.
The power of life is greater than the power of the devil and death. Surrounded by disciples, Paul comes back to life. It is a beautiful image: The disciples stand around him as a circle of life – presumably they have prayed for him – through which there is an atmosphere to which death gives way and life can reveal itself.
When Paul has risen, he enters the city again, not to be admired as a god who has power over death, but to finalize a few things. It is in itself a wonder of God that from near death he can rise a moment later healthy and strengthened and move on.
After finishing his work in Lystra, the next day he goes to Derbe with Barnabas. There too they preach the gospel with great results. Many come to faith there and become disciples. That will mean that these believers are baptized and also taught to live as followers of the Lord. Presumably in this environment and during this visit Timothy was brought to the Lord by Paul (Acts 16:1; 1Tim 1:2; 2Tim 1:2).
Back to Antioch in Syria
In reverse order, they again visited the cities where they had previously brought the gospel, now to strengthen the disciples. It is an after-care visit, a pastoral service. This is a necessary part of the labor of love that newly converted souls need. They come fearlessly to the places where they have previously been driven away by persecution. During the Lord Jesus’ walk in Israel, the disciples did not dare to return to a place where they recently tried to stone Him (Jn 11:8). Paul and Barnabas do not have that fear here. They go through the power of the Spirit, while they also know that God, as with Job, determines the boundary of the work of Satan.
That they are well aware of what happened to them during their first visit, we see with Paul. When he writes his farewell letter to Timothy at the end of his life, he refers once more to all the suffering that has befallen him in these three cities (2Tim 3:11). That happened at the very beginning of his service, but he never forgot it. These are the cities where especially the Jews persecuted him bitterly and tried to kill him, but where the Lord rescued him.
The service in the mentioned cities does not consist of openly preaching the gospel this time either, but as said, of strengthening the souls of the disciples in faith. They teach the disciples in the truth of the faith and encourage them to hold on to it. It is about holding on to the whole Word of God. Staying in the faith is necessary because there is a lot of deception and oppression.
Furthermore, Paul makes it clear that tribulation is part of the gospel. More than anyone else he knows what he is talking about when he says this. He knows from experience the tribulations that accompany entering into the kingdom of God. He who says this, has just been stoned (cf. Col 1:28-29).
These believers have continued to live in cities where there is great opposition to the gospel. Therefore they need reinforcement and encouragement. In faith they have already entered the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5), but not yet actually, because that will only happen when the Lord Jesus comes back to visibly establish that kingdom. Between these two events lie the tribulations (2Pet 1:11).
Paul here presents the kingdom of God as it will be in the future because he speaks about entering. Only believers can enter it because unbelievers cannot “earn” the kingdom by undergoing tribulation. For believers there is now tribulation and later rest (2Thes 1:6-7).
Apart from their teaching the apostles give to encourage the believers, they do something else that will be of help to these young believers once they have left. They appoint elders in each church. The apostles appoint these elders after they have chosen them themselves. In both these actions, choosing and appointing, there is no activity of the church. The appointment of elders is further only mentioned in Titus 1 (Tit 1:5).
The appointment of elders happens in churches of the Gentiles. In churches with an exclusively Jewish background this is not an issue, because elders have been present there for many years. In their case we read nothing about a formal appointment. The elders for Gentile churches were not appointed by Paul and Barnabas right at the start of the church, but at a second visit. Some maturation of the believers has taken place and some who possess the necessary qualities can now be appointed.
What the requirements of an elder (or ‘overseer’) are, Paul has written in his first letter to Timothy and in his letter to Titus (1Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9). The word for ‘elder’, means that it is someone who is a more mature believer in the midst of newly converted believers. From the texts where the appointment of elders occurs, it appears that the authority of the apostles is the source. The official appointment of elders is therefore no longer possible since the passing away of the apostles.
Although there are no officially appointed elders anymore, fortunately there are still older believers who function as elders in the local church. They are given by the Holy Spirit and can be recognized by their qualities. They should be acknowledged by the church in their work (Acts 20:28; cf. Heb 13:7; 17; 24; 1Thes 5:12).
We also observe that after the activities of the apostles as evangelists, they unite the converted in a local church to which a letter or letters will also be written later. In these letters Paul further teaches the believers how things should be done in a local church. It is nice to remember that the local church represents the universal church (1Cor 12:27). The local believers are members of the church. They may know that the Lord Jesus is in the midst according to His promise when they come together as a church (Mt 18:20).
After the appointment of the elders Paul and Barnabas commend the believers to the Lord in prayer with fasting. Luke adds “in whom they had believed”. He emphasizes once more that the believers have entrusted their lives to the Lord. It is in this trust that the apostles continue on their way back.
On their return journey, they travel through Pisidia and arrive in the south in Pamphylia on the coast. There they visit Perga, wherever they have been on their outward journey and where Mark has left them. This time they speak the Word there. Then they travel to the port of Attalia.
Arrival and Report in Antioch
They leave Attalia and sail across the Mediterranean to disembark again in Antioch. This is Antioch in Syria from where, more than a year ago, they left for their first missionary journey. The church did not send them, but commended them to the grace of God for the work to which He had called them. The church has been sympathizing with them. Now the apostles want to share with the believers what the Lord has done through their ministry (cf. Acts 21:19).
There is no question of accountability towards the church. The church is not the source of mission, but a place of fellowship where what the Lord does in blessing for others is shared. God is the One Who works, they are only the instruments. Also today it is heartwarming for believers who are allowed to do a work for the Lord elsewhere to experience interest from the ‘home church’ in the work that the Lord does.
Paul and Barnabas tell the believers especially that God has opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. This has already been the case in Antioch because Antioch is also a Gentile city. Yet the existence of a church of Gentiles is only an incident. Now it has become clear that God is working through Paul and Barnabas everywhere outside Israel and that the Gentiles are coming to faith in crowds, together with some Jews who also live in those places.
God’s work of grace among the Gentiles through His Word and the power of the Holy Spirit outside the church in Jerusalem and the law raises the question with the converted Jews whether this can happen just like that. In the next chapter this question will be answered. We will see there that the grace of God also has an answer to this question.
After the report Paul and Barnabas do not leave immediately for the further proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles. They stay with the disciples for a longer period of time. Their ‘home church’ is a kind of haven of peace after all the unrest they have experienced in their work. There they can share and have fellowship.
It must have been a refreshment for them to stay with these believers, called “disciples” by Luke. The fact that the believers are called “disciples” is because of their consistent imitation of the Lord Jesus. To be allowed to stay with such believers is a blessing for anyone who also wants to consistently imitate the Lord Jesus, as we know from Paul and Barnabas.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Acts 14". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14