“Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”Acts 14:8-23 (ESV)
Paul and Barnabas travel from Iconium to Lystra. They are on a missionary journey preaching the good new of salvation in Jesus Christ. Up to this point, the opposition they have encountered has come from those Jews who are loyal to the teachings from Jerusalem. In Iconium, their difficulty from like Jews came to a point when Paul heard they were to be stoned. Wisdom sent them on their way before this could happen. Nevertheless, many other Jews believed along with many Hellenists.
When the two came to Lystra, they had the same kind of success proclaiming the gospel. The people of Lystra included many Greeks who had their own religions. At the end of this record by Luke, we find Paul was stoned by the manipulation of the traditional Jews and was left for dead. He an Barnabas moved on then made a reverse trip back to Antioch. We are told that during this journey, they re-entered each city and established the churches their by ordaining elders. Luke never forgets to keep his theme in mind: the growth of the Church of Christ.
Here in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas face a very different kind of problem which begins with the healing of a man born crippled. Paul sees the man, tells him to get up, and he does. That’s enough for the Greeks who became excited. To understand what is going on I must take you to the Roman poet Ovid who wrote Metamorphoses. It it he tells the story of Baucis and Philemon, an poor elderly couple living in a town in Phrygia (which was the region just west of Lycaonia in which Lystra sat.
The story goes that Zeus and his messenger Hermes descended Mount Olympus and disguised themselves as common peasants. (Ovid tells it better!) They come to a town and began inquiring for a place to stay and to eat. The townspeople were so wicked that every one turned these two peasants away. Everyone, that is, except this poor elderly couple who invited them into their humble cottage and fed them what they had. During the meal Baucis would repeatedly pour wine for the guests. When she noticed that the level of the wine in the pitcher never decreased, she and Philemon recognized they were in the presence of gods.
Zeus invites them to climb a mountain with he and Hermes but the couple are told that they cannot turn and look back until they reach the top. When they do, they discover the whole town had been destroyed with a flood. But their little cottage had become a golden palace.
This well-known story was surely hovering in the minds of the Greeks in Lystra when they saw a miracle that could only have been done by a god. They were right, of course, but they though of the wrong God. They cry out, “The gods have comedown to us in the likeness of men,” calling Paul Hermes and Barnabas Zeus. Their excitement was that they believed Zeus and Hermes had come down just like they had in their neighboring Phrygia. They were determined not to make the same dreadful mistake made there.
So, the priest in the temple of Zeus gathered bulls and garlands that the people might make sacrifices to these two magnificent gods. Now comes the “cross” part. How easy would it have been to get caught up in their popularity? They could live out their lives in luxury. On the other hand, what kind of fear might they have felt knowing they had to put a stop to the situation at probably get stoned by a disappointed and angry mob? How easy might it have been to simply sneak out a back way and never return?
Paul and Barnabas do not hesitate. No matter what the consequences, they will continue to preach the gospel of truth. Paul says to the crown gathered at the temple, “What in the world are you doing!? We are humans just like you. All we have done is proclaimed the good news that you can and should turn away from these vain things and turn to a living God. This God made you and in the past he allowed the nations to wander in darkness. Even then he left a witness in granting rain and good harvests.”
Paul is not having to think too mach about what to say for he knows the Scriptures intimately, “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.” (Habakkuk 2:18–19, ESV) Instead of these dead idols Paul brings them the living God, the one and only God. Even his reference to the rain comes from the prophets: “Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Are you not he, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for you do all these things.” (Jeremiah 14:22, ESV)
Now is when I turn from teaching to meddlin’, as a friend in Chicago used to say. How are we like the Lyaconians? Or putting the question another way, what are the gods in your life that prevent you from living in the presence of the Father through the Spirit? You see, to take up your cross is to abandon all that is vain and has no substance or value. Replace those things with Christ Jesus. As I have said, this is hard. No one can accomplish this on their own.
What it takes is the Word of God, the Bible, the Spirit of God, our teacher and guide, and the community of Christ known as the Church. God does not speak in dreams and visions because he has spoken once and then very clearly. “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Reading the Bible is good. Memorizing the Bible is better. Studying the Bible is best. If you do the latter, I can guarantee you will accomplish the former two.
However, study must be guided by the Spirit of God. And the the community of the Saints includes all who have gone before, led by the Spirit and preaching and writing what they have learned. The more you submit to Christ, the more you will be able to identify your idols. Don’t be surprised! Idols come in many forms. But there is only one Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior of the world.