The Gospel’s Offense Acts 14:1-28


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Acts 14:1-28

Paul and Barnabas, driven out of Antioch by the city’s rich and powerful element, made their way to Iconium, some 90 miles eastward along the Roman road. Iconium is, today, the large Turkish city of Konya.

Text Comment

v.1       Once again the word of God proved itself powerful to persuade both Jews and Gentiles. Do not allow yourself to take this for granted. That so many should have believed the Christian gospel – the message being what it is – and at first hearing is utterly remarkable and requires an explanation. And the only satisfactory explanation is that provided in 13:48! This is one of the most unlikely things, if not the most unlikely thing that has ever happened in the history of the world! Since the first preaching was in the synagogue, the Gentiles mentioned here would have been “God-fearers,” Gentiles who had embraced Judaism as a belief system but had not yet been circumcised.

v.3       In his letter to the Galatians Paul alludes to this period of sudden conversions and signs and wonders (3:5). It was something both he and they would remember for the rest of their lives.

v.5       In other words, the plot was hatched with the connivance of government officials.

v.7       The Lord himself had told his disciples to flee should threats be made to their lives (Matt. 10:23). There was to be no courting of martyrdom as you can sometimes find in other religions.

By the way, it was a resident of Iconium who provided the famous physical description of the Apostle Paul, the only one that has come down to us, though preserved, unfortunately in an unreliable 2nd century work, The Acts of Paul. “A man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, bald-headed, bow-legged, strongly built, full of grace…” We gather from Paul’s own remarks that he was not an impressive physical specimen. But, if this is an accurate description, he somehow had a commanding presence.

v.10     No one can miss the similarity to many of the Lord’s healing miracles. Here too, “your faith has made you whole.”

v.14     The fact that the crowd was roaring its praises in the local language may explain why Paul and Barnabas were slow in catching on to what was happening. According to a local legend which the Roman poet Ovid preserved in one of his works, the two gods Zeus and Hermes, disguised as mortal men, sought hospitality in place after place in that country but were repeatedly rebuffed. Finally, they were welcomed by an aged couple, Philemon and Baucis, who, poor as they were, treated them generously. Of course they were unaware of the true identity of their guests. Later the gods rewarded the old couple and punished all who had refused to extend them hospitality. Inscriptions discovered nearby indicate that Zeus and Hermes were worshipped as patron deities by the people of that region. This may account for the enthusiasm of the people, wanting to be sure that they honored the two as they had not been honored on their previous visit! It is an important point regarding general revelation. Even miracles will be entirely misunderstood without an authoritative interpretation.

v.15     What we have now is a record of Paul’s first speech or sermon to an entirely pagan audience, people with no Jewish background and no familiarity with the Bible. Notice the absence of any appeal to Scripture. Rather, as later in Athens, Paul appealed to God as the creator and to the facts of nature as evidence of his existence and goodness. He was adapting his message to his audience.

v.16     What does Paul mean by saying that God allowed the nations to walk in their own way? Apparently something like what he said in Romans 2, to the effect that God judges people according to what they know, not what they do not know. Until the full revelation of salvation was given to the nations, they were not held accountable for information they had not been given. But, of course, God didn’t regard the nations as righteous either. They betrayed the revelation they had received, which God had given them in nature and in their own consciences. Each will be judged according to the light that he or she has.

v.20     Is this a miraculous healing of Paul? Probably not, as it seems likely that would have been mentioned. He probably walked with help back into the city and recovered sufficiently through the night to travel with further assistance on the next day.

v.21     There can be no question of Paul and Barnabas’ courage, returning to cities where their lives had been threatened and, in one case, where Paul had been beaten so badly he was thought to be dead. But on this second visit there was no public preaching – only the encouragement and organization of the new believers.

v.23     Paul and Barnabas left behind them organized and functioning churches, with leadership in place. It is hard of course to be sure of anything based on an argument from silence, but it seems an interesting possibility to me that Paul later remained in Corinth for a year and a half and in Ephesus for three years, at least in part, because he had learned from hard experience that laying an inadequate foundation beneath a brand new community of believers was an invitation to trouble. He had appointed elders for these congregations and moved on, but he would have to write these congregations very soon thereafter his stern letter, the letter we know as Galatians, because they had proved themselves so susceptible to false teaching. It is interesting that Paul never addresses or even refers to the leadership of the churches in Galatians. Perhaps they had been a large part of the problem rather than the guardians of the truth that they should have been.

v.27     The great development continued to be that the Gentiles were responding to the gospel in impressive numbers.

We have, in an earlier sermon, faced the reality of intransigent unbelief. The Jewish authorities knew very well that Jesus had performed miracles. They knew that the charges they had brought against Jesus were false. If they had a modicum of honesty they would have had to admit that they were motivated by jealousy of his popularity, his power, and his goodness. Even Pilate could see that! And, finally, a good many of them knew that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, that his body hadn’t been stolen, and that he had been seen alive again. Then they knew some weeks later that Peter and John had healed a congenitally lame man by the temple gate in the presence of multitudes of people. And still they would not believe; they would not bow the knee to these truths. There were among their own membership men who had become followers of Jesus and were rejoicing in a new experience of God’s love and power, but they were unmoved. Indeed, not content simply to reject the message for themselves, they did their best to crush the fledgling church. This phenomenon of defiant unwillingness to face facts demands an explanation.

It is, of course, hardly unique to the experience of Christians in the world. The amazing capacity of human beings to believe nonsense and to refuse to believe the obvious has been a feature of human life from the beginning and is no less so today. It is a characteristic of all human beings, including the most brilliant of them. In fact, it is probably not too much to say that this capacity to avoid and evade and deny the truth is a principal characteristic of human life. It is an effect of the moral nature of human beings and of their morally corrupt nature. Believing the lie, preferring the lie to the truth, is intellectual immorality. It is a staple of our individual and private life as human beings as surely as it is a staple of our public life, on all sides virtually all the time. People believe what they want to believe, the facts be damned, though only rarely will someone admit this.

And we have that same reality accented in Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in several of the cities of Galatia. We address the subject here because this is such an obvious emphasis of this narrative. Of course the determination of men and women to reject the good news is a major theme throughout the book of Acts. But particularly here. It will prove to be the backstory of much of Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry, which would, of course, be a very different story had he not encountered such fierce opposition to his message in place after place.

The famous British classical scholar J.H. Jowett once wrote:

“I once saw the track of a bleeding [rabbit] across the snow; that was Paul’s track across Europe.” [Cited in Stott, 233]

Here in Acts 14, in Paul and Barnabas’ ministry in Iconium and Lystra, that dismal reality was so prominent that Luke pays more attention to it than even to the notable success the men had in establishing churches in those cities. In Iconium, from the very outset, as we read in v. 2, there was fierce opposition to Paul’s teaching. Not content simply to disobey the good news themselves – for that is the literal meaning of the term rendered “unbelieving” – they were determined not only to convince others to stay clear of Paul and Barnabas – “poisoned their minds against the brothers” suggests a program of disinformation and propaganda – but, fearing their influence, finally hatched a plot to do them bodily harm.

And, once they had escaped their clutches, lest Paul and Barnabas find a warmer welcome in Lystra, they sent agents to Lystra from both Antioch and Iconium to stir up opposition there as well and, as a result, managed to foment physical violence against them, what they had hoped to do in Iconium but had been prevented by someone leaking the plan to Paul and Barnabas before it could be carried out. Though Paul recovered from his wounds, it was no thanks to those who stoned him; they thought they had killed him and were content to have done so.

And still we are not done. Drawing on their recent experience, a chief piece of instructionin fact the only piece of instruction that is recorded here Paul gave the new converts in these Galatian towns concerned the necessity to persevere in the face of opposition since, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” [14:22] That is, Paul was saying, the kind of opposition we have faced, we have suffered, we have endured; now you’re going to face that same opposition yourselves.

Now, to any reader of the Bible, this hardly comes as a surprise. The children of God had been put upon from the beginning of history. As Paul was stoned, the prophets before him were sometimes murdered and almost always opposed. The Messiah was rejected and eventually murdered by his own people. It was Jesus himself who laid it down as a fixed law that if they hated the Master they would hate his servants as well. No wonder that Martin Luther should have named “suffering” as the seventh mark of the church!

Now, to be sure, it is hardly only Christians who suffer persecution, and it is not only the Christian gospel that is rejected with such hostility. The hostility between the communist world and the free world that dominated world politics for a generation has been replaced by that violent animus that dominates relations between Sunni and Shia Islam. And here in our own country we are so used to the visceral enmity that characterizes our political life – hatred is hardly too strong a word – that we blithely take the hard words and the sneers and the character assassination in stride. Hate is the language of our politics, as it is in most countries.

Obviously people don’t really believe – what we hear nowadays from all sides – that each one is free to determine the truth for himself or herself. If that were really what they thought, “live and let live” would be the watchword and no one would really care what someone else believed to be true. Our politics would be so polite as to be positively tranquil, everyone smiling at everyone else, whatever views they held, whatever policies they promoted. Quite the contrary, as we know!

People inevitably believe that there is something at stake in questions of truth and falsehood, something of great importance. That someone holds a view different from our own is rarely a matter of merely personal preference, especially if it has implications for behavior. So we are at daggers over a long list of issues, from government debt to climate change to transgender bathrooms.

This is one of the distinguishing characteristics of human life. It is a fact of life everywhere and all the time. Animosity toward those who hold different opinions is a fact of life on college and university campuses, in personal and social relationships, in politics, in business, in sports, and in philosophy and religion. Why, for goodness sake? Why are people so sensitive? Why is it so personally offensive to people that others disagree with them? Why does their disagreement become such visceral disgust and dislike? Why should people care as much as they do?

Why did those Jews in Iconium and Lystra not simply agree to disagree? Why were they so furious at Paul and Barnabas? Why did their disagreement provoke them to violence? What difference did it make, after all? Only the Christian faith provides a convincing answer to such questions, questions, one would think, anyone would be concerned to answer who wanted to understand the human condition. According to the Bible, man has a moral nature; he is inescapably moral, which is to say that human beings see everything in terms of right and wrong. They can’t help it. They have been made in the image of a moral God who has stamped his nature on their own. Right and wrong matter deeply to him and so it is that they matter deeply to human beings. My goodness, even Charles Darwin could see this. He wrote,

“Of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”

No one can understand human life or human history who does not take seriously the moral nature of people, their capacity for moral judgment, indeed, their passion for it, a passion that no one escapes. There is nothing like this in the animal kingdom, no matter that researchers have spent years trying to prove there is, especially among the great apes. Peter Singer of Princeton wants to include the apes as a part of our community of equals. But in most respects, he’s not serious and we shouldn’t take him seriously. He wants us to forbid – as we should – cruelty to animals, but he is hardly in favor of condemning animals for their cruelty to us or to one another! In 2002 a twenty-seven year old chimp, long studied by Jane Goodall, snatched and killed a little girl in Tanzania. No one clamored for a trial. No one proposed bringing charges against the chimp. Apes can be vicious to one another, sometimes cannibalizing the young of other apes. Should we enact legal measures against such behavior? No one proposes doing so. Why? Because we all know that morality, both the capacity for moral judgment and the responsibility to exercise it is unique to human life. [Cf. Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap, 209-212]

Fact is, evolutionists have been attempting to prove that the unique powers of human beings – language, moral reasoning and judgment, imagination, aesthetic judgment, a theological instinct – that is, our openness to, even passion for universalizing explanations – and so on (all that makes human life what it is), can be found in an undeveloped form in the lower animals. But they have not been able to convince even experts in their own fields, who also believe in evolution, much less the run of thoughtful human beings who can see perfectly well the essential differences that separate us from even the highest animals. We alone have such a moral nature.

At the same time, man has become, by the fall, morally corrupt. He knows the good, but doesn’t do it. This is true of us all. And because of this corruption questions of falsehood and truth are subject to our corrupt morality. He knows the truth but regularly suppresses it for his own purposes. She knows better, but she does it anyway. He may deny that he is a drunk, even when staggering from wall to wall or waking up with a cracking hangover, but he knows perfectly well what drunkenness is and he knows it’s wrong. It is this fallen morality that is addressed by the gospel, by the death of Christ to satisfy divine justice for our sins and by the gift of the Spirit to deliver us from bondage to moral weakness and an inveterate tendency to deceive ourselves about ourselves; to live lies day after day after day. Christian thinkers from the beginning have sought to determine what the root problem with the human character actually is; the sin of sins as it were, that accounts for this thorough-going tendency to moral failure, to self-deception, and to the hatred of others. Some have argued for superbia or pride and the determination to let no one threaten that first place we have given to ourselves in our own hearts. Others have argued for concupiscientia, evil desire, the various lusts we have for fame, power, pleasure, money, and so on. It is, I think, a distinction without a difference. In either case, at the bottom of man’s betrayal of both goodness and truth lies his self-love, her self-affirmation even, perhaps especially, at the expense of others. It is for this reason that the brilliant Augustine concluded that humilitas, humility, was the essential virtue of a truly good life. In such a life the devotion to self is overcome by love and by honesty together, the love of God and of others flowing from an honest reckoning with one’s own sinfulness and ill-desert. And in human history it is only that true humility, that is the overflow of love for God and man, that has ever succeeded in overcoming man’s otherwise inevitable betrayal of both the truth and his neighbor.

With that background, then, back to Paul and Barnabas in Iconium and Lystra. Why the fierce opposition; why the hostility; why the resort to violence. For the age-old reason! The Christian gospel threatened the self at its core, and human beings adore themselves. Think of the gospel as Paul preached it. To believe what Paul was saying required to believe that you had been wrong, seriously wrong, about God, about yourself, about your life. It required you to believe that you were so morally broken, so desperately needy, that only the spectacular intervention of God in Jesus Christ could save you from yourself. You were, in other words, a theological, a spiritual, and a moral failure, something Jews – proud of their faith and their morality as they were – could not stomach admitting. What is more, the enthusiasm of the large crowd of both Jews and Gentiles who were hanging on Paul’s every word threatened to displace them in the admiration of others, provoked the same jealousy Jesus had in Jerusalem. At bottom, they were being asked to adore someone else besides themselves. That is the offense of all offenses!

So powerful were these instinctive passions for self-protection and self-affirmation that they did not and would not yield even to the evidence of miraculous healings, evidence that had, at first, sent the crowds into a frenzy of adulation. Nothing is a truer or more revealing picture of human nature than this: the very people who wanted to fall at the feet of Paul when they thought him Hermes – the kind of god who left their sense of themselves perfectly intact and allowed them to continue to worship themselves – were willing to murder him once they found out he wasn’t, no matter that the man crippled from birth was still standing upright before them and jumping up and down on his now sturdy ankles. Paul, in Romans 1, one of the most profound and important passages in the Bible, will describe this as “the suppression of the truth,” the way human beings characteristically dodge the implications of what they know deep down to be true about themselves and about God. They simply refuse to reckon with it. Why? Paul tells us, and no doubt was thinking about people such as those in Lystra when he wrote, that they do this because in their moral rebellion they have come to worship, which is to say, to love the creature rather than the creator. And which creature above all? Paul tells us in 2 Tim. 3:2: human beings are lovers of themselves! The bottom problem with human beings is not that they hate othersthat is an aftereffect it is that they so passionately love themselves. The hatred of others comes unbidden from that! No wonder that God should have taught us that our great responsibilities are to love him and to love others. In our fallen condition, that is precisely what we do not do and do not want to do: we want to love ourselves. That is the origin of our self-deceit (it is harder to love ourselves if we admit the truth about ourselves), of our hatred of others, of our defensiveness, and of our lust for money, pleasure, power, and reputation. What Paul and Barnabas ran into in Lycaonia was what you and I and everyone else runs into when we look in the mirror: the love of self. And only God in Christ can deliver us from a bondage as natural to us as that!

Thomas Nagel, the NYU philosopher – a man who has got a reputation for being honest about things even when they don’t necessarily reflect very well on himselfwas more honest than most when he wrote:

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that!” [Cited in R. Zacharias, Jesus Among the Other Gods, 50]

Do you hear that: I don’t want there to be a God. My desires for myself rule my own life. Ask him why he doesn’t want there to be a God and he would likely admit that he doesn’t want to be told what to believe or how to live; he doesn’t want his life to be judged at the end of the day; he doesn’t want to face the reality of punishment in the age to come; and so on. But what it all amounts to is this: I don’t want to have to look up to someone so much greater than myself; I don’t want to be displaced by another as the object of worship in my own heart.

It would mean not only that he was wrong about everything important but responsible for being wrong. Honest Jews and Gentiles in Iconium and Lystra would have said a similar thing. They didn’t want the gospel to be true and so they wouldn’t believe it. Fair enough. But wishing and hoping hardly are the same thing as proving. In fact, if human history has taught us anything it is that what human beings wish to be true for their own sake never proves to be the case. And in Lystra there was the lame man standing on his feet with a huge smile on his face! If you want to understand the world you are living in; if you want to understand yourself and your struggles; and if you want to understand Acts 14 and the history of the gospel in the world, this is where you must begin: human beings are passionate lovers of themselves. That is their sin from which comes their unbelief and their defensiveness, and their hatred of others. That is why they were not falling all over themselves to believe in Jesus Christ!

But, then, many did believe. The Holy Spirit overcame their self-love and replaced it with something much higher, purer, more beautiful: the love of God and of others, from which love comes that life, now and forever, which so many seek through the love of themselves but will never find. Chesterton once said that God is like the sun. You cannot look at it, but without it, you cannot see anything else. In a similar way, as the 17th century Christian poet, Thomas Traherne, said,

“You never enjoy the world aright…till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold.” [Traherne in Lewis, Letters to A.G., 368-369]

What determines your life, your access to the truth, is not the power of your mind; it is the object of your deepest love. If it is yourself, you have condemned yourself to deceit, hatred, and fear. If it is God, you are free to live in the truth and to love as you have been loved. How terribly sad that so many continue to love themselves!