Paul and Barnabas had left Antioch and made their way to Iconium, the modern town of Konya, which lay 90 miles east on the Roman road.
The same story to be repeated many times. A number of Jews believed immediately and a number of the “God-fearers,” Gentiles who had accepted Judaism as a belief system but had not submitted yet to circumcision.
Paul would later recollect this in his letter to these Christians — the letter we know as “Paul to the Galatians.” In 3:5 he wrote to them, “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?”
Nothing wrong with flight under such circumstances. No thirst for martyrdom either.
By the way, a resident of Iconium gives us a description of the Apostle Paul, the only one that has come down to us, preserved, unfortunately in an unreliable source, a second century work entitled 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 and was not a powerful orator. But we remember that he was a commanding presence even before he became a Christian.
Similar to many of Christ’s miracles, here also “your faith has made you whole.”
The fact that the crowd was roaring its praises of Paul and Barnabas in Lycaonian, a language apparently neither Paul nor Barnabas knew, explains why they were some time in catching on to what was happening.
Zeus and Hermes are commonly found in inscriptions from this time and place and a visitation by them is found in the legends of these people. Supposedly the two gods were entertained by an aged couple, Philemon and Baucis, who were unaware of their identity. This may account for the enthusiasm of the people to honor the gods as they had not been honored on their previous visit.
An important point in this: general revelation, even miracles themselves will be misunderstood without proper interpretation.
Paul and Barnabas’ reaction is one of horror — so they tore their clothes — at the thought of such blasphemy. When you’ve seen Christ, the thought that others may take you for him — even if you have worked miracles — is unbearable! Paul apparently did not entertain the idea, so common nowadays, that we are all a little piece of God!
Now follows a speech to raw pagans, with no Jewish/Old Testament background. Note the absence of any appeal to the Scripture. Rather, as later in Athens, Paul appeals to God as the creator of all men. In other words, Paul adapted his message to meet his audience. The fulfillment of the OT would be of little importance to them, ignorant of the OT as they were. Though, it is interesting to note, Paul’s sermon, drawing as it did on natural revelation, nevertheless is full of the language of the OT.
“God let all nations go their own way” (cf. 17:30: “in the past God overlooked such ignorance”). What does this mean?
Well, it seems to mean something akin to what Paul is speaking of in Romans 2 where he says that those who sinned apart from the law will be judged apart from the law. Until his full revelation was given to these Gentiles God did not hold them accountable for the full knowledge of his will. But, of course, he did not regard them as righteous either. As Paul says in Romans 1, he gave them over to their sinful choices because even the light that he did give them through general revelation they rejected and suppressed the knowledge of him that they had through what he revealed of himself in nature.
Miraculous healing? Probably not, as it seems likely that would have been mentioned. He probably walked with help into the city in pain, still bloodied from his ordeal.
There can be no questions about Paul and Barnabas’ courage, returning as they did to the cities where their enemies lived and where they had been threatened and in one case almost killed.
Paul and Barnabas are leaving these babes in Christ to the same wolves who almost murdered them.
But, it is important to remember, as it happened these Galatian churches were not undone by persecution from without but from false teaching from within. So today: the collapse of the Christian church in the West can be connected to its cultural acceptance. Nothing keeps a church so pure as persecution!
Now, I want to draw your attention to two issues raised in our text, one at some length and one more briefly. The first is the doctrine of “common grace” taught in v. 17.
The term “common grace” means different things to different people and is a much debated idea in Christian theology. In the Reformed theology, where common grace has a long pedigree, stretching back to Calvin himself, common grace is understood to be that general benevolence of God toward all his creatures by reason of which sin is restrained, human life prospers to some extent, sinful human beings nevertheless continue to distinguish at a certain level between good and evil, aspire to goodness, and perform good works, by which human society continues, even in its sinfulness, to foster beauty in art, advancement in science, justice in government, and by reason of which natural affections are maintained between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, etc.
In other words, God’s kindness to the nations Paul illustrates in but one of many possible ways when he speaks here of God’s giving them rain and crops to fill their hearts with joy. In a broader statement in Psalm 145 we read that “the mercy of the Lord is over all his works.”
This is, of course, not the saving grace of God which, when pitched on a sinner, in election, redemption, and salvation, draws him out of sin and death, delivers him from the curse of sin, and brings him into fellowship with God. This grace is not particular, it is not regenerating, and it does not flow from a sovereign, indefectible love. It is grace that is given to the just and the unjust alike. And it accounts for all that is orderly, worthy, good, and beautiful in sinful human life.
Now, as you may know, this doctrine of common grace has been a subject of some controversy in the Reformed Church in the 20th century. It led to a split in the Christian Reformed Church in the 1920s and was part of the reason for the split in the GKN, the church of Kuyper and Bavinck in 1944, during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
The objection that is raised primarily is that by positing a doctrine of God’s common grace to all men, a way has been found of finding a divine benevolence toward all men alike and the character of divine grace as particular and individual is weakened. After all the Arminians held to common grace and used the idea as a basis for their view that God loves every sinner alike and does what he can to save each one of them. What is more, it was charged, it is altogether inappropriate to use the term “grace” of the provision that God makes for all mankind — the rain and sunshine and the like — when, as a matter of fact, all of these blessings only increase the guilt and so the judgment of those who do not thank God for his gifts and seek forgiveness from Him for their sins. How can we speak of something as grace that makes a man’s damnation deeper? And finally, it was asked, does the Bible really say that these blessings of human life, these apparently good things that are done by sinful people, are the direct result of God’s mercy?
During the second half of this century, the attack on common grace has gained momentum because of events in the Dutch church, where the doctrine was worked into the church’s theology in the most thorough-going way. The more the church talked about common grace, so it seemed to many, the more the distinction between common grace and special grace was blurred and then disappeared altogether. So that, in my day at the Free University in Amsterdam it had become pretty clear that in that formerly evangelical church there was a formal and moral equivalence between evangelism and political work, between labor activism and the service of the church. Good works performed in the sphere of culture — society, government, media, etc. — counted just as much as seeking to lead a sinner to Christ or to keep a church faithful to the Word of God. And, in fact, by that time, the former was much more interesting to that church than the latter.
Several things occur to me to say in regard to all of this.
First, I accept the criticism of the term “common grace.” The Bible does not refer to God’s mercy toward the entire world as “grace”, at least it does not ever specifically use that terminology. For us to use it, I think, creates confusion. For grace is an extremely important word in the Bible and it means God’s sovereign love for his people. It may be impossible to change the nomenclature now, but we ought to accept that it is confusing to use a biblical term that means one thing for another thing altogether. Even “common mercy” would be preferable to “common grace.”
Second, there is a great danger is making too much of this doctrine of a general benevolence of God toward his creation and all mankind. Abraham Kuyper made too much of it — he wrote a huge three volume work on the subject — and gave it a larger place in his system of thought that it occupies in the Bible. It is to me a question whether we ought to regard the artistic and scientific triumphs of the unbelieving world as a result of common grace. God created man in his own image and it is possible to see these accomplishments not as the direct result of God’s favor resting on the artist but as the effulgence, the overflow of the gifts that come with the divine image. If we view what we think is beautiful in human endeavor as the result of common grace how do we then separate from it what is clever and skillful and ingenious but ugly or destructive of godly virtues?
After all, it is also possible — and some thinkers have argued that this is a preferable approach — to see the good that exists in the unbelieving world as more a result of the presence of the gospel in the world and the restraint upon sin and that God exercises for the sake of the progress of the gospel among his elect rather than a distinct common grace of God. The fact that in the Western world you will not find ads offering travel packages that include sex with young Filipino virgins — such as you can find in the orient — has probably more to do with the powerful presence of Christianity and the gospel in this culture for so long than with the activity of God’s common grace.
What is more, much of the restraint of sin in the world which is often attributed to “common grace” may as well be seen as an aspect or dimension of special grace. The world is being kept in some form of order precisely so that the gospel may make its way to the elect of God. If the world descends to chaos and the elect are murdered before they can be brought to faith God’s grace would be frustrated, and so God continues to preserve the life of mankind in some form of order and peace.
But, third, it is necessary to maintain the general idea that the term “common grace” was intended to convey, so long as we restrict its scope and application to what the Bible actually says.
- It protects the truth, often asserted in the Bible and especially the OT, that God is the creator, the ruler, the Sovereign of the entire world. He is not a tribal god! He was Cyrus’ God and Nebuchadnezzar’s God. They ruled at his pleasure and did his will. To the extent that their reigns were magnificent and that their accomplishments can still be admired today, they have him to thank for that. He gave them the rain and the sun, he made them kings, he gave them minds with which to think, he taught, as Isaiah says, their farmers to plant and reap. Every power they employed was his creation and his gift to them. Whether or not it is wise to call this God’s “grace” it is certainly true that all men owe their life, health, powers, and success to God. He lifts men up and lays them low.
- It causes us who are Christians to see that God has given us all things to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17) — whether food or clothing or medicine or things beautiful such as music and art and lovely homes, etc. — whether or not he gave them to us through the hand of an unbelieving farmer, carpenter, scientist, senator or President. This serves to break down the barrier between secular and spiritual or natural and supernatural. Christ fills all and is in all. Beethoven and Jonas Salk are God’s gifts to us; they are God’s doing.
- This doctrine that the mercy of the Lord is over all his works and that every good gift comes down from the Father of Lights also serves to exalt God’s goodness and his compassion and patience. He treats kindly and generously those who do not love or honor him and who deserve nothing but his wrath and judgment. It is a part of that doctrine taught in the Bible that God does not desire the death of the wicked but that all should come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth.
- And, surely, it is one of the explanations in the Bible for the fact that sinners do good things, even if not truly and finally good things for lacking perfect motives (Augustine’s peccata splendida). This is also explained by the law written on the heart (Romans 2), by the fear of punishment, etc. But it is also a part of that provision God makes for mankind (e.g. in government — he gives magistrates to punish wickedness, etc.). [To make sense of your world — this is necessary.]
The second subject I want to touch on is that summarized in v. 22, the inevitability of suffering even for Christians. We speak of this often because it arises so often in the teaching of the Bible, but it is worth our attending briefly to a statement so general and so sweeping in its scope:
“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
This is, of course, a fact of human and of Christian experience. But it is also a promise of God’s Word. And it is a reality the Bible does not fail to explain, many times over. Suffering, as Paul implies here, is a necessity for a Christian and that for different reasons.
- This is Satan’s world and he desires to sift us like wheat. Could we expect to follow Christ peacefully in the realm of the Prince of Darkness? We have an adversary!
- There is much in us that is evil and it is rooted in us so deeply that it can be forced out of us only by violence. In the summer I have to split wood for our stove and fireplace in our Colorado cabin. One learns very quickly in that work that many light blows will not do the work that one violent, heavy flash of the ax will do!) God uses trials to wean us from sin, to darken our sight of this world, to break the grip of the world upon our hearts.
- A servant is not above his master. It is our duty and our privilege to follow in our master’s footsteps and he suffered greatly when he was in the world.
- There is a great deal that we must learn that cannot be learned in any other way. Such lessons as these: to value heaven above earth [how impossible for us if earth were without troubles!]; to trust God and not ourselves [how impossible unless we were brought down by trials we could not escape or endure in our own strength]; to learn that God’s ways are above our own and that we owe him an implicit trust and full submission in the face of questions that completely baffle us [we would think we were giving that to him, but our trials teach us how great a thing this is and how much faith it requires]. In other words, a truly humble and reverent and God-fearing spirit requires trials to be formed in us.
As Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote: “Supposing you eliminated suffering, what a dreadful place the world would be! …because everything that corrects the tendency of…man to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.” And that can be applied equally to the Christian life.
I conclude with two citations from godly men who knew of what they were speaking in speaking about the hardships of the Christian life.
First, Alexander Whyte:
“Give your mind and your will and your conscience and your imagination and your heart to these few first principles and make constant application of them to your own case. 1) It is God’s love that so cuts you to the quick. 2) There is to be no myrrh allowed nor chloroform nor any kind of mental or moral insensibility. 3) No pain no cure; little pain little cure; great pain great cure; lifelong pain here everlasting life without any more pain in that land where God himself shall wipe away all tears from his patients’ eyes. 4) All his divine operations are performed in secret. 5) All his divine operations are performed free and for nothing: for his hospital is fully endowed for the service of the poor. And 6) A perfect and everlasting cure is absolutely guaranteed; absolutely guaranteed against all possible relapse.” [Thomas Shepard, pp. 172-173]
And, finally, Robert Murray McCheyne:
“Your afflictions may only prove that you are more immediately under the Father’s hand. There is no time that the patient is such an object of tender interest to the surgeon, as when he is bleeding beneath his knife. So you may be sure if you are suffering from the hand of a reconciled God, that his eye is all the more bent on you.”