In our journey through the book of Acts we have most recently been considering what is usually terms Paul’s first missionary journey, which began in Acts 13. His missionary partner on this particular trip was Barnabas. The two had been persecuted in Iconium and had fled for refuge. By God’s providence, they had ended up 120km southeast in the city of Lystra, and later in Derbe. They were still in the province of Galatia. As we will see in this study, this journey simply took them out of the frying pan and into the fire.
We find them in this text doing the same thing that landed them in trouble almost everywhere else that they went: preaching the gospel (vv. 7, 15). They were proclaiming the good news as far as they went. When you consider the consequences of their proclamation of the gospel, and yet their continued persistence in it, we can conclude that the gospel message that they preached was important, impressive, indispensable and offensive (or, to keep with the alliteration, incendiary). Such a message deserves to be investigated by all who hear it, declared by all who have been delivered by it, and guarded by all who to whom it has been delivered (see 1 Timothy 6:20).
Paul and Barnabas were together for the gospel. And there are several lessons that we can learn from this. We will begin to do so in this study.
As we study these verses, I want us to look at them with a view to appreciating the centrality of the gospel, not only in the life and ministry of these missionaries, but also in our own. Every believer has a gospel ministry. We are together for the gospel. Let’s learn how to remain so for the glory of God.
With this goal in mind, I want to identify several gospel-centred issues that arise from this passage describing Paul and Barnabas’ experience of being together for the gospel.
The Content of the Gospel
Having fled the persecution in Iconium, the missionaries came to Lystra, “and they were preaching the gospel there” (v. 7). Verses 4 and 14 identify both Paul and Barnabas as “apostles.” This is not to suggest that Barnabas had apostolic authority, in the same way that Paul and the Twelve had. The word “apostle” literally means “sent one,” and when used in a loose sense it is equivalent to our modern term “missionary.”
The important point for us to understand here is that both men were preaching the gospel. Both were evangelising. Preachers in partnership were proclaiming the gospel. I am thankful that BBC is a place where members partner together in proclaiming the gospel, but I am also burdened that this partnership needs to extend beyond our own church. I recently had the opportunity to preach two sermons from the pulpit of another church on the issue of missions. This church asked me to come preach on missions because they want to learn how to be better equipped to carry out the Great Commission as a church. I am excited about potential partnership opportunities with another church in the gospel.
But as we consider the fact that they partnered together in preaching the gospel, I want to ask, what exactly did they preach? That is, what was the content of their “gospel”? This question is perhaps more important than you initially realise. Perhaps I can highlight something of its importance by asking you the question, what is the gospel?
I was recently involved in mediating a dispute in another church in our country. The full issues are of little importance for our purposes, but as I sat listening to both sides of the dispute I soon realised that the fundamental issue was the definition of the gospel. The opposing sides in the dispute had different ideas of what the gospel is. I was convinced that the conflict would be resolved if all parties were settled on a biblical definition of the gospel.
The simple fact is, if we get our definition of the gospel wrong, pretty much everything else will be wrong. A wrong definition of the gospel will lead to a wrong view of God, a wrong view of sin and a wrong view of salvation. Without a biblical definition of the gospel, we will get ministry and missions wrong, church wrong and even marriage wrong. These things, and so much more, depend on a biblical definition of the gospel.
As I reflected on this issue in mediating a dispute in another church, I was at the same time confronted with a discomforting internal question regarding our own church: Does the membership of BBC know the biblical answer to, what is the gospel? I am convinced that this needs to be a big issue in our church. It needs to be an issue in our discipleship process, our church membership issues, and our counselling. We need to frequently admonish and remind one another about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we are as guilty, as so many in the evangelical church, of an assumed gospel. When Jesus was twelve years old, He and His parents visited Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41-50). In fact, they did that every year, but this particular year they began their journey home with the assumption that He was with them. After a full day’s travel, they discovered that He was not, in fact, with them, and so they returned to Jerusalem to look for Him. It took three days for them to locate Him, and when they did, Mary asked Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” His response was revealing: “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” In fact, “they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.” He was busy doing something according to His Father’s will of which they were unaware.
Likewise there are many in the evangelical church who are unaware of what Jesus is doing in accordance with the Father’s will. John 6:26-44 reveals a similar ignorance much later in Jesus’ life. While He told those who followed Him what He was doing, they simply did not understand. And I am convinced that there are many today who simply do not understand what Christ is doing and intends to do.
God’s will is to do far more than merely satisfy our physical and material needs. Caring for the poor and hungry is not the gospel. His will is far more than merely meeting earthly needs (joy, peace, purpose, harmony, etc.). His will is for Jesus to save chosen and therefore believing sinners from their sins and to raise them in glory on the final day. That is good news!
When seeking to nail down a working definition of the gospel, we need to be careful of confusing the fruits of salvation with the root of salvation. For example, we dare not define the gospel in terms of a better marriage, or the performance of good works, or the reformation of life, or church membership, or even a theological system. All these things may be the result of the gospel, but they are not the gospel in and of themselves.
I recall reading of a man who once was planning to take some people to see the Northern Lights. In preparation for the event, he made sure that he cleaned his car’s windscreen. That night, he and his friends sat in the car and watched the majestic display in the skies above them. The man recalled how they sang songs and gave praise to God for His majestic creation. Not one, he recalled, did anyone in the car ever say, “What a beautiful windscreen!”
The results of the gospel are like the clear windscreen, while the gospel itself is the aurora. Those who stand in awe of the gospel should not confuse the fruit with the gospel itself. The fruit is wonderful to behold, and frequently gives us a clearer view of the gospel, but the fruit is never as glorious as the gospel itself.
So, what is the gospel? A brief, working definition of the gospel might be as follows: The gospel is the good news of what God has done for believing sinners in Christ Jesus. Not several things about this definition.
First, note the tone of the message: It is “good news.”
Second, note the theme of the message: It is what God has done for sinners, not vice versa. The gospel is not about what we do to achieve salvation, but about what God has done to grant it.
Third, notice what God has actually done:
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.
(1 Corinthians 15:1-5)
How can a man be right with God? The answer is given in the gospel. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17). God enables the sinner to gain a verdict of not guilty! In fact, He goes further and gives the believing sinner the verdict: Righteous!
This is the message that Paul and Barnabas kept on preaching wherever they went. Such good news constrained them to do so (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
Let me exhort you to do all you can to continue to grow in your understanding of the gospel. Read the Word. Read good books and literature to help you to learn. Get a framework of the gospel. Don’t assume you have it down. Most don’t!
The Confirmation of the Gospel
In vv. 8-10, we read of what we might call the confirmation of the gospel.
And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked.
We have already been told that these men were preaching the gospel in Lystra, and now we meet one whom I would argue was perhaps one of their first converts (at least the first one recorded in Scripture). What happened here was pivotal to what would take place subsequently. But before getting into that, we want to see how the Lord Jesus confirmed their gospel message with the use of a miracle.
I want you to note that, while it doesn’t explicitly state in this text that the miracle served as a confirmation of the message, that is the thrust of Scripture. In v. 3, for example, we are told that the Lord “was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” Mark 16:20 says much the same thing: “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” The miracle in Acts 3 certainly verified the message preached by the apostles and resulted in the conversion of the man healed.
The weight of the Scriptural evidence suggests that Jesus Christ “sealed” the ministry of the apostles by allowing them to perform miracles. And while it doesn’t explicitly state here that this man believed after witnessing this miracle, that does seem to be the normal result of miracles in Scripture.
And so we are introduced to “a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked.” As the missionaries ministered the gospel, “this man heard Paul speaking.” The sense of the verse is not that he one day overheard the apostle preaching. Instead, “‘this man was’ in the habit of ‘listening to Paul as he spoke,’ as the imperfect tense of the verb translated ‘listening’ indicates.”1 Since this follows on the heels of v. 7 we know what this man continually heard from Paul: the gospel.
Paul did not preach healing of the body as the gospel. He did not preach the relief of life’s ills as the gospel. Yet he perhaps did preach such fruit as coming from the root of the gospel. And he learned this from Jesus Himself.
You will perhaps remember the story recorded in Mark 2:1-11, where Jesus forgave and healed a paralytic. When his friends brought him to Jesus for healing, “Jesus saw their faith [and] said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you.’” The religious leaders were incensed. God alone had authority to forgive sins; who did Jesus think he was? Jesus knew what they were thinking and responded: “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”
Notice that: The proof that Jesus had forgiven this man was that He healed him. The root was the gospel, the fruit was physical healing. There is no indication that the man actually asked to be healed; Paul—presumably with Spirit-given insight—understood his need and the cry of his heart. And so he healed the man to confirm the gospel message. We have good reason to assume that this man was physically healed because Christ had already spiritually healed (saved) him.
This man, we are told, was “without strength.” Similar language is used in Scripture of those who are lost in their sins (see Romans 5:6; 8:3; Hebrews 10:4). Because he was “without strength,” Paul “healed” him. The word translated “healed” is the Greek word sozo, which is important because it is often translated in terms of saving or salvation (Matthew 1:21; 8:25; 14:30; 18:11; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; etc.). It does not always speak of spiritual saving, but sometimes it does.
We need to park here for a moment and consider some important lessons.
First, we must consider that we can look at the gospel in two ways; through two lenses. De Young and Gilbert speak of these two lenses in their book What is the Mission of the Church?
On the one hand, there is a wide angle lens. The wide angle lens encompasses every facet of the gospel, including its fruit. It is through this lens that the gospel is portrayed in those texts that tie kingdom preaching with miraculous healing (see Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:18-19; Acts 13:32-33). The ultimate result of the gospel is a completely new creation (Revelation 21:1-7), in which sin’s curse will be fully lifted from every aspect of God’s creation, including humankind (Romans 8:30).
The fact is that the gospel does inherently promise health and prosperity—but not necessarily (or usually) now! It is a misrepresentation of the gospel to claim that this is “your best life now”—unless, of course, you are an unbeliever who intends to die that state!
The Lord Jesus used this miraculous situation to confirm the gospel, and for the observant it confirms a soteriological truth: Jesus not only saves His people from their sins but also saves the world from its brokenness (see John 3:17; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). This man’s infirmity was the fruit of a sin-cursed world. Jesus healed him as evidence that He can take care of the symptoms of the world’s problem because He can take care of the source of its problems.
We do need to view the gospel (and then the world) with this wide angle lens, without at the same time confusing social justice, economic equity and physical healing with the good news that believing sinners receive a not-guilty verdict from God. While we don’t want to fall into the trap of preaching a social gospel, we simultaneously don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that the gospel has no social implications.
On the other hand, we must understand that the gospel is often seen in Scripture through a zoom lens (see Acts 10:36-43; Romans 1:16, 17; 1 Corinthians 15:1-5; 1:17-18). By this, I mean that the gospel is often portrayed not in terms of social implications but simply in terms of the salvation of a soul. This, in fact, is the primary focus in the Bible, because without the salvation of the soul there can be no salvation of society.
At the same time, we must note that the confirmation that our soul has been saved—that our sins have been forgiven and that we have been justified by God through His Son—is in sanctification. Our lives begin to give evidence that our fundamental problem has been “healed.” In fact, we have been reborn.
Second, we must stop portraying things as if these two lenses are in competition with one another. As any photographer will tell you, sometimes one lens fits the setting and the purpose better than the other.
Third, we must grow in our understanding and appreciation of the reality that the Great Commission (Great Mandate) includes both of these lenses. That is, making disciples requires the message of 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 but it results in the experience of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.
The Corruption of the Gospel
We do not have the time to consider these verses in their entirety in this study (we will return to them in another), but vv. 11-18 reveal something of the corruption of the gospel.
Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.
This is a very interesting and instructive account. It not only shows us the paganism with which Paul and Barnabas were confronted, but also illustrates the danger of missing (losing) the gospel by becoming mesmerised with those who preach it. In a nutshell, this passage points us, among other things, to the danger of “celebrity Christianity.”
Let me first explain what happened here. We must understand that the words of the people here were “in the Lycaonian language.” This detail is given because the missionaries presumably did not understand this dialect, and so what was happening was not immediately evident to them. Only when the people were about to sacrifice to them did it dawn on them what had unfolded. To help us understand what was happening, however, it is helpful to turn to John Stott.
The crowd’s superstitious and even fanatical behaviour is hard to comprehend, but some local background throws light on it. About fifty years previously the Latin poet Ovid had narrated in his Metamorphoses an ancient local legend. The supreme god Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) and his son Mercury (Hermes) once visited the hill country of Phrygia, disguised as mortal men. In their incognito they sought hospitality but were rebuffed a thousand times. At last, however, they were offered lodging in a tiny cottage, thatched with straw and reeds from the marsh. Here lived an elderly peasant couple called Philemon and Baucis, who entertained them out of their poverty. Later the gods rewarded them, but destroyed by flood the homes which would not take them in. It is reasonable to suppose both that the Lystran people knew this story about their neighbourhood and that, if the gods were to revisit their district, they were anxious not to suffer the same fate as the inhospitable Phrygians. Apart from the literary evidence in Ovid, two inscriptions and a stone altar have been discovered near Lystra, which indicate that Zeus and Hermes were worshipped together as local patron deities.2
These people did not want to blow it again so they immediately responded in this way. Once they realised what was happening, Paul and Barnabas immediately set out to stop the idolatry. They were disgusted by this worship and rejected it. And I have no doubt, as the following passage shows us, that these men were deeply burdened that the gospel was not getting its rightful place, and that the triune God was not receiving His rightful glory.
In short, these men were together for the gospel for the glory of God, not for their own glory. Their humble and broken response was a public testimony to their God-centeredness.
Note briefly some important observations.
First, these unbelievers were amazed by the wide lens of the gospel and they wanted to connect with those whom they thought gave this to them. This is always a danger of “practical Christianity,” of thinking of Christianity only in terms of its social benefits.
Again, Christianity has great social benefits. William Wilberforce was driven by his passion for the gospel to outlaw slavery, but it would be a mistake to equate Wilberforce’s Christianity with the abolition of slavery. His political passion was an outworking of his Christianity, not the definition of it. When Jesus found that many committed to Him only for the sake of the benefits of the gospel He preached, He would not commit to them (John 2:23-25). We must be on guard for this.
Second, those who are gifted speakers and ministers are often times exalted high above what they should be. We should thank God for the ministry of well-known pastors—John Piper, John MacArthur, Mark Dever, etc.—but not to the point where we give them more credit than they are due. They are servants of the gospel. Our hope is in the gospel, not in its messengers.
Now, such celebrity Christianity is usually the fault of the listeners rather than the speakers. While such public ministers ought certainly to be careful that they don’t acclaim more adulation than they deserve, we ought likewise to be careful of giving them more honour than they deserve. We give honour to whom honour is due, but no more than they are due. As Paul and Barnabas said, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you” (v. 15). These missionaries knew full well where all gifts came from: from “the living God” (v. 15).
Third, we must be careful to not confuse the good news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus with those who simply deliver that message to us. Thank God for their faithfulness. Encourage them as much as you are able (1 Thessalonians 5:12). But be careful of worshipping them rather than God. Our hope is in the gospel, and we do not want to fall into the trap of co-dependency.
In response to the multitude’s corruption of the gospel, notice briefly how the missionaries responded.
Their Concern for the Gospel
As soon as they realised what the people were doing, “they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you’” (vv. 14-15). I have already touched on this but let me make a point: Our heroes were concerned for the gospel. They refused to be idolised.
It is a sad thing when those gifted in and with the gospel are idolised to be more important than the gospel itself. This still happens today, even if it is not as blatant as it was in our text. For example, as in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:12-17), there are those who idolise a particular preach, perhaps even to the point where they are willing to skip church if their favourite man is not preaching.
We must avoid this danger. The gospel is God’s power to salvation, regardless of who is declaring it. Idol worship has no place in the life of the church, and those who are concerned for the gospel will do all they can to stamp such idol worship out.
Their Clarification of the Gospel
We will return to these verses in a future study, but let me simply state from vv. 15-18 that the best way to address idolatry is for those who are idolised to do all they can to teach those who follow them to worship the true God. Paul and Barnabas would not accept the worship offered to them, but instead pointed the people to Christ:
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.
Ministers of the gospel must preach the gospel in such a way that people will say, “What a Saviour!” All of us struggle with idolatry. Let us cast it down (2 Corinthians 10:1-5) by lifting Christ up. We will do so as we learn about, love and labour together for the gospel.