We saw in our previous study that Paul and Barnabas were quite literally together for the gospel. These men were sent by their local church to carry the gospel to the uttermost, and their first missionary journey was the commencement of such an assignment.1
We saw that these men proclaimed the gospel and that Jesus worked with them, confirming their gospel ministry. A man was healed to confirm that indeed his sins had been forgiven, and thus his soul was saved. We learned from this that the gospel can be viewed through two lenses: a zoom lens or a wide lens—and sometimes through both. The zoom lens speaks to us of the immediate forgiveness of sins, while the wide-angle lens speaks to us of the ultimate glorification of a fallen creation.
We were reminded of the importance of not confusing these two, while at the same time not divorcing them. They are indeed two sides of the same coin and two results of the same message. We saw that they are both good news, but that without the good news of the zoom lens there can be no good news from the wide lens. When Jesus began His ministry, He declared that the kingdom of God was at hand (wide lens) and therefore called people to repent (zoom lens) (Mark 1:14-15). He kept the main thing the man thing, and we must do the same.
We further saw how the Lystrans corrupted this good news by worshipping the messengers of the good news. They confused the fruit of the gospel with the root of the gospel. They were mesmerised by the wide angle view of the gospel and therefore completely missed the point.
But Paul and Barnabas were together for the gospel, and when they detected the idolatrous exultation of themselves they also stood clearly together in their condemnation of such blasphemy. We could note that this was proof indeed that they were together for the gospel. They were deeply disturbed that they were being credited with healing this man. They therefore rejected this idolatrous worship. And such a sober and righteous response resulted in them being persecuted. There are several things that we can learn from this I trust that we will do so.
The Corruption of the Gospel
The record of the healing and the idolatrous response of the people is found in vv. 8-13:
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. 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.
This is a very interesting and instructive account. It—and I am speaking particularly of the response to the miracle—reveals several things that we need to take note of.
First, it shows us the paganism with which Paul and Barnabas were confronted. Such paganism is still amongst us today. Any time we embrace a superficial view of Jesus Christ we are guilty of paganism—of idolatry (1 John 5:21).
Second, it 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 what we is known as “celebrity Christianity.”
Perhaps you are familiar with the adage, “Don’t shoot me: I’m just the messenger.” We say such a thing when we want to make it clear that what we have to say to someone is not to be taken personally. As we have seen so far in the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, this is precisely what they experienced. A whole lot of people in Pisidian Antioch, and then in Iconium, took what they had to say very personally and so lashed out at these faithful gospel preachers. Persecution was their experience. In fact, as we saw previously, the persecution was so intense that they had to flee for refuge to another region.
So far, everywhere they have been in our account has begun fairly smoothly only to end in persecution. We will see the same thing here in this passage but with a significant difference: Here, things did not only start off smoothly, but remarkably well.
Some believed the gospel (v. 20) and a large host of people actually worshipped these evangelists. If they gave the key to a city back in those days, these missionaries would have been given the entire set!
Of course what began with such fanfare did not end that way. In fact, the very same people who tried to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods ended up stoning Paul and leaving him for dead. He fell rather quickly from being at the pinnacle of applause to being the pariah of the city. By the way, this was not the last time that such a pendulum of popularity was be experienced by Paul (28:1-10). We live in a fickle world, and such emotional and relational swings are to be expected.
But the point that I want to drive home is primarily the danger of mistaking the messenger for the Messiah. In fact, to paraphrase Paul and Barnabas’ response to these people, they were saying, “Don’t worship us, we are only the messengers.” This is a message the church always needs to hear, but in the circles in which we at BBC move, we especially need to hear it.
You don’t have to listen to too much of my preaching to conclude that I have great respect for many different pastors and Bible teachers. I am grateful to God for such theological, pastoral and spiritual luminaries as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, Martin Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, James Boice, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, Don Carson, Douglas Wilson, Mark Dever, Philip Ryken—and many more. I am sure that a week does not go by where I have not read something written by at least one or two of these men. I appreciate how they have shaped my theology and my understanding of the Christian life. I have often sought to apply their biblically wise insights to my ministry. If these men were not in my orbit then my life would be the poorer; and by extension, so would be our church.
But there are also other men of God who have influenced me; men whom I have known in a more personal way than the above authors. One such is my father-in-law, Charles Keen. Probably a week does not go by in which I do not think about him and how perhaps he would handle a pastoral or administrative situation.
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with this; but what does become problematic is when such teachers and preachers become so large before us that they become our authority. When we mistake the messengers (gifted as they are) for the Master, our devotion has become misplaced and this always results in some negative, if not tragic, consequences. If we become more enamoured with these men and their ministries than with the one they represent then we have missed the point of their ministries. We have crossed the line into misplaced devotion. There were some guilty of this in Lystra long ago, and there are many guilty of it in Johannesburg and around the world today.
Let me first explain what happened here.
These men were deeply burdened that the gospel was not getting its rightful place and hence the triune God was not receiving His rightful glory. They 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 some important observations
First, these unbelievers were amazed by the wide lens of the gospel and wanted to connect with those whom they thought gave it to them. In reality, they were not interested in the gospel itself, but in the practical results of the gospel. They heard the message that the missionaries preached, but they were more intrigued by the healing than by the message itself.
This is always a danger of “practical” Christianity. Biblical Christianity is, of course, intensely practical, but when we disregard the message of the gospel in favour of the results it often brings, we have fallen into the trap of idolatry. The biblical gospel certainly produces wonderful results. It delivers slaves, saves lives, and rescues marriages, but these positive and practical results must never be mistaken for the gospel. When the multitude that Jesus fed in John 6 professed allegiance to Him, He immediately realised that they were not interested in His message but only in the food that He could give them. His response was to speak hard words to them, which ultimately drove them away. And when many earlier committed themselves to Jesus, He saw through their superficial commitment and did not commit Himself to them (John 2:23-25).
Second, those who are gifted speakers and ministers are often exalted high above what they should be. We sometimes speak of “rock star pastors” who, often through no fault of their own, are revered by people far more than they ought to be. They become virtual celebrities so that much more credence is given to their word than to other, lesser known but equally faithful, ministers of the Word.
For example, there are sometimes believers who will go to church only if their favourite preacher is preaching that particular night. I once heard of a particular believer who would actually stop in the parking lot before going into church to check who was preaching. If it wasn’t this individual’s favourite preacher that night, they would drive straight back home!
In other cases, believers will make it very well known how much they value the ministry of others, even to their own pastor. A friend once told me how he preached his heart out from a particular text, only to have a church member hand him a tape afterwards containing a sermon of Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the same text! He quipped that if he was ever invited to her house for dinner he would thank her for the meal and then give her a recipe book!
Again, I want to stress that, more often than note, this is more the fault of the listener than it is of the preacher. While there may well be exceptions, it is frequently the case that ministers are not actively seeking the adulation that they receive. While we should certainly give honour to whom honour is due, we should not give more honour than is due. Paul and Barnabas immediately confessed that they were just men, of the same nature as their listeners (v. 15), and that they didn’t deserve the praise that was being heaped on them. These missionaries knew full well that their gifts came not from themselves but frothy Holy Spirit.
In all our listening and reading, we need to beware of missing the point. By all means, read the blogs of influential Christian leaders, and attend conferences at which well-known preachers will be speaking, but do not fall into the trap of idolising God’s messengers. It is all too easy to become fans of gospel preachers rather than lovers of the gospel. And when we become fans rather than lovers, a critical spirit often develops.
Third, be careful to not confuse the good news of what God has done for you in Christ Jesus with those who simply deliver that message to you. Thank God (yes, thank God) for their faithfulness, and by all means encourage them (1 Thessalonians 5:12), but be careful. Do not fall into the trap of spiritual co-dependency.
The Roots of Misplaced Devotion
John Calvin once noted that the human heart is a perpetual factory of idols. Sadly, he has himself become an idol to many. Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Why do pastors have such a difficult time being pastors? Because we are awash in idolatry. Where two or three are gathered together and the name of God comes up, a committee is formed for making an idol. We want gods that are not gods so we can ‘be as gods.’”2 Perhaps one of the most effective attacks of the devil levelled against the church is to get people to revere sermons and preachers more than Christ.
I once read of a man who visited three well-known churches, each pastored by who loves God and promotes the true gospel. After visiting the first church and hearing the pastor preach, he came away with the assessment, “What an eloquent preacher!” When he had visited the second church he concluded, “What a wonderful intellect!” After hearing the third pastor preach, he said, “What a Saviour!”
There is always the danger of falling into an idolatrous culture of false worship. The gospel is aimed precisely at this kind of superstition. Let us not contribute to the perpetuity of it.
Let’s be honest: All of us struggle with idolatry. Let us “cast it down” (2 Corinthians 10:1-5) by lifting Christ up. And we will do so as we learn and as we love and as we labour together for the gospel.
History is replete with examples of untilled cultural soil devoid of revelation. That is precisely why the Word, and not the ministers of the Word, must be central to church life. I have heard of several churches who have sought to guard against this by never announcing the preacher for the coming services, but only the text on which the sermon will be based. Such precautions are often (sadly) necessary.
The professing church also has a long history of dissemination of lies. Of course, human history has chartered this course since the fall in Eden. We need to be on guard against this insidious onslaught on our souls. We need to stop believing the lie that any individual is indispensable. Ed Welch has some poignant words on this point:
You have to love this universal human experience. For all the silly bravado and endless methods to enhance self-esteem, we all feel like failures at heart. So, we can all take a deep breath and relax—we are not alone.
We are small and insignificant.
There are seven billion people on this planet. We are replaceable. No one is indispensable. No matter how big a splash we make in our own local pond, the ripples will only last a minute or two. We really are small and insignificant.3
The Fruit of Misplaced Devotion
What is the fruit of misplaced devotion? Let me briefly mention at least three potential results.
First, it can result in a gullible people.
In his autobiographical account, Decision Points, George W. Bush tells of the great boasts that North Korea’s late leader, Kim Jong-il made. Among other things, he was what Bush called a “propaganda machine,” who claimed that he could control the weather, had written six renowned operas and had scored five holes-in-one during his first round of golf. Those who draw attention to themselves with great claims often attain a following of the most gullible sort.
Second, there is the danger of creating an intellectually lazy people. If we revere God’s messengers more highly than we ought to, we run the danger of allowing them to do all our thinking for us. Certainly we will all grant credibility to certain people whom we highly respect, but that must never result in allowing us to resolve issues in our minds by simply reading what someone else has to say and taking it as gospel.
Third, there is the danger of creating a people who are easily manipulated because they are ultimately unreasonable. How do religious leaders convince people to sell all their possessions, to quit their jobs, and even to commit suicide? Is it not ultimately because they are able to manipulate those who put too much confidence in them?
The Cure for Misplaced Devotion
So what is the cure for such misplaced devotion?
First, we must expel the lies. Paul and Barnabas did not play around with the adulation that was being offered to them. They were grieved by it and so they immediately rejected it—at great personal risk.
Second, we must expound the truth. This is what the missionaries did in our text: They proclaimed the Word.
Third, we must embrace the truth. And we must do so, and pray that others do so, by the power of the Holy Spirit. I wonder how many of those who initially sought to worship Paul and Barnabas eventually became believers (see vv. 20-21)?
Fourth, it is sometimes necessary to exit with the truth. Paul and Barnabas eventually left here. They made disciples—God saved those whom He wanted to save (Timothy, after all, was from this very region!)—but the missionaries eventually left the city. Sometimes it is necessary to put an end to certain ministries in order to avoid the danger of celebrity Christianity. There are, in fact, some who have considered putting an end to the “Conference Circuit” because of the dangers inherently present.
On a practical note, we need not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Let us give honour to whom honour is due. Let us express appreciation and gratitude for and to those whom God uses in our life to know Him and to serve Him better. But let us guard both our hearts and theirs as we do so.
And so this text wonderfully reveals the humility of these men who were together for the gospel. It reveals that their passion was for the glory of God not for their own glory. In other words, they were faithful stewards (see 1 Corinthians 4:1-2). John MacArthur notes, “This incident reveals the humility of Paul and Barnabas. To be acclaimed a god was the highest honor imaginable in the Greco-Roman world, and it was much sought after (cf. Acts 12:22). Yet they disavowed any such notions about themselves and instead pointed the pagan crowd to the Creator God. They successfully handled the temptation to succumb to pride.”
The Clarification of the Gospel
The gospel was corrupted by the Lystrans, but Paul and Barnabas were quick to correct the corruption. In vv. 15-20 we see the faithfulness of the preachers and the fickleness of the people.
Our text reveals three characteristics of faithful proclaimers of the gospel.
They were Concerned for the Gospel
This almost goes without saying—but not quite. Paul and Barnabas’ greatest concern was that their message not be corrupted or eclipsed in any way. Even as the people bowed in worship to them, they cried, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you” (v. 15). They were simply messengers, and were unwilling to allow themselves to get in the way of the message.
I won’t belabour this point but it must be said that the gospel—the true gospel—must always remain at the centre of the local church. The main thing must always be kept the main thing. It is sad to note that these events occurred in Galatia—the very place where they soon got the gospel wrong (see Galatians 1:1-10). Even then, it seems that the Galatians had been “bewitched” by personality (3:1).
It is a sad thing when those gifted in articulating the gospel are idolised and hence become more important than the gospel. “Not unto us O LORD, not unto us, but unto Your name give glory” (Psalm 115:1). And the way to guard against this, of course, is by a greater understanding and appreciation of the gospel.
Be careful whom you read. Be careful whom you listen to.
They were Courageous with the Gospel
These missionaries were willing to alienate their hearers by declaring a countercultural message: “[We] 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” (v. 15). This message resulted in grave consequences, as we shall see, but they understood the risks and courageously preached regardless.
Our message is offensive because it points to our guilt of false worship. It proclaims that our own religion and worldview is empty, aimless and vain. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the word translated “useless” carries “the idea of deceptive, pointless, futile.” Such religion may appear to be useful, but in reality it is not. In fact, even the Christian faith would be futile if it did not rest on the historical fact of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:10).
The missionaries were faithfully courageous to intentionally aim at bringing the aimless to God by proclaiming the one true God. This is particularly important in our pluralistic world.
Note this important observation by Everett Harrison: “Notable is the fact that the apostles did not poke fun at the crudity of idolatry and thereby needlessly offend their audience, but were content to point out its futility and then pass at once to an exposition of the better way.”4 It is necessary to point out the error of false religion, but never by being derisive toward those who are trapped in error.
Paul and Barnabas were faithfully courageous to preach the necessity of repentance. The word translated “turn” in v. 15 means “to turn back” or “to revert.” It was used to describe the ministry of John the Baptist, who would “turn” his hearers back to God (Luke 1:16-17). It is translated as “repent” in Acts 3:19 and in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 it is used of those who “turned” from idols to the living God. Peter uses it to speak of those who had wandered but “returned” to the Good Shepherd (1 Peter 2:25).
These preachers realised that it was necessary to wound in order to heal. They held no punches. They informed their hearers quite directly that they were wrong and were heading in a wrong and destructive direction. They were convinced that false religion is cruelly, deceptively destructive.
They were Circumspect with the Gospel
In these verses, we see that the missionaries were flexible in their gospel presentation. They knew their audience and were wise to begin with creation. They spoke of
“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.
I appreciate William Barclay’s observation: “When Paul talked to such people he started from nature to get to God. All men knew about the rain and the sun and the seedtime and the harvest; and Paul started there to lead men’s minds to the God who was behind it all. Paul, like the great teacher he was, did what every teacher must do—he started from the here and now to get to the there and then.”5
This is vital for us to apply in our day in the light of the onslaught of evolution. As MacArthur says, “Nothing has ravaged gospel preaching to the untaught world more than the theory of evolution.”6 Therefore the doctrine of creation is important. It is not a minor point.
But let us not miss the plot: Creationism must lead to Christ. “We need to learn from Paul’s flexibility. We have no liberty to edit the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. Nor is there ever any need to do so. But we have to begin where people are, to find a point of contact with them. . . . Wherever we begin, however, we shall end with Jesus Christ, who is himself the good news, and who alone can fulfil all human aspirations.”7
In a sense, especially in our day, we must be chronological in our gospel proclamation. We can no longer assume that a once Christianised west is still familiar with the great themes of the Bible, and often we will have to go back to the Old Testament before leading people to see Christ.
A Fickle People
Sadly, many of the people proved to be fickle. It would be wonderful to read that they repented and believed to a man, but that is not the case. “Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. However, when the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and went into the city. And the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe” (vv. 19-20).
This scene reminds us that we are called to proclaim the gospel in a very fickle world. At one moment we may be hailed as heroes, and the next we may be martyred.
The hostility that these missionaries had faced earlier pursued them. The reason was their message. “They could have subscribed to everything Paul included in his address to the Lystran multitude (vv. 15-17), yet they stoned him; and it was because they had heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah.”8
It should be noted that because Paul and Barnabas would not succumb to their agenda, he was now seen as a pariah worthy of death. It is amazing how superstition can so easily lead to cruel hostility!
In an amazing scene, Paul was stoned and left for dead. But God powerfully brings Paul back from the brink of death—after which he headed back into the city! What courage! What faith! What faithfulness!
John Wesley once advised, “Always look a mob in the face.” Barclay adds, “Paul never did a braver thing than to go straight back to the city which had tried to murder him. It is quite clear that a deed like that would have more effect than a hundred sermons. Men were bound to ask themselves whence came the courage that enabled a man to act in such a way.”9
“Like Jesus,” notes Stott, “Paul remained unmoved. His steadfastness of character was upset neither by flattery nor by opposition.”10
Of course, this scene will remind us of the Lord Jesus, who was also hailed by the fickle crowd only to later be vilified and crucified by them. And like Paul, Jesus persevered in spite of this. Unlike Paul, Jesus actually rose from the dead.11 You see, He did so because of the gospel. And it was His example that Paul followed here.
I seriously doubt that most reading this face the threat of a martyr’s death for proclaiming the gospel. But you will probably face idolatry, superstition and those who are offended by the true gospel. But you and I, like Paul, have the Lord Jesus as our example, who empowers us for faithful gospel witness. Let us go forth, together for the gospel expecting great things from and thus for God.
- It might be worth noting here that the best way for a church to send missionaries is as a team. It is my burden that our own church needs to follow this approach in sending future missionaries. ↩
- Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4. ↩
- Ed Welch, “Do You Feel Like a Fraud?”, http://goo.gl/pdjWG, retrieved 28 October 2012. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 234. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 117. ↩
- Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:51. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 232. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 235. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 118. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 233. ↩
- Some have suggested that Paul actually died here, and was raised from the dead. They suppose that Paul’s mention of an experience in “the third heaven,” as recounted in 2 Corinthians 12, was a reference to the event: that he actually died and went to heaven before being sent back to earth. However, the word “supposing” in v. 19 is a clear indication that he did not actually die, but was brought back from the verge of death. ↩