Paul goes on three missionary journeys in the book of Acts. The first of those journeys begins in Acts 13 when Paul and Barnabas are sent out from Antioch of Syria. Pastor Joe showed us the beginning of that journey last week. This week, in Acts 14, we see the ending of that first journey and we see a theme emerge. And this theme does two things:
One, this theme summarizes the first missionary journey, chapters which is 13–14, and
Two, this theme helps shape the way we think about our own lives and mission.
Now, what is that theme? It’s three simple words. The theme over Acts 13–14 is “what God did.”
That is the theme, I think, in most literal sense because that phrase is used three different times to refer to the events of Acts 13–14. Let me show you. . . .
At the end of Acts 14, when Paul and Barnabas are reporting to the church at Antioch who has sent them out, verse 27 tells us, “they declared all that God had done with them.”
Then in 15:4, speaking to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (we’ll see this next week), Paul and Barnabas “declared all that God had done with them.”
And then again, in 15:12, Paul and Barnabas “related what … God had done through them among the Gentiles.”
So three times here, talking about what Paul and Barnabas did in chapters 13 and 14, we see the exact phrase “God had done” — and anytime you see repetitions like that in a narrative, it means something — and we’re saying it’s the theme. Acts 13–14, our text today, is about what God did.
So, what did he do? That’s what we’re going to look at. No bullet points. We’re just going to step back, get an overview of the journey, look closer at what happens in Lystra, and spend most of the time talking about why that matters.
Overview of the First Journey
So, to get an overview of this first journey, I should tell you that the Chicago Bears are one of the oldest football teams in American history. I have no affinity to the Bears, but they matter today because their logo, which is an oval “C,” is almost a perfect outline of Paul’s first journey. It’s a “C” but it’s not round, it’s oval. And that’s basically the route Paul took on this first trip. Now, I could just drop a map up on the screen, but no. I’m going to use my hands.
It all started in Acts 13:1, in Antioch of Syria. Paul and Barnabas were sent out as missionaries and they sailed to the island of Cyrus, which was out in the Mediterranean sea. That’s where Paul got rowdy with that magician Joe told us about last week. And then from Cyprus they sailed up to Perga of Pamphylia and then from there they went to Antioch of Pisidia (a different Antioch than the one in Syria). That’s the majority of Acts 13 and where Paul preaches his epic sermon. Many believed. But then Jewish opposition influenced unbelieving Gentiles and they ran Paul out of the city. But Paul and Barnabas didn’t just leave and stop. They went over to Iconium, and there, like they do, they preached the gospel.
So Antioch of Syria to Cyprus to Perga to Antioch of Pisidia to Iconium.
They preached the gospel in Iconium. Many believed, Jews and Greeks. But then Jewish opposition once again influenced unbelieving Gentiles and they were going to kill Paul and Barnabas, but they fled from the city.
But, of course, Paul and Barnabas didn’t just leave and stop. This time they went down to Lystra and Derbe, and, like they do, they preached the gospel. That’s verse 7. And like I mentioned before, most of the rest of this chapter just gives more details about what happened in Lystra. And that’s what I want us to check out now.
Lystra and Derbe were two large metros pretty close together. Verse 6 says, “Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country.” So imagine, if you can, that there are two cities close together and there’s a sprawling metro between and around them. That’s not hard for us to imagine, right? Well, that’s what you have here in Lystra and Derbe, and Paul and Barnabas first go to Lystra . . . in Acts 14:8. Which goes like this . . .
So, While in Lystra
So, in Lystra, Paul see a crippled man who have never been able to walk. He sees him, stares him down, and says, loud enough for everyone to hear him, “Stand up.”
And the man stands up, and begins walking, and a crowd, of course, begins to form. This whole event is very similar to when Peter heals the crippled man in Acts 3. Both crippled men, in Acts 3 and 14, had been crippled from birth. And, in both cases, the men are healed, first by Peter and then by Paul. And in both cases a crowd gathers. But in Peter’s case, he was speaking to a Jewish crowd who had an Old Testament framework and so he spoke into that. But these folks here in Lystra that Paul is speaking to, these are Greek people with their Greek mythology, and when they see Paul and Barnabas do this miracle, they think and say, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!”
And actually, it’s a little bit funny because Luke tells us that they said this in their own language, in Lycaonian — and it’s funny because I think Luke implies that Paul and Barnabas didn’t understand it. So if you can imagine this scene: Paul and Barnabas have healed this man, a crowd gathers, and they’re saying something about Paul and Barnabas but Paul and Barnabas don’t know what it is. They were saying that the gods have become men, that Barnabas was Zeus, and that Paul was Hermes. And I think Paul and Barnabas were probably standing around and smiling or something. They didn’t really know what to do.
But then, out of no where, the town priest of Zeus comes with these oxen and flower arrangements and he’s getting ready to kill these oxen. He was going to sacrifice these oxen to Barnabas and Paul because he thinks they’re Zeus and Hermes. And somehow, in the middle of all this commotion, Paul and Barnabas found out what was happening, and they rush out into the crowd and they rip they’re clothes, which means, Hey, stop what your doing. And they say, Whoa, whoa, whoa! Why are you doing this? We are men like you.
And here is where this story reaching into our hearts.
Verse 15: “We also are men, of like nature with you.”
Paul, no, you’re not.
Now to be sure, Paul isn’t Hermes and he doesn’t want them sacrificing to him, we know that. But to go as far as to say that he is a man like these Greeks. Remember who is speaking here. This is Paul. This is Paul of highest Jewish privilege — Paul who was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin. This is Paul the Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (cf. Philippians 3:5–6). And he is saying to these unclean, pagan Gentiles, I’m just like you.
How? How could he say that?
Because Paul knows that just as his own story had a collision with God’s, so these Greeks, who have their own story, are about to experience that same collision. That’s what God does in Acts 13–14. He causes more collisions.
And see, Paul can say he’s just like these men, that he’s just a human too, because he knows that although we all have our different life-stories, they’re all just little stories that are part of something bigger. So he has his Jewish thing, and the Greeks have their thing, and you have your thing, and Paul says, Guys, we’re all the same. We all have these little stories, and there’s a bigger story, the story of God, and it’s coming to collide with our own. And that’s what he shows us in verse 15.
Muffling the Collision
Paul says, in verse 15,
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”
Skip to verse 18,
“Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.”
Now, Luke doesn’t tell us everything that Paul says here and how it goes, but we know, from the rest of Acts, that there were people who believed the gospel in Lystra. And one of them was a certain young man named Timothy, who went on to join Paul, became a pastor, and two of Paul’s letters are written to him.
So there was faith in Lystra, even though, Luke tells us here in verse 18 that Paul’s sermon barely kept the people from going through with the Zeus and Hermes sacrifice thing. Even after hearing Paul they still wanted to do the sacrifice. There was indeed a collision to their own story, but rather than Luke tell us about their faith, he shows us their persistent misunderstanding.
Now he really could have told us about their faith. Luke tells us that faith happened in Iconium, verse 4. And he tells us that faith happened in Derbe, verse 21. And we know that faith happened in Lystra, because in chapter 16, just two chapters later, Paul goes back to Lystra again to visit the Christians there. But here, right now, in this part of the narrative, Luke doesn’t say anything about their faith. He just shows us how obtuse they were to the gospel.
They still wanted to sacrifice to Zeus and Hermes. So even in the collision of stories, when God’s story collided with their story, they still wanted to do what they wanted to do. They had their story — their Zeus and Hermes story — and when God’s story collided with it, they tried to fit God’s story into their own. They took this miracle by Paul and Barnabas, and they tried to copy and paste it into the Zeus and Hermes fairytale. They took what God did and tried to make it about what they wanted . . . from their perspective as Greek pagans.
And we all do the same thing.
Like Lystra, we have our own little stories, and when God’s story collides with it, oftentimes, rather than an outright rejection, we’d rather just incorporate God’s story into what we already have going. That’s what the people of Lystra did. They had they’re thing with Zeus and Hermes. That was their cultural assumption. And when God’s story came, rather than outright avoid the collision, they tried to muffle it. They tried to ease the impact. Rather than let God’s story overcome them and have the final say, they tried to squeeze God’s story into their own.
The Challenge from Lystra
What about us, then? How do we do that? What cultural assumptions do we have that, rather then let God’s story overcome them, we finagle God’s story to affirm them?
What is it — in our lives or in our society — that if Paul is standing right in front of us saying one thing, we would still want to sacrifice the oxen? Do you get that?
What is it, that if the apostle Paul is speaking God’s story directly to our faces, we’d still be shaking our heads?
Now. At this point, I could spend the rest of this sermon talking about sexual ethics. Sex is important. And our society doesn’t want God telling anybody anything about sex. But that’s another sermon. Today I’ll just stay in this text. I’ll just keep it right here in chapter 14.
The question is: What are the cultural or value assumptions within our little stories that are challenged by God’s bigger story?
Well, if we were standing there in Iconium and we heard Paul preach Jesus boldly, I think we’d be okay with that. Right on, Paul. We titled this series, “Bold for the Cities.”
If we were standing there with the people of Lystra, and we heard what Paul said, I think we’d be okay with that. God gives us food and makes us glad. Amen. One of our pastors wrote a book about that. We like that.
If we were in Derbe, and heard Paul come in with his discipleship emphasis, I think we’d be okay with that. Amen. Relationships matter. Authentic community. Yeah, we like that.
But then, after Derbe, Paul retraces that “C” — he goes back and visits all these cities again, and his message was, in verse 22,
he strengthened “the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
And if we were there, if we were listening to that, I think we’d say “nah.” We don’t like that.
We’re okay with God giving us beer and bacon. That works. We okay with God caring about community. That works. But through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. Nah. We don’t like that. We don’t like it.
Even right now as I read this, I get a little nervous. The word “tribulation” just means “affliction.” Hardship. “Through many hardships we must enter the kingdom of God” — there must be some work around, right? There must be some qualification here? He doesn’t really mean that, does he?
See, we have this cultural assumption that life is supposed to be comfortable, and anything we bring into our lives is supposed to be a means to more comfort, but then God’s story comes and says: No, actually, it’s hard.
God’s story comes and says,
You get this part wrong. You think pleasant circumstances always means blessing. You think coziness is the only expression of grace. You think easy always means good.
But no. This isn’t easy. Things will not always be cozy. Circumstances will not always be pleasant. But don’t you see? You get me. I’m the good. And although the road is hard, although the trials are many, you get me. You get me. I’m with you. I love you. I’m never leaving you.
And, in fact, he tells us, that every hard thing in this life is not worth comparing to his glory that we will one day see (2 Corinthians 4:17). He says that every affliction that comes into our lives, that in the end, it is going to be for our good. It will give us more of him (Romans 8:28–29).
See, that’s what God did, and that’s what he’ll do. That’s what the collision of stories is about, which now brings us now to the Table.
We’re all here, each of us with our own little story. And what God did — the center of God’s story — is that Jesus came for you. He came here and died for you. All of your sin, and guilt, and shame — Jesus took that from you and he died in your place. And then three days later, he was raised from the dead, and he reigns now as King, and he has sent his Spirit, so that when you hear this story you say, “Yes.”
And here at the Table, when we take the bread and the cup, we are saying “Yes.” We are saying that we want our little stories to be overcome by his great story. When we eat the bread we are welcoming that collision. And when we drink the cup we remembering that all of us, everything about us, is his.