From Acts 14-15
In today’s passage we see how a different culture can perceive the behaviour of another. Barnabas and Paul have set out to preach the gospel to the nations. The Gentiles are different from the Jews. One difference is they believe in numerous gods and idols. They have different beliefs and customs than the Jews. We are about to see one example of where awareness of another’s culture and beliefs is important for ministry.
This post is part of my bible in a year series.
Passage and Comments
Barnabas and Paul are on their first mission. Set apart by the Holy Spirit they have had a lot of success and encounter much opposition. Some say the order of names is significant. Barnabas then Paul. For the moment Barnabas is the leader.
14 Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. (Acts 14.1-2)
Barnabas and Paul want to share the gospel with people who have not heard it. It was their standard practice to enter the Jewish synagogues first because it is there they share common ground with the people the speak to. Gentiles are more work (1 Cor 15.10b).
They are both eloquent and persuasive speakers.
Word and Spirit working together, people are coming to faith through their ministry.
Acts 13 is a good example of Paul’s knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and his ability to use them to point to Jesus.
Some become jealous with their success however. These are the unbelieving Jews in the synagogue. Perhaps we can see why they feel like this. A new sect comes into their church, teaches a new teaching and draws away their own people. So they start a counter movement, attempting to destroy their work. The strange twist to this is Barnabas and Paul are right. The message about Jesus is the way people find true life with God and the gospel is bearing its fruit.
3 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. (Acts 14.3-4)
Because of the opposition, Barnabas and Paul stay a long time defending Jesus from the scriptures.
This is not all that has been happening. God has been working signs and wonders through them as well. A powerful combination.
5 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel. (Acts 14.5-7)
The tensions with the unbelievers escalates. Conflict can be hard. This time they escape and avoid being stoned. Paul won’t always be this fortunate (cf. 2 Cor 11.23-27). They flee and this gives them more opportunities to share the gospel. No matter what the world throws against them, the gospel goes forward.
8 Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. (Acts 14.8-10)
When the group arrived at Lystra (see the map above) Paul continued sharing the gospel with the people around him.
Among many other things, the gospel tells us Jesus can heal the blind, sick and the lame.
Among the crowd a crippled man hears this good news. He believes Jesus can heal and he too can be healed. Paul seeing the man has faith instructs him to stand on his feet. The man is healed.
11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. (Acts 14.11-13)
The surrounding crowd, perhaps not hearing what Paul was saying, interpreted what he did in an unexpected light. They worshipped the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. In their eyes only the gods could heal and Paul has done just that. So they think they are gods. Paul creates a stir, but does not know because they are speaking in Lycaonian.
What Paul meant for good was misinterpreted in the light of another culture’s perceptions.
The word must have spread about what happened because the priest of Zeus hears and seizes the opportunity to bring in some animals to offer sacrifice to them. In light of their own beliefs the crowd seeks to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas thinking they are gods. It’s probably then that Paul twigs on that something had gone wrong.
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 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. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14.14-17)
Barnabas and Paul knowing what the crowd is thinking and are about to do are forced into some back-pedaling.
‘Like nature’. They seek to correct the mistaken view of the Lycaonians. They are gods. They are men.
They contrast their own nature with God’s. God is creator, they are his creations.
Paul identifies their behaviour as idolatry. For some time God has allowed it to happen. But now with the appearing of Jesus, Paul and Barnabas implore them to turn to the living God.
We know from Paul’s other writings they should already have some idea of His existence because of how God works in nature (cf. Rom 1.19-20).
18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. (Acts 14.18)
The people still struggled to believe him.
Paul and Barnabas are not gods. The incident reveals how important it is to know the beliefs of the people we are sharing the gospel with. Had Paul and Barnabas known before hand how their actions would be perceived they would have changed what they said and did to accommodate the gospel message to their audience.
The concept is called contextualisation of the gospel.
Some things we may do and say could be perceived in completely unexpected ways by people of different cultures. So we should be aware.
This is an example where things went wrong. But there are other occasions where we see significant changes being made in order to bring about the salvation of others.
First and foremost the word of God became flesh. Jesus himself is the ultimate example of contextualisation. Understanding us completely, He became one of us for our sake. The word of God became incarnate.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted [or raised] him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php 2:5–11)
Paul learns from the incident and from Jesus, because he later says;
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Co 9:19–23)
God uses people who are willing to accommodate themselves and change so that others can be saved.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.