Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
Who was this lame man of faith?
It all started so promisingly. Paul and Barnabus come into Lystra and start preaching, and find this lame man who soaks up the teaching and quickly develops faith in Jesus. He is healed, and is able to walk. Quite a contrast with the rest of Lystra, who apparently hold more sway with Olympian (Greek) gods, and try to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabus, who they presume to be gods incarnate. Against such a dramatic backdrop, how does this lame man latch onto the truth so easily?
There’s a phrase that comes to mind – “the Lord works in mysterious ways”. Even in the most unlikely of places, or maybe especially in those places, God chooses to surprise us. We might have expected faith in Jerusalem. We might have thought it normal, commonplace even. This certainly isn’t the first person Paul has healed. But given the corporate response that follows, this lame man must have been unusual. God shows us that nothing is impossible with him.
I wonder sometimes whether my workplace is a bit like Lystra. It’s not somewhere I would expect to find people of faith. I still live my life demonstrably as a Christian, albeit less boldly than Paul did, but I’ve often found that when God helps me do the impossible people find worldly ways to explain it. They say I’m a good listener, that I’m really patient and kind, that I’m really clever and invaluable. They don’t see that it’s God working through me, even if I tell them. But, like this lame man, there are exceptions – there are a couple of other people who I now know to be Christians too, and occasionally I do have conversations with people and find that they are potentially open to the message of the Gospel. Yes, God can work miracles even at work.
If Paul and Barnabus had known the people would think them gods, would they have performed miracles there?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When Paul and Barnabus discover that the people of Lystra think that they are Zeus and Hermes (Greek gods), they are understandably devastated. The people have completely missed the point. Maybe if they hadn’t healed that lame man, none of that confusion would have happened.
Then again, if they had limited the outpouring of grace depending on what other people thought of them, that man would have stayed lame. That’s no way to approach mission. What we’re reminded of here is that individuals matter, and preaching the Good News matters, and politics has to come second to that. Effective mission shouldn’t be bounded by our low expectations – God is bigger than that!
Did Paul die?
That’s a bit strong. Let me explain what I mean… After the people declared Paul and Barnabus to be gods, the Jews get wind of it and stone Paul, which is the normal response to heresy and blasphemy. If they knew who Paul was, they would surely have loved the fact that they’d done what Herod couldn’t. Killing Paul would have given them a mountain of brownie points! And yet, it seems they didn’t actually do a very good job, because “they dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead”. They didn’t actually make sure. Maybe their heart wasn’t in it. Maybe they didn’t know who he was after all.
Or maybe, just maybe, they did stone him to death. Hear me out. Look at what verse 20 says: “But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” The details are curiously vague, but it sounds like the disciples all got together around what looked like Paul’s dead body, and he gets up. Now, if you’ve been stoned enough for people to think you’re dead, you’re not going to just get up, and you’re certainly not going to then walk back into the city and then continue your journey. You’d need time to rest, to heal, to mend broken bones, to stop the bleeding, to recover from concussion, and so on. Stoning is not a kind punishment. It sounds more like the disciples gathered round and witnessed another miracle. Maybe Paul wasn’t quite dead, just wounded enough that the Jews knew he only had a few gasps of breath left in him. Still, it’s an understated miracle that he was able to stand and carry on after that ordeal.
Was the mission a success?
The last few verses of chapter 14 chart the remaining stops on Paul’s journey, taking him to a few more towns before ending up back where he started, in Antioch. The writer summarises the entire mission with these words: “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God”. We can assume from that comment that there were other persecutions that aren’t documented. It was an uphill battle from start to finish. But despite the hardship, it was well worth it – Paul and Barnabus “had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles”, and left churches established in their wake.
Sometimes we try too hard to measure success. Sometimes we don’t even set out unless we know where we’re heading and have confidence in being able to reach our goals. But reading chapters 13 and 14, I don’t get the impression Paul and Barnabus had any idea what they were getting into when they started, nor any real plan around what they wanted to achieve through it. They just went where God told them, spoke the words he gave them, did what he laid before them. Did they have any understanding of the significance of what they were doing? Did they know that people like me would still be studying their mission nearly two thousand years later? No. They just did what God wanted. I want to do more of that. I want to step out in faith, without knowing where I’m going or whether it will work. I want to do what God wants me to do. Because if I do that, I have already succeeded.