Deified and Stoned
Dr. ALEXANDER MACLAREN, D.D.
ACTS 14: 8-22
8. And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked:
9. The same heard Paul speak: who stedfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed,
10. Said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked.
11. And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.
12. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker.
13. Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people.
14. Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out,
15. And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that are therein:
16. Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.
17. Nevertheless He left not Himself without witness, in that He did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
18. And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them.
19. And there came thither certain Jews from
20. Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe.
21. And when they had preached the gospel to that
city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and
22. Confirming the
souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and
that we must through much tribulation enter into the
LYSTRA was an important military centre in
Paul’s time, as the “most easterly point of the
colonial system” of the empire (Ramsay, in The Expositor, Sept. 1892, P. 174); but there do not
seem to have been many Jews there. That
fact may have influenced its selection as the refuge of the fugitives from Iconium;
it certainly moulded their manner of work, and gives a peculiar tone to the
narrative. We feel that we are in
contact with heathenism pure and simple. Contrast Paul’s address in the synagogue of
1. The Miracle (vv. 8-10). - It is the only one recorded as having been done in this first missionary journey, though “many signs and wonders” are mentioned as having been “granted” in Iconium. Observe, too, that no abstract of the Apostle’s teaching prior to it is given. Such teaching there must have been, or the lame man would have had nothing to fasten his “faith” on; but it is passed by, as the writer’s purpose is to tell of the effect of the miracle, as bringing out some characteristics of heathenism. There was no arguing with Jews about Messiah and prophecy, but there had been the proclamation of Jesus as Saviour. The message had found its way, however imperfectly apprehended, to one heart, at all events, - that of this lame man, whose case Luke diagnoses with a doctor’s accuracy, specifying that his lameness was congenital, and due to weakness in his feet.
The tense of the verb “heard” implies repeated listening. He had been in the habit of it; and as he got himself taken somehow to the place of meeting, a new hope had begun to spring, in his hopeless heart, that this Jesus was able to put strength even into his unused and useless feet. It crept up into his face, and caught Paul’s eye. We can almost see the searching gaze of the Apostle scanning his hearers’ faces to find out if anywhere his words were beginning to create a response. He is a poor preacher who does not get guidance from his hearers’ looks. How gladly Paul would hail the dawning faith in that upturned wistful face! and how certain he must have been of it before he said “with a loud voice,” breaking off from his theme for a moment, “Stand upright on thy feet!” The man’s faith obeyed, and by his faith Christ’s power fitted him to obey. He who in reliance on Jesus attempts impossible duties will do the impossible.
The omission of reference to Christ’s name is remarkable. Paul may have omitted it because the lame man
had already heard it, and his faith knew whence healing must come. But perhaps if Paul had been thinking more of “the
would have spoken the Name; and if he had, there might have been no such
misconceptions as followed. Be that as it
may, the parallel with Peter’s healing the lame man at the temple-gate is
striking. It has been pressed into the
service of the hypothesis, once fashionable, and now all but forgotten, that
the object of the Acts was to patch up a compromise between the judaising and Gentile elements in the Church, and that
therefore, if anything was set down to the credit of Peter, the champion of the
former, an equivalent must be given to Paul, the leader of the latter. But there does not seem to be anything so
extraordinary in the fact that there was a lame man in
2. The Strange Result of the Miracle (vv. 11-13). - We are in a different stratum of thought and culture here from any that we have met. Rude Lycaonians were more affected by seeing something done than by hearing the most important things said. That sudden shout, in their own patois, which Paul and Barnabas would not understand till the appearance of the priest with his apparatus for sacrifice enlightened them, reveals much. It tells how deep in the human heart lies the belief that, if there be gods, they cannot leave earth’s miseries unpitied and unhelped. It tells of the conviction that there must be beneficence in [kingdom of] heaven, and a path for it to come and bless earth. It gives voice to the yearning which surely underlies many superstitions and has shaped many strange forms of belief, for a revelation of the Deity in human form, with pity in His hands and love in His heart.
Scholars tell us of legends in Greek mythology, localising a kindly descent of Jupiter in that very district; but, apart from that, the words are the voice of longing, and of glad surprise that dreams had come true, and wishes been fulfilled. Like distorted and obscure reflections in muddy waters, they give a blurred image of the great truth. “The Word became flesh” is the full statement of the fact which that exclamation in a rude tongue marred in uttering, and misapplied. It was wrong in speaking of “gods”; it dreamed only of an apparent transient assumption of humanity. It failed to apprehend the gulf between the creature and the Creator, but yet it witnessed to a wild belief, to a dim but persistent hope; and it is vindicated in Him who was found in fashion as a man, and that in no mere appearance, nor temporarily, but in inmost reality, and for evermore.
The childishness and easy credulity of heathenism, its impressibility by apparent miracle, its low conceptions of what a present God requires, its fatal tendency to dissect the absolute perfectness and distribute it among fragmentary gods, are all here. Barnabas was the elder, and probably the more imposing and stately; so he is Zeus. Paul was the speaker, so he is Hermes, the messenger of the gods, the patron of eloquence; though if the traditional picture of the Apostle as “small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, bald-headed, bow-legged” (Ramsay), be correct, the graceful Hermes had a strange representative; but probably the Lycaonians were not aesthetic.
The priest of Jupiter probably knew too much to share in the enthusiasm; but it brought grist to his mill, and so he soon appeared on the scene with oxen for sacrifice, and garlands to hang on their horns. He, too, is a typical figure, ready, like all his kind, to feed profitable superstition, and to fool the multitude to the top of their bent, in the way of business.
3. The Apostles’ Remonstrance (vv. 14-18). - How quickly they pass from the personal matter! It was easy to say, “We are men of like passions [that is, weaknesses] with yourselves,” but it needed some courage to confront the excited crowd with the flat assertion that Zeus and Hermes and all the rest of the Olympians were “vanities,” empty nothingnesses.
Observe the fine adaptation of the “good tidings” to the immediate purpose. The heart of the Gospel was not declared to that mob, who had evidently not known of the Apostles’ previous teaching; but the declaration of the nothingness of idolatry and of the existence of the one God is a Gospel too for idolaters and polytheists. The brief words are characteristically Pauline, and are the seed of much in his Epistles. They contain the germs of his habitual teaching on the subject,- the witness of creation to the one God, the designation of Him as the “living” in opposition to the “vanities,” the division of the ages into the past of permitted ignorance and departure, and the present of revelation (though that is not expressed here), the witness of daily blessings through natural processes to God’s goodness. The simple peasants had their fields waving in harvest and the rain-clouds that broke over their thirsty soil, on that, parched plateau, to testify of God.
Paul took other proofs when he spoke to the philosophers of
4. The Swift Revulsion
of Feeling (ver. 19). - It was a long journey from either
Exaggerated admiration is sure to turn to the other extreme. “Crucify Him!” rends the air before the echo of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” has died, and the thorns for the crown are plaited ere the palm-branches waved in the procession have withered. On the one day “it was roses, roses, all the way”; on the next “they fling, whoever has a mind, stones” at their late idol. Mercury in the one breath, and a miscreant in the other, and yet neither the one nor the other in reality, but a true servant of the infinite love, bearing the Master’s fate for the Master’s and the persecutors’ sake. So it has been, so it is still, so it will always be. Let us pay little heed to popular judgment, and not have our heads turned by extravagant applause, nor be afraid of popular disapprobation. “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you.”
5. The Unmoved Continuance of the Apostles in their Work (vv. 20-22). - Barnabas does not seem to have been in danger. The brunt fell on Paul. What a picture that is of the little group of brave converts standing in sorrow round the motionless, bruised body, preparing, no doubt, to bury it and “make great lamentation over it”! What rapture of wonder as he feebly stirred, opened his eyes, and staggered to his feet! The resuscitation to such soundness of limb as to allow of going into the city is surely more than natural. Jesus Christ needed His servant for a while yet, and raised him up from the jaws of death. Did Paul remember Stephen as the stones cut into his forehead?
The quiet courage of entering the city again is of a piece with the magnificent persistence which carried on the work of evangelising as if nothing had happened. The world is unable to hinder a man who gets up from the insensibility of stoning, and goes on with his business as if that had been only a parenthesis. What made that heroism? The same thing which will make us heroes if we are true to it, - the constraining love of Christ.
Derbe is the farthest point of this journey. The Apostles returned, with characteristic boldness, by the same route, and ventured again into the cities where they had been assaulted. They are not said to have preached publicly, but to have confined their work to strengthening the little Churches.
Two main points were the burden of their exhortations. They pressed on the converts continuance in the faith, - an expression which, at first sight, seems to use “faith” in the sense of the body of truth believed, - a meaning which it often has in later times. But more probably it means here, as generally, the act of faith, and not its object; and the exhortation is to steadfast continuance in the exercise of that trust which they had begun to put forth. That exhortation was enforced by the unfolding of the great law of which the two speakers were living illustrations, - that the path to the kingdom, both in the imperfect form which it assumes here, and in its consummate glory in the future, lies through sufferings. There is no condition of the true Christian life on which Paul insists more than that, even as there are none of the Church’s great names who have more fully exemplified it in their lives. The law remains in force still, though the forms of tribulation are changed. The path to God and to His kingdom is not “a primrose road.” That leads to a very different goal. It still remains true, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him.”*
[* NOTE. The literal fulfilment of the Divine promises respecting Messiah’s millennial kingdom are as certain as His promises are true. The prophecies of Old and New Testaments should encourage us to hope for that time when our Lord and Saviour shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see His salvation in accordance with Paul’s words when “All Israel shall be saved:” (Rom. 11: 26).
“And this, knowing the season, that now it is high time for you to awake out of sleep: for now is salvation” – [i.e. a future salvation ready “to be revealed in the last time,” the “salvation of souls” (1 Pet. 1: 5, 9.)] – “nearer to us than when we first believed. The night is far spent, and the DAY is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light:” (Rom. 13: 11, 12, R.V.). See also, 1 Thess. 2: 12, 14; 2 Thess. 1: 4-7, etc., etc.
Great King of kings, why dost Thou stay?
Why tarriest Thou upon the way?
Why lingers the expected Day?
‘Thy kingdom come’.
Life in its fulness is with Thee,
Life in its holy liberty;
From death and chains this world set free:
‘Thy kingdom come’.
O king of glory, King of peace,
Bid all these storms and tumults cease,
Bring in Thy reign of righteousness:
‘Thy kingdom come’.
Peace, gentle peace, is on its way,
And holy love this earth to sway;
Hasten, O Lord, that glorious day:
‘Thy kingdom come’.
Oh, bid Thy blessed gospel go
That all Thy wondrous grace may know:
‘Thy kingdom come’.
- H. BONAR.]