Acts is about the continuing work of Jesus through His Spirit bringing the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Not only is Jesus doing this, but what we find is that He has also prepared the world for this: synagogues functioned as open doors for the gospel, but the Gentiles were also being prepared for faith. And Jesus continues to work this way, going ahead of His people, preparing the way, turning everything, even trouble and tribulation, into a door that leads to the Kingdom.
The Text: “And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked…” (Acts 14:8-28)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Paul heals a man in Lystra, lame in his feet from birth, and the city erupts acclaiming Barnabas as Jupiter and Paul as Mercury (Acts 14:8-12). As the priest of Jupiter was preparing a sacrifice in their honor, the apostles tore their clothes and interrupted the proceeding, urging the people to turn to the living God who made heaven and earth, and thus barely restrained them (Acts 14:13-18). Sometime after, the Jews from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium showed up in Lystra and stirred up a mob that stoned Paul and left him for dead outside the city (Acts 14:19). However, as the disciples gathered around him, Paul rose up and the next day he was able to go to Derbe before retracing their steps back through the very same cities he was previously chased out of: Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, encouraging the saints and ordaining elders in every church (Acts 14:20-23). Returning to the region of Pamphylia by the sea, they sailed back to Antioch where they had begun their journey, and told the saints all that God had done, particularly for the Gentiles, and remained there for some time (Acts 14:24-28).
GODS IN HUMAN FORM?
It might seem strange or surprising that the people of Lystra see the healed man and immediately assumed that Paul and Barnabas are Jupiter and Mercury. But it is likely that they knew the legend of Baucis and Philemon told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the story of the time Jupiter and Mercury came down in the form of two ordinary men and were refused hospitality until a poor, kindly couple took them in and fed them. The gods sent a flood to punish the Phrygian valley (not far from Lycaonia), and only the poor couple escaped to a mountain. The couple’s hut was spared and transformed into a glorious temple to Jupiter. The couple were made priests of the temple, and by their wish, later died at the same time, and turned into an oak and linden tree, where it became customary to lay garlands in their honor.
Whether driven by true fear/piety or a mercenary opportunism, the priest of Jupiter and the people at least had a story to point to when they came with their oxen and garlands to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:13). Of course the apostles object to being worshipped, but notice that they don’t contradict the cosmology. They don’t argue that no other supernatural beings exist or that they certainly could not appear as men. They do call that worship “vain/worthless” (Acts 14:15) and clearly call them to turn and worship the living God, the Creator of heaven and earth and Giver of all good gifts (Acts 14:15-17). It’s striking that we have our own “true myth” of the time two angels came to a city and were mistreated before receiving hospitality by the only faithful house, and only that family escaped to a mountain before judgment came upon that valley (Gen. 19). Furthermore, Daniel describes Michael and other angelic beings fighting with the angelic “princes” of Persia and Greece (Dan. 10:13, 20). Perhaps Jupiter and Mercury were real, fallen angelic “gods” that occasionally had shown up as men, and perhaps some good angels had prepared those cultures for the coming of the gospel.
SEVERAL OPEN DOORS
God tells His story in our lives and in history in order to prepare the way for His purposes. We see this in the healing of the lame man which is very similar to the beginning of Acts: “a certain man lame from his mother’s womb, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple” (Acts 3:2). Both of these healings erupt in significant responses for the spread of the gospel. While sin sometimes is the cause of poor health, often, as in the story of the man born blind, God assigns tribulation in order “that the works of God should be made manifest” (Jn. 9:3). What no doubt looked and felt like a brick wall for these men, was God’s door. Check for sin, but look for God.
Both men “leap up” when they are healed, and here in Acts 14, they seem to be near the gate of the temple of Jupiter (Acts 14:13). The parallels seem to confirm Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles (as akin to Peter’s ministry), but it also suggests that the pagan temples (despite all the paganism) had their own role to play in preparing for the gospel, as God gave them good gifts, rain, fruitful seasons, and food and gladness (Acts 14:17). They wrongly attributed these gifts to false gods, but the gifts were preparing them to meet the Giver: another open door.
When the Jews from Iconium and Antioch show up and stone Paul, this echoes the earlier murder of Stephen, which Paul had overseen (Acts 7:58). Surely, this was not lost on Paul. Not only is it miraculous that Paul survived, but then he rose up, went into the city, and was able to depart the next day for Derbe (Acts 14:20). What is also astonishing is the fact that he then turned around and retraced his steps through those same cities (Acts 14:21). It seems likely that Paul still had marks on his body as he encouraged the saints to continue in the faith, insisting that they must enter the kingdom through many tribulations (Acts 14:22). What was meant for evil, Paul immediately saw God working for good. Paul saw an open door.
Almost everyone has some sense that nothing happens by accident. Even unbelievers will say things like that. But we really need to learn to turn it around: everything happens on purpose and this means that everything is sovereignly administered by the Triune God for our good (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 8:28). We need to learn to say about everything, “this is so I can go to heaven.”
The exhaustive sovereignty of God means that absolutely everything (every detail) has been prepared for us, and all of it is to prepare us for what is next and ultimately for the Kingdom itself, through many tribulations. Faith sees absolutely everything as an open door because Jesus is risen from the dead.