Summary: Despite the growing opposition to the gospel, Paul and Barnabas never stopped preachign the gospel, even at therisk of their lives. They also give a good example of mission strategy.
If you were here two weeks ago you’ll remember how, when Paul and Barnabas got to Pisidian Antioch they first went to the synagogue to speak about Jesus as the promised Messiah, but then when their message was rejected by the Jews they turned to the Gentiles. And the Gentiles gladly received this message of salvation for all people. Well, now Luke continues his history of Paul and Barnabas’ missionary journey as they move on from Antioch to Iconium, to the south east. And we read that the same thing happened here. So what’s this same thing?
Clearly it’s the rejection of the gospel by the Jews and its acceptance by the Gentiles. It’s almost as if the events in Antioch were the trigger for an increase in opposition. From this moment on Paul and Barnabas encounter a growing opposition, including, as we discover today, physical threats to their life.
But first, notice that as they speak, as usual in the Jewish synagogue to start with, a great number of both Jews and Greeks become believers (v.1). There’s no question that their message is persuasive for those God has called.
I think we need to be reminded of this. Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the message of the gospel and a great number of their hearers believed. It’d be easy to read the report of the opposition they encountered and think that their proclamation had failed. But it hadn’t. A great many believed. Why? Well, first because of the way they presented the gospel. We saw last time the way they presented the gospel by proclaiming the word of God, accompanied by works of power. We saw how they reminded their hearers of the things God had done and how God’s actions intersected with their own experience of the world. And here again, in v3, we see how the words they speak are testified to by God with signs and wonders done by the apostles. And as a result of this combined action of God’s power and the persuasive speech of his servants, Paul and Barnabas, many people come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God.
But that’s only half the story. Again we see the same thing that happened in Antioch. "The unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers." The Jewish leaders, who were jealous of the attention that Paul and Barnabas were getting and worried that their message was being preached indiscriminately to the Gentiles, began to oppose them. This time, though, their opposition turned to violence. The Jews and some of the Gentiles who sided with them apparently planned to stir up a crowd to first insult them and then to stone them. But the disciples in the town heard about their plan and warned Paul and Barnabas to get out of there.
Now you might think this is a terrible thing for God to allow to happen to his envoys. Why didn’t God protect them? Well, as we’ve seen before God is sovereign, but he doesn’t necessarily stop people from carrying out the evil plans they make. But neither does he allow those evil plans to stop his own plans for the salvation of those he’s chosen.
Think about what happened when the great persecution arose in Jerusalem following the stoning of Stephen. Many of the Christians were forced to flee, but in doing so they simply moved to fresh ground where they began to plant the seed of the gospel all over again. And so it is here. Paul and Barnabas are driven out of Antioch so they move on to Iconium. They stay there for a long time, whatever that means, but long enough for there to be a reasonable number of disciples, then they’re driven out again. And this time they go on to Lystra and Derbe where they continued proclaiming the gospel.
Now Lystra was a small regional town, about 40 or 50 years old. It was linked with the cult of Zeus and Hermes, probably because of a legend that the two gods had once visited the city.
In fact the Roman poet Ovid told the story in Metamorphoses, a recounting of local legends. He tells how Zeus and Hermes visited the region of Phrygia disguised as mortal men. But as they sought hospitality they were rejected by all and sundry. Eventually they were offered hospitality in a tiny cottage by an elderly peasant couple named Philemon and Baucis, who entertained them despite their poverty. As a result the gods returned to reward them while sending a flood to destroy the homes of those who refused to welcome them in.
So you can imagine that when these two strangers appear and perform this miraculous act, healing a man who’d been crippled from birth, it doesn’t take long for the locals to put 2 and 2 together and work out that something supernatural is going on. And they’re certainly not going to make the same mistake the people in the story made of failing to honour the gods when they arrive. And so they start calling out in their native language "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Paul and Barnabas obviously don’t speak Lycaonian because it’s not until the priests come out with oxen to sacrifice and garlands to put around their necks that they realise what’s going on.