Summary: I preach expository messages, and this is from my series on the book of Acts.
“Closing the Loop”
December 30, 2007
If you really, really believe that you are right, what does that belief produce in you? Atheist Christopher Hitchens, as I’ve mentioned before, has written a book entitled God is Not Great, wherein he details all the myriad problems he has with the whole concept of “religion” (and he lumps all faiths together under that word). One of his chief issues with “religion” is what it can cause its followers to do in response to their faith. In fact, Hitchens says that “Arguments for atheism can be divided into two main categories: those that dispute the existence of god and those that demonstrate the ill effects of religion.” One of his two major arguments is the actions of religious people. I have to tell you: it’s hard to deny that he’s onto something! Of course, he is selective in his use of the evidence, and misses the point quite nicely, but he’s right: sometimes the faithful have done revolting, hideous, and cruel things in the name of their faith—and that’s true of Christian faith, particularly in centuries past, much like we think first of Islam in today’s world, the monstrous inhuman effects of radical Islam. But I ask again, if you really, really believe that you are right, what does that belief produce in you?
The answer, it seems to me, is that belief ought to produce a clear, unmistakable determination to live by the dictates of your belief. That doesn’t make one’s beliefs right or wrong, mind you; it just argues for the consistent living-out of those beliefs. Had Christians been doing this through the centuries, Mr. Hitchens would have, could have, found no fault in our faith, for such atrocities as the Crusades are not warranted in the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly. If you really, really believe that what you believe is right, then you should live by your beliefs.
Such is the case when we come to the Jews from Antioch and Iconium referred to in verse 19. We can fault both their unbelief in Christ, and their ultimate decision to resort to violence, but we cannot fault the kind of zeal that brought them to Lystra. Notice a
I. Reversal of Fortune - :19-20
The Jews who traveled from Antioch were making a journey of over 100 miles, which is less than two hours by interstate—but they weren’t exactly traveling I-85 to get there! This was a long journey spanning several days—which indicates the venom which they had toward Paul and Barnabas and the message of the gospel. But a fair question is, why did they find such a receptive audience in Lystra, among people who were ready to worship Paul and Barnabas? Why would these people be so quickly ready to stone them, having just called them “gods”? The answer isn’t difficult: these were unlearned people whose religion was superstitious to the max. There were gods and spirits everywhere. These men had worked a miracle, but if they were not gods, then they must have been impostors, usurpers of the glory of the Greek gods. This presented a different situation altogether, and thus the reaction of stoning the apostles. And make no mistake about it: this was no judicial execution, but rather a lynching.
Ajith Fernando brings a human question to this episode: what must it have been like, mentally and psychologically, to endure stoning such as Paul did? It was undoubtedly humiliating, frightening, painful beyond belief; we might picture brave Paul standing up to this treatment with a resolute trust in God, and there’s some truth in that, but underneath it all, he was a guy just like the rest of us, who hurt physically and emotionally, and this was, beyond the pain of the stoning, a quite traumatic event. He bled real blood and felt real psychological hurt—which perhaps makes the following words all the more important: the “disciples gathered around him”.
“When the disciples gathered about him, he rose up” – Was this coincidence? The power of prayer? Healing and ministering and helping? One wonders if their reason for coming was to take the body to bury it, assuming Paul to have been killed by the stoning. Luke doesn’t tell us if Paul actually died or not; in a somewhat vague reference elsewhere in Scripture, Paul refers to a man who was caught up to heaven—and then came back from the dead (II Corinthians 12:2). Many speculate that Paul is referring to himself, and that this is the episode to which he refers. F.F. Bruce says that Paul’s being raised up “has a flavor of miracle about it”, though this is not something we can prove from the text. Miraculous healing or no, to survive a stoning, a dragging from the city to be left for dead to boot, is no mean feat. Something extraordinary happened to take Paul from lying a crumpled heap on the ground to making a journey with Barnabas the next day.