In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
What an exciting passage this is. You could imagine this being enacted by Charlton Heston et al (or does that just show my age?) Understanding the background of Lystra helped me; and I hope it helps you. On all previous occasions, and most subsequent ones, the Christian missionaries began their activity in the synagogue – crucially – among the people who already had some understanding of God. This was very different. There is no mention of a synagogue, and the people, who had good knowledge of Greek gods, had no knowledge of the God of Abraham. The legendary history of Lycaonia includes a story that once Zeus and Hermes had come to this earth in disguise. None of the peoples would give them hospitality other than the last two old peasants, Philemon and Baucis. The offended gods then wiped out the entire population, except Philemon and Baucis, and made them guardians of the splendid temple. Clearly those who saw and heard Paul and Barnabas were very mindful of that situation and did not want to suffer the same fate as their ancestors.
It took considerable effort from Paul and Barnabas to prevent the Lystrians from honouring them as gods. But Paul, ever the quick thinker, seized the opportunity to introduce the one and true God to them at a most basic level, recognising that he was talking to an audience at ‘ground zero.’ This resonates with our experiences today as we venture outside the walls of our churches.
Dear Father God, we give thanks for all your missionaries, and particularly for those who take the name of Jesus to the ‘unchurched’ today. We pray that you will give them the courage and stamina to face their challenges and the quick wits to read the situation and respond as Paul and Barnabas did in Lystra. Amen
Alan Yates is the Moderator of General Assembly 2016 to 2018