The Pursuit of God

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Know Your Bible Lesson 82: The Stoning of Paul

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TROUBLE IN ICONIUM (The 1st Mission Trip)

At the end of our last lesson, an angry Paul and Barnabas were shaking their sandals at the crowd in Antioch of Pisidia [pih-SIH-dee-uh], and leaving that hostile group of folks to travel east to the city of Iconium [i-CONE-ee-um].

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Iconium is in the Roman province of Galatia.  This is the area which Paul was preaching in before he teamed up with Barnabas.  Back in Lesson 79, we learned about the letter of Galatians which Paul wrote to Gentile believers in this area who were getting hassled by Jews for not getting circumcised.  Now Paul is returning to this region again, and he’s eager to get more converts.  The problem is that word is already spreading in the Jewish community about how irritating Paul is.  Back in Antioch of Pisidia, Paul really insulted his fellow Jews by accusing them of rejecting Yahweh’s salvation and saying that he was giving up on them to go preach to Gentiles.  Of course this was all a bunch of guff on Paul’s part—Paul is a total bigot who loves his fellow Jews far more than he does icky Gentiles.  But Paul also has a hot temper, and when he is annoyed, he runs his mouth and ends up making comments which get him into trouble.  It’s simply unheard of for a Pharisee to publicly side with Gentiles against Jews, and the display Paul made back in Antioch of Pisidia is going to come back to haunt him.

Now traveling to Iconium puts some distance between Paul and the Jews he insulted back in Antioch of Pisidia.  So he’s now trying to make a fresh start.  Once again we find him and Barnabas starting their evangelistic efforts by attending Jewish synagogues.  But wait—back in Antioch of Pisidia, Paul said that he and Barnabas were giving up on the Jews.

“We had to speak the word of Yahweh to you Jews first. But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles! For this is what Yahweh has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” [Isa 49:6] (Acts 13:46-47)

So what is this “light for the Gentiles” doing in a Jewish synagogue?  Well, Paul’s a blowhard.  Even though he calls himself an apostle to the Gentiles and applauds himself for hanging out with inferior people, in his heart, he’s all about the Jews.  For all of his speeches on the importance of loving others, you won’t find Paul crying over the idea of Gentiles ending up in Hell, because he views Gentiles as expendable. It’s only the Jews who Paul really wants to see saved, which is why he says in Romans 9:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. (Rom. 9:1-4)

Ethnic Jews are Paul’s first love in life.  They’re even more important to him than Christ, which is why he’s willing to chuck his relationship with Christ in order to see more Israelites saved. And of course being cut off from Christ means that Paul would be rejected by Yahweh.  But he’s alright with that.  He’d gladly sacrifice his relationship with both Christ and Yahweh in order to see more ethnic Jews in Heaven.  But Gentiles?  Meh.  They can burn.

Paul is a horrible spiritual role model—a point which we’re going to keep reminding you of as we go along.  This business of exalting humans as more important than God is a total reversal of what our Gods want.  Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are supposed to be our First Priorities in life—not mere created beings.  The fact that Paul doesn’t have a problem with flaunting his idolatrous attitude towards other humans demonstrates what a spiritual dingdong he really was.  Even if he secretly knew that he cared more about ethnic Jews than he did God, that’s hardly something he should be bragging about in a letter which he knows will be circulated among many churches.  We all struggle with wrong priorities, but mature leaders should know better than to flaunt their personal flaws as fabulous things.  Paul is not mature, and he’s a terrible leader.

Now the Iconium experience starts off the same as Antioch of Pisidia: at first, everyone is really receptive to what Paul is saying.  Just like in Antioch, his message quickly gathers the attention of both Jews and Gentiles.  But because the Jews have such a deep rooted hatred of Gentiles, it doesn’t take long for them to get irritated by the sight of a Jewish pastor giving Gentiles a bunch of attention.  Gentiles are supposed to be viewed as inferior dogs until they convert to Judaism—then they’re supposed to be politely accepted into the club, but constantly reminded that they’re not equivalent to the Jews in God’s eyes.  Back in Jerusalem, the Temple is still in operation and it has a system of courtyards which are designed to prevent Gentile believers and women from getting as close to the Holy of Holies as Jewish men can.  Paul is not only a Jewish man, but he’s also a Pharisee—two facts which should cause him to be really emphasizing that Gentiles are lower lifeforms. But instead, he’s standing in public inviting Gentiles to jump on board with this Christ thing. Where is the shunning?  Where is the emphasis that Jews are superior?  Does a Nazi treat a Jew as his equal?  Does a member of the Ku Klux Klan talk as if blacks are equal to whites?  The longer Paul talks, the more ticked the Jewish members of his audience become.  They don’t like this talk about Christ accepting both Gentiles and Jews.  They also don’t like Paul exalting that blasphemous Bum from Nazareth as some kind of hero.  Jesus openly hated the Pharisees, so why is Paul standing here in Iconium promoting Jesus as fabulous?  How stupid will the Jews look if they admit that they crucified the very Messiah that they claimed to be waiting for?  And what kind of Messiah could Jesus be when He didn’t even save Israel from Rome?  The longer Paul talks, the more threatened the Jews feel.  They don’t want the Gentiles or anyone else to rally around Paul.  They want Paul to shut up and go away.  He’s an embarrassment to Israel.

The same thing happened in Iconium; Paul and Barnabas entered the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brothers. So they stayed there for some time and spoke boldly in reliance on Yahweh, who testified to the message of His grace by granting that signs and wonders be performed through them. But the people of the city were divided, some siding with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to assault and stone them, they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian [lih-kay-OH-nee-uh] towns called Lystra [LIH-struh] and Derbe [DIR-bee], and to the surrounding countryside. And there they kept evangelizing. (Acts 14:1-7)

PAUL GETS STONED IN LYSTRA (The 1st Mission Trip)

After being driven out of Iconium, Paul and Barnabas end up in the town of Lystra where Greeks abound.  Lystra is in a region called Lycaonia [lih-kay-OH-nee-uh] and where there are Greeks, there is the worship of Greek gods.  Of course there are too many Greek gods for any individual worshiper to keep up with, so people chose favorite gods to focus on much like Hindus do today.  Here in the town of Lystra, the gods Zeus [ZEWS] and Hermes [HER-meez] are especially popular.  Zeus was the god of the sky and thunder.  He was also the big cheese who ruled as the king over all the other gods from Mount Olympus.  Hermes was a son of Zeus and the god of commerce.  Now if you read up on Greek gods, you’ll discover that they’re all a bunch of moody twits who are constantly getting into tiffs with each other.  Both the Greeks and the Romans came up with their gods by simply deifying human beings.  They didn’t bother to try and make their gods better than human when it came to their characters and priorities.

Now in Bible times, temples, priests and sacrifices were all very common elements of god worship.  Just outside of Lystra, there’s a nice temple for Zeus.  Living in Lystra is a qualified priest of Zeus—a guy much like the Jewish Levites who is authorized to make sacrifices to the gods.  Since Lystra is located on several trade routes, it’s a major center of trade, thus it makes sense for the people in Lystra to also schmooze Hermes on a regular basis, since he is the god of commerce.  So Zeus and Hermes are big deals in this town.  The folks living in Lystra also know about a story in Greek mythology which tells of a time when Zeus and Hermes actually paid a visit to this geographical region in the form of two humans, only at the time, most people didn’t recognize them. What’s more exciting than having your gods walking among you in human form?  It’s happened before—maybe it can happen again.  The people of Lystra are open minded.

Now as Paul is preaching in the city street, he notices that there’s a crippled man who seems to be really listening to him.  Yahweh has been performing a lot of healing miracles through Paul and Barnabas so far—perhaps He’ll do another one right now.

In Lystra a man without strength in his feet, lame from birth, and who had never walked, sat and heard Paul speaking. After observing him closely and seeing that he had faith to be healed, Paul said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet!” And the man jumped up and started to walk around.

When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the form of men!” And they started to call Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the main speaker. Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the town, brought oxen and garlands to the gates. He, with the crowds, intended to offer sacrifice. (Acts 14:8-13)

Paul wants to use the miraculous healing to exalt Yahweh, and that would have been easy to do if he’d been preaching to a crowd of ethnic Jews who believed that Yahweh was the one true God.  But this crowd of Greeks have their loyalties in a whole different camp. They’re all about Zeus and Hermes, and they’re ever ready for any Greek god to show up among them in human form.  When they see the lame man healed, they immediately assume King Zeus had something to do with it, and then they leap to the thrilling assumption that perhaps Barnabas and Paul are Zeus and Hermes in human form.  But which is which?  It’s obvious to the Greeks that Paul has to be Hermes because Hermes was known to be the god who spoke for other gods–a go-between rather like the Catholic version of Mary.  If Paul is Hermes, then that makes Barnabas Zeus, and suddenly the people of Lystra are getting another shot at meeting two of their favorite gods in person.  This isn’t so farfetched—we Christians make a similar claim when we say that Jesus was God in the flesh.  And once you believe that you’ve got super-god Zeus and his divine son Hermes standing right in front of you, of course you’re going to rush to try and please them.  The authorized priest of Zeus rushes to get stuff ready for a grand sacrifice to these two gods.  Some big old oxen are chosen as the sacrificial animals—this isn’t the moment to go cheap with a pair of pigeons.

Well this is a disaster.  Paul didn’t come here to get deified—he’s trying to preach about Christ.  He and Barnabas have to find some way to stop this circus before those sacrifices get offered.  After all, every good Jew knows that Yahweh takes a very dim view of men exalting themselves as gods.

Now the ancient Jews were a very expressive people and they like using their clothes to express their emotions.  Back at Antioch, Paul and Barnabas shook their sandals at the crowds to communicate a general sentiment of, “To hell with all of you!”  Now here in Lystra, it’s time to whip out the Jewish symbol for, “I’m horribly upset right now!”  That means Paul and Barnabas need to seize hold of their clothes, and give the material a hard yank that will rip open those vulnerable seam lines.  The seams can be resewn later, so no permanent damage will be done.  The critical thing is to grab the attention of these hyped up Greeks.

The apostles Barnabas and Paul tore their robes when they heard this and rushed into the crowd, shouting: “Men! Why are you doing these things? We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, Yahweh, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. In past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way, although He did not leave Himself without a witness, since He did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.” But even though Paul and Barnabas said these things, they barely stopped the crowds from sacrificing to them.  (Acts 14:14-18)

So wait—the people of Lystra aren’t really being visited by Zeus and Hermes?  What a letdown.  And just what does Paul mean by saying that they should turn away from “worthless things”?  Since when are Zeus and Hermes worthless?  You can’t just sail into town, rip all over the local gods, and think you’re going to be applauded.  These people were about to slaughter some beefy oxen for these two strangers.  Now they’re getting lectured by a couple of stuck up Jews who clearly think their God is the only legitimate one.

This situation is already dangerously tense.  You don’t rip on Zeus to a bunch of agitated Greeks without risking serious injury.  People are getting mad.  Then a bunch of Jews show up from Antioch and Iconium. Talk about rotten timing.  Grudge holding was a very popular past time among ancient Jews, and these Jews from Antioch and Iconium are still seething over the way Paul embarrassed them in their cities.  So they’ve tracked him down to Lystra and now they’re walking in on a scene of a stressed out Paul facing off with a bunch of irate Greeks.  The Jews can see that Paul and Barnabas have already torn their clothes—a clear indication that the two men are not feeling in control of this situation.  How very convenient.  The Jews from Antioch and Iconium quickly go to work to start amplifying the anger of the crowds.  It isn’t hard to do—after all, Paul has publicly insulted the mighty Zeus and the very impressive Hermes.  So when someone mentions stoning, everyone gets on board and soon the rocks are flying in Paul’s direction.  When a bludgeoned Paul collapses onto the ground and stops moving, everyone’s feeling very satisfied.  The Jews drag Paul’s corpse out of the city and leave it there to rot: a classic Jewish way of communicating your personal hatred of someone.

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and when they had won over the crowds and stoned Paul, they dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. After the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. (Acts 14:19-20)

Was this a group prayer moment or did Paul’s fans just gather round to share their distress and pay their last respects?  We’re not told.  But what a shocker when Paul suddenly stirs and gets up on his feet.  The group then stays overnight in a nearby town which isn’t the city of Lystra before traveling on to a town named Derbe.  Paul can now turn his stoning experience into a powerful testimony and things start looking up.  The people in Derbe are very receptive and Paul gains a lot of new fans.  Everyone’s feeling so encouraged by that moment that Paul boldly backtracks through Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, flaunting his dedication to his mission.  A lot of people find this very impressive.  People are always impressed by someone who seems to have cheated death, and Paul’s selling the whole thing as a righteous trial.  He tells people:

“It is necessary to pass through many troubles on our way into the kingdom of Yahweh.” (Acts 14:22)

If only Paul was really heading towards the kingdom of Yahweh.  But his willingness to divorce himself from Yahweh in order to see more ethnic Jews in Heaven indicates that Paul’s submission to God was sorely lacking.

THE END OF THE FIRST MISSIONARY JOURNEY

This is the end of the first missionary journey.  Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch of Syria—the place where they launched from back in Lesson 80.  They’ve planted a string of churches back in the region of Galatia and they now view themselves as successfully winning over a bunch of Gentiles to Yahweh and His Messiah.  But have they?  Was their popularity on the mainland really due to their message about Christ, or was it just a case of everyone being impressed by a guy who came back to life?  Today all a guy has to do to draw a crowd is claim that he had a near death experience.  People will always be attracted to dramatic testimonies and miraculous healings.  But being attracted to hype has nothing to do with sincerely seeking God on a soul level.  During His public ministry in Israel, Jesus drew enormous crowds, but most of the people in those crowds never developed any real interest in pleasing God.  Miracles and dramatic testimonies are great tools for quickly gaining fans, but until people get serious about submitting to God in the privacy of their own souls, their zeal for some new religious trend will be meaningless.  As Paul and Barnabas kick back in Antioch of Syria, we can’t shake the feeling that their view of their own accomplishments is more than a little exaggerated.

TROUBLE ABOUT CIRCUMCISION

All good things must come to an end, and after a nice long season of kicking back with their fans in Antioch of Syria, Paul and Barnabas find their authority being challenged once again by ethnic Jews.  This time it’s a delegation that’s come up from the region of Judea where Jerusalem is.  This pro-Jesus trend that Paul has sparked among Gentiles has resulted in scores of Gentiles thinking that they are now being accepted by Yahweh even though they’re not circumcised.  Well, no, that just can’t be. Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh commands all of His male followers—both Jews and non-Jews—to get circumcised.  In fact circumcision is such a huge deal that any man who tries to keep his foreskin is supposed to be shunned by all of Israel (see All About Circumcision).  Why isn’t Paul addressing the all-important issue of circumcision when he’s preaching to the Gentiles?  Why is he letting people think that they can actually be accepted by Yahweh when they’re not getting circumcised?  How can a Pharisee promote such rubbish?  A lot of Jews in Jerusalem are very angry at Paul because of this, and they’ve sent a group up to Antioch of Syria to get Paul and his followers back in line with the teaching of the Torah.

Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!” (Acts 15:1)

Well, no, Paul disagrees.  He believes that now that Christ has come, Yahweh has made some significant changes to His salvation requirements and that circumcision is no longer required.  He’s right—Yahweh has changed things up.  Not only is circumcision no longer required, but all of the Old Covenant dietary and sacrificial laws have been voided as well.  What hasn’t changed is the Scriptures that the Jews are holding up as their guidelines in life.  When the Old Testament is the only Bible that you know, you’re not going to be able to find any biblical back up for saying that circumcision is no longer required.  Circumcision was a huge deal in Old Testament times, and Yahweh got very ticked when His followers grew slack in that area.  So how is Paul going to convince a bunch of Old Covenant believers that it’s okay to fluff off one of Yahweh’s most significant commands?  Clearly Antioch of Syria isn’t the appropriate place to settle this matter, so Paul and Barnabas head on down to Jerusalem to meet with the head honchos there.  As the council of pro-Jesus Jews convenes, heavyweights like Peter and James are present and ready to weigh in on this circumcision issue.  Which side will they take in this critical debate?  We’ll find out in our next lesson.

COMING SOON: Know Your Bible Lesson 83

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