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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Acts 14

 

 

Verse 1

‘And it came about in Iconium that they entered together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of Jews and of Greeks believed.’

Arriving in Iconium they went as usual to the synagogue and spoke so effectively from week to week that large numbers of both Jews and Greeks believed, so that a reasonably sized church was established.


Verses 1-7

The Ministry In Iconium (14:1-7).

Having been expelled unexpectedly from the Roman colony of Pisidian Antioch a decision had to be made as to which road to take. The Via Sebaste (Augustus Road) which went from Ephesus to the Euphrates passed through Pisidian Antioch coming from the west and became two roads, one of which went north through mountainous territory to the Roman colony of Comana, and the other south east across rolling plain, arriving after eighty miles at Iconium. It was the latter road that they took. This was leading them back towards the sea.

Iconium was very much a Greek city, and prided itself on its semi-independence, being ruled by its own assembly of citizens (Demos) who would vote on civic matters. It was situated on the high plateau, away from the sea, in a well watered and productive region, its delightful surroundings including verdant forests, fertile plains and background mountains.

It will be noted that what follows is very much in summary form. They attended the synagogue and preached successfully over a period of many weeks, they faced opposition and recognised that that opposition was seeking to build up a case against them, they continued to speak boldly, they performed signs and wonders, and finally, when they learned that plans were afoot to stone them to death which were likely to get the agreement of the assembly, they moved on


Verse 2

‘But the Jews who were disobedient stirred up the souls of the Gentiles, and made them evilly disposed against the brethren.’

But Iconium was a very democratic city with its own broad assembly which determined civic matters. Thus the Jews who were unresponsive (‘disobedient’), and even hostile, and who were unhappy at what was happening in their synagogue, and offended by it, knew that if they wanted to be able to proceed against the new Christians they would only be able to do so if they whipped up sufficient Gentile support. They knew that they would need a majority opinion in the assembly in order to be able to do anything. And the result was that over the weeks they began to stir up a good number of Gentiles, seeking to turn them against those who were being converted to Paul’s teaching.


Verse 3

‘For a long time therefore they tarried there speaking boldly in the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.’

Meanwhile Paul and his party were able to continue on unafraid, encouraging the persecuted believers (‘the brethren’) and no doubt also themselves seeking to build up popular support. Thus they were able to remain there a long time, and continue to speak boldly in the Lord, bearing witness to ‘His grace’, that is, proclaiming the Good News of the unmerited favour that God had revealed towards man and what through His unmerited favour they could receive in Jesus Christ. At the same time the Lord backed them up by granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. These linked them with the ministries both of Jesus and of the Apostles Acts 2:22; Acts 2:43; Acts 4:30; Acts 5:12; Acts 6:8; Acts 7:36 compare Galatians 3:4-5). The work of the same Holy Spirit was clearly going forward among the Gentiles.

‘In the Lord’ almost certainly refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, although the ambiguity is probably intentional. Jesus is ‘the Lord’ in every sense, and the word is the word of His grace (compare Acts 13:43 where it was ‘the grace of God’).


Verse 4

‘But the multitude of the city was divided, and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles.’

The result of both sides seeking this kind of general support in the assembly was a gradually divided city, with part supporting the Jews, and part the Apostles. In the nature of their governing body this would also be reflected in any vote cast by their assembly. It was still clearly seen to be a close call. The very strict Jews and fervent idolaters were on one side. Those who admired Paul and rejoiced in the miracles that were being done, or who despised idolatry, were on the other.

We note here the first use of the term ‘Apostles’ of Paul and Barnabas. There is perhaps the intention to contrast the earthly authority with the heavenly. They had been authenticated by the signs and wonders (2 Corinthians 12:12), and were those who had been ‘sent forth’ (ekpempo) from Antioch by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore Barnabas was probably a witness of the resurrection, as Paul was, ‘as one born out of due time’ (1 Corinthians 15:8). The term ‘apostle’ is occasionally used of messengers of the churches, but Luke here probably intends to indicate full Apostleship, an Apostleship which Paul elsewhere specifically claims (Galatians 2:7-8; Romans 11:13; 1 Corinthians 4:9; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 2 Corinthians 11:5; 2 Corinthians 12:11).


Verses 5-7

‘And when an onset was made both of the Gentiles and of the Jews with their rulers, to treat them shamefully and to stone them, they became aware of it, and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the region round about, and there they preached the Good News.’

Eventually the Jews felt that they had built up enough support to be able to vote down the supporters of Paul and Barnabas and were confident that they could obtain the agreement of the assembly to the Pauline party being shamed and stoned. It should be noted that such a combination of Jews and Gentiles could only have arisen as a result of compromise by the Jews. Instead of treating idolatry with the scorn that they normally reserved for it, they would have had to gain support by speaking as though it were a respectable alternative, (unlike, of course, the new Christianity) and to point to its ancient traditions, traditions which they would point out these new Christians were said to be undermining. It would gain them votes on the assembly, but only at the cost of their religious integrity.

However, their ploy clearly succeeded and ‘an onset’ (a rushed decision?) was made against the evangelists in the assembly. News of this clearly reached the Christians and the result was that as things were getting too hot, and it was becoming apparent that the pro-Jewish party had gained the ears of the majority of the assembly and intended to use the opportunity to misuse the evangelists and stone them, presumably on the grounds of blasphemy, the Pauline party cut short their visit and left the city, albeit unwillingly (fled), moving on along the Via Sebaste first to the Roman colony of Lystra, twenty four miles away from Iconium (and one hundred and four miles from Pisidian Antioch), and then to Derbe (both cities of Lycaonia), and there again preached the Good News, both in the cities and in the surrounding regions.

Thus the political system had enabled them to remain in Iconium longer than they might at first have expected, given the opposition.

South Galatia was in fact divided up into four political regions, Isauria, Pisidia, Phrygia and Lycaonia, and at this particular time in history (and no other, for it was later seen as in Lycaonia) Iconium was seen as officially in Phrygia. Thus at this time in history only Lystra and Derbe where in Lycaonia. The result was that by this move they transferred from one political region to another.


Verses 8-10

‘And at Lystra there sat a certain man, impotent in his feet, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked, the same heard Paul speaking, who, fastening eyes on him, and seeing that he had faith to be made whole, said with a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he leaped up and walked.’

It is probable that this incident occurred at the gates of the city (see Acts 14:13). There would regularly be a space there which could be used for assemblies, and therefore for preaching. As Paul preached there (the man heard Paul speaking) he saw the cripple, eagerly listening, with the faith shining in his eyes. He was a man who had been crippled from birth, one who had never walked. And Paul, seeing that he had faith to be made whole, called over to him in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he leaped up and walked’.

It was done openly before all as an acted out parable. It proclaimed to all that they had come to make men whole, even though they had been ‘crippled from birth’. It informed them that there was now One among them Who could heal them body and soul.

There is an intentional parallel here with Acts 3:1-11. Both incidents refer to a man crippled from birth, in both cases eyes were fastened on them, both were commanded to rise up, and both leaped up and walked. But it is not a question of a duplicated story, for there are significant differences, and there must have been hundreds of such healings following a similar pattern. It is simply a matter of the consequences that arose from the particular healings, which were both seen as so memorable (the men had been known from birth) that they made a great impact and caused widespread thought and discussion.

Both incidents have Isaiah 35:6 in mind and are a reminder of the presence of the promised Kingly Rule of God, and both result in response from a temple. For the point is that the Temple of the Jews and the temples of the nations were equally blind. Neither worshipped God in Spirit and in truth (see John 4:20-24). Neither recognised the miracle for what it was. It is intended to be significant that while the supposed Temple of God in Jerusalem in its blindness and obstinacy rejected God’s sign and God’s messengers, and closed its mind to the presence of the Kingly Rule of God, the temple of the foreign deity, while welcoming God’s messengers under a misunderstanding, also finally rejected them, and in equal blindness misinterpreted God’s sign. Its mind too was closed to the Kingly Rule of God. The one was too critical and too hardened, the other was too gullible and too wildly astray and interested in sensation. For both Jew and Gentile were in darkness, and would be until the light shone in their hearts. Neither Temple could offer salvation. And while the Jews were unreceptive and would not accept any truth, because they were too set in their own ways, the Gentiles were too receptive, and would accept anything, anything that is but the truth. (Such was man’s blindness that only those who were disposed towards eternal life believed).


Verses 8-20

The Ministry at Lystra (14:8-20a).

A description is now given of the rather colourful events that occurred during their ministry in Lystra. These are on top of the fact that they proclaimed the Good News there (Acts 14:7). We do not know how long they had been there before the healing took place, and it may well be that they had been proclaiming the Good News in the synagogue there for some time (this would explain why the Jews had arrived from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium).

The incidents represent an interesting parallel to previous events. The lame man who leaps up and walks parallels the lame man in Acts 3:1-11 who did the same, an indication of the continual presence of the Kingly Rule of God promised by the prophets, and of the parallel nature of Peter’s and Paul’s ministries; and the hailing of Paul and Barnabas as gods parallels the incident of Herod Agrippa in Acts 12:20-23, the difference being that while Herod accepted the acclaim Barnabas and Paul instantly reject it. The earthly supposed kingly rule of God was willing to accept the worship due to God and suffered for it. It was a sham. But those who are under the true Kingly Rule of God reject it out of hand. They claim that none must be worshipped but God alone (Luke 4:8), and that all worship must be directed towards the true heavenly King.


Verse 11-12

‘And when the multitude saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voice, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, “The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.” And they called Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.’

Thus when they saw the miracle that had occurred, instead of coming to find out more and coming to the truth, they jumped to their own conclusions and saw these miracle workers as gods. It brought to their minds the legend of a previous visitation by Zeus and Hermes to their region. Then they had come in human form and enquired at one thousand homes for hospitality, but not one had received them. Then they came to the door of a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, who alaone were willing to take them in. The consequence was that the pair were rewarded by being spared when the gods flooded the valley and destroyed its inhabitants. Their shack was also transformed into a marble-pillared, gold-roofed temple, and they became its priests.

So these people did not want to risk being caught out as their ancestors had been. They declared that the gods must have come down in the likeness of men, and they hailed Barnabas as Zeus (for he was the older and probably the more distinguished looking and maintained a dignified silence), and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, as Hermes. Unfortunately they did it, not in Greek, but in Lycaonian, so that Paul and Barnabas did not understand what they were saying. (It is important to note that there is no gift of tongues in use here, which is a clear warning against seeing tongues as an evangelistic gift. For if Paul and Barnabas did not have it, who had?).

This description is true to the facts as we know them. The majority of the people of Lystra were uneducated ‘pagan’ locals, ruled over by a Roman elite and educated, so far as they were educated, by a few Greeks. They thus preferred the use of their own language and on the whole did not have the sophistication of either Greeks or Jews. Furthermore we know from later inscriptions that Zeus and Hermes were especially worshipped in the area.


Verse 13

‘And the priest of Zeus whose temple was before the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the multitudes.’

The priest of Zeus seized the opportunity presented, and responding to popular demand, brought oxen and garlands, either to the Temple outside the gates of the city, or to the place where the two men were, and prepared to lead the crowd in worship by offering sacrifices. That it was opportunism and not genuine credence comes out in that he made no enquiries in order to ascertain the truth. He was playing to the crowds.


Verse 14-15

‘But when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of it, they rent their garments, and sprang forth among the large crowd, crying out and saying, “Sirs, why do you do these things?’

Once Barnabas and Paul realised what was happening they instantly repudiated any such idea. Tearing their clothes in order to immediately demonstrate their deep concern, they sprang forward and called on the men, no doubt in Greek, to desist, asking why they behaved in this way. Then they took the opportunity to proclaim the truth. There is nothing stereotyped about the message. It is based specifically on the situation, although it only gives the gist of the message because we probably only have the first part of it.


Verses 15-17

These were not Jews. Nor were they people with a background in Judaism or philosophy. As they were revealing they were out and out idolaters and simple men. But Paul does not turn away from them. Rather he speaks to them in a way that they will understand. Of no use here is it to mention the past history of the Jews or Greek philosophers. So he proclaims the past history of the world, although in Old Testament terms, so as to draw out that there is only one God, and that He is calling all men now to respond to Him.

He points away from himself and Barnabas, who are but men of similar desires to them, to the Creator of heaven and earth and of all that is (compare Acts 4:24; Psalms 146:6 LXX. See also Nehemiah 9:6; Isaiah 37:16; Psalms 69:34). In the past He had left men to walk in their own ways (Isaiah 53:6 LXX - although having provided them with a conscience, a law within - Romans 2:14-16). Yet even so He did not leave Himself without a witness in that He dispensed from heaven rains and fruitful seasons (Leviticus 26:4; Isaiah 55:10; Matthew 5:45) filling their hearts with food and gladness (compare Psalms 145:15-16 LXX). Thus they should see His power and compassion (His eternal power and Godhead - Romans 1:20) and turn from ‘vain things’ (Jeremiah 2:5 LXX Acts 14:22) to the living God (compare 1 Thessalonians 1:9) Who alone could do such things, turning away from the follies and vain things which were so clearly a constituent of idolatry.


Verse 18

‘And with these sayings scarce did they restrain the large crowds from doing sacrifice to them.’

Thus they sought to turn the people from their foolish path by facing them up to the truth about the living God, the Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth (compare Colossians 1:15-17), thus indicating that they could not be Zeus and Hermes because as there is only one God at least one of these could not exist. And yet such is man’s willingness to worship anything and everything but the true God, they were scarce able by these means to prevent the men from worshipping them.

Had the listeners shown any inclination to respond to the message he would no doubt have continued by giving the full facts of the coming of Christ and His death and resurrection but the unfortunate truth was that because of what had happened he had had to interrupt them at the point of their fervently worshipping their two favourite gods, by denying their existence. This was hardly likely to curry favour with them.


Verse 19

‘But there came there Jews from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the large crowds, they stoned Paul, and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.’

The impression given is that meanwhile these Jews from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium were already present, presumably having come because they had learned that Paul and Barnabas were still taking their message to the synagogues of the region, and taking advantage of the situation they aroused the crowds to antagonism against Paul and Barnabas, probably claiming that they had been deceiving them. The crowds, having had their favourite gods blatantly denied, were ripe to be persuaded. When we have made fools of ourselves we regularly look around for someone else to blame. And they were frustrated to discover that these men were not gods after all and indeed were men who rejected their gods. It did not therefore take long for them to be persuaded that these men were charlatans (and, as men will under pressure, they conveniently forgot the healing).

Stoning was a Jewish punishment and probably allowed in cases of blasphemy (it certainly was in some cases). So it was probably the Jews who led the way in hurling the stones at Paul, and soon all joined in. It was the equivalent of a mob lynching. And once they were convinced that they had killed him, they dragged his body out of the city and left him for dead, possibly in what constituted the site for town rubbish.

It will be noted that here, as constantly, the Jews actually went to some lengths to ensure the persecution of Christians, and in fact it would be they who were the main instigators of persecution against the Christians throughout most of the first century. They were a Licit Religion, and themselves safe from state persecution, and that protection extended to Christians because they were seen by the authorities as a Jewish cult. While here the Jews merely worked by inciting popular opinion, later they would do all that they could to expose Christians as members of an Illicit Religion. Much persecution of Christians would have been avoided had it not been for the Jews (compare Revelation 2:9; Revelation 3:9). Sadly they were as good at hating as at being hated by many Gentiles.


Verse 20

‘And on the morrow he went forth with Barnabas to Derbe.’

So the next day it was felt advisable to depart for Derbe, which has now been identified as near Kerti Huyuk. And there they proclaimed the Good News to the town, and made ‘many disciples’. It was a wholly successful visit, but there were otherwise no incidents of any note. It was possibly even too small to have a synagogue and would therefore not be of interest to the persecuting Jews. Yet it was from Derbe that Gaius the companion of Paul would come (Acts 20:4). Little acorns can produce great oaks.


Verses 20-28

Further Ministry and Follow Up And Back to Syrian Antioch (14:20b-28).

Recognising that their continued presence in Lystra would not be for the good of the infant church, and that they must let passions be allowed to die down, Paul and Barnabas made for Derbe, sixty miles away.


Verse 21-22

‘And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the Kingly Rule of God.

Once they had established a group of disciples in Derbe who could have blamed them if they had taken the opportunity offered to make for the nearby port of Perga only a few miles away (they had come round in a circle), the port at which they had first arrived on landing in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13)? As they looked back it must have seemed such a long time before. Behind them were hostile towns. Before them could have been an almost immediate pleasant voyage home. But they did not go home. Instead they went back, back the sixty miles to Lystra where Paul had been so severely treated and left for dead, back the further twenty four miles to Iconium from which they had fled in danger of imminent stoning, back the further eighty miles to Pisidian Antioch from which they had been expelled so forcefully, and this in order that they might make strong the souls of the disciples at each place, and exhort them to continue in the faith, and remind them that through many tribulations we must enter into the Kingly Rule of God.

Thus does Luke make clear, as he has done all along, that as the word of God advances and triumphs, persecution and tribulation inevitably follow in its wake. Christians who are having an easy ride need to look at their foundations, for if they are serving the Lord truly they can be sure that Satan will not allow them to left alone for long.

One encouraging thing about these words is the assurance that in each of the cities and towns were sufficient believers to be formed into a church. None had been mentioned at Lystra, but there had been converts nevertheless.


Verse 23

‘And when they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed.’

And when they arrived back in those unwelcoming cities that they had left in such haste, they appointed elders in every church, mature men whose faith had stood the test of the days of waiting, and who could therefore be relied on to remain true for the future. Then they prayed together, with fasting (the fasting was so that the prayer might be able to be continuous and not be interrupted), and in their prayers commended the elders and their churches to the Lord on Whom they had believed. It would not be long before he would write to them his ‘letter to the Galatians’.

‘Elders.’ The position of ‘elder’ was probably at this stage mainly based on the idea of synagogue elders, thus controlling the affairs of the gathering, having overall control over the services, selecting speakers to speak, keeping charge of scrolls, and no doubt themselves partaking in the ministry as prophets or teachers. They appear to have been appointed by Paul and Barnabas but it must be seen as extremely probable that it was in consultation with all the believers. The believers alone would have sufficient knowledge of the men to be able to make a sensible decision as to who was finally suitable. Despotically appointed rulers inevitably make bad leaders.


Verses 24-26

‘And they passed through Pisidia, and came to Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, and from there they sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been committed to the grace of God for the work which they had fulfilled.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 14:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-14.html. 2013.

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