Paul and Barnabas continue traveling through Galatia. They leave Pisidian Antioch and go to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, and then turn around and retrace their steps through the same cities as they make their way to the coast to sail back to Antioch in Syria where they began. On the way they continue to present the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike and many believe. But they also continue to meet resistance at almost every stop. Throughout every city, however, God is with them and shows Himself through miraculous works, the receptiveness of many souls, and in how He strengthens them to persevere through the trials they face. Spreading the gospel proves to be life-changing and life-threatening work but God stays with the missionaries every step of the way.
Paul and Barnabas leave Pisidian Antioch and go to Iconium – roughly sixty miles southeast. There they enter the synagogue – as has become their custom – and preach the gospel. As a result, many Jews and Greeks believe. This could mean that the same thing happens as happened at Antioch – the preaching of the gospel brings multitudes to the synagogue such that many Gentiles are converted also.
Just as at Antioch, however, the Jews who do not believe react aggressively and stir up opposition to the brethren (presumably including Paul and Barnabas and new converts). This opposition to the gospel has an interesting effect on Paul and Barnabas as it causes them to actually stay longer in the city (they are guided by the Holy Spirit and so know when to stay and when to leave and can confidently act in either case). Instead of backing down they fight against the disbelieving Jews by speaking boldly and making sure the gospel is heard accurately. They also likely reassure those who believe. God reinforces their words by granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.
The effect of both the bold preaching and the aggressive opposition causes the city to divide. The gospel – as it always does when it is faithfully preached – has an enormous impact and forces everyone in the city to choose. Some stand with the Jews and some stand with the apostles.
The situation changes when the Jewish rulers and some Gentiles decide to put an end to the issue by killing Paul and Barnabas. God ensures the apostles find out about the plot and so leave the city and travel to the region of Lycaonia and focus their work in the cities of Lystra and Derbe.
The first city they enter is Lystra – roughly 25 miles south of Iconium. The text says nothing about entering a synagogue so it is likely one does not exist in the city. Lystra is populated almost exclusively with Gentiles so Paul and Barnabas proclaim the gospel in other venues.
At some point during the time in Lystra Paul notices a man lame from birth who has never walked in his life. Somehow – apparently through the work of the Holy Spirit – Paul knows that the man has faith that he can be healed. Paul says to the man in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” The instantly leaps up and begins to walk.
This has an incredible effect on the people of Lystra. They cry out – in their native Lycaonian language – “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” They then call Barnabas Zeus and call Paul Hermes because Hermes is the son and messenger of Zeus and Paul is the main speaker. The people assign the higher authority to Barnabas perhaps because of his appearance or his age (Paul will later describe himself as unimpressive in physical appearance – II Cor 10:10 – so this may have a bearing on the people’s perception).
Some commentators believe the people react this way because of a local legend that Zeus and Hermes visited their region in human form in the past and were not recognized except by one poor couple who hosted them and were richly rewarded. Thus the people ensure that this time they pay the proper respect to the undercover gods and make sure they are treated appropriately.
Paul and Barnabas do not immediately react to the cries of the people, perhaps because they do not understand the Lycaonian language the people use. However, they notice the priest of Zeus bringing oxen and garlands to the city gate to prepare sacrifices to them. They tear their clothes and rush into the crowd crying for the people to stop.
Paul and Barnabas speak to the people and assure them that the two of them are merely men just as the Lystrans are. They are there only to speak the gospel and turn the people from their false gods – these vain things – to serve the living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them (these are bold words in the middle of a crowd that is preparing to worship the very things Paul and Barnabas denounce). They tell the people of Lystra that in the past God did not concern Himself with Gentile nations and their worship of false gods – He permitted all the nations to go their own ways – but now the gospel has come to all people. And even during the times before the Messiah, God made Himself evident in His good works on their behalf and in how He gave them rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (this goes along with Paul’s later words to the Romans that God has shown Himself through creation so that all who refuse to acknowledge Him are guilty – Rom 1:18-21). He effectively says that it is not Zeus who has given harvests and prosperity – it is the living God – and it is His gospel that we proclaim.
Notice that Paul says nothing about Israel’s history or how God worked in His chosen people to bring the Messiah. He also does not point out the Jews’ culpability in Jesus’ death. He changes his approach with an all-Gentile audience. The gospel message is always the same but the means of explaining it change depending on the circumstances. Paul shows himself to be adaptable and wise and to have enough experience to know how to preach to the Gentiles. He also shows that the Holy Spirit is with him to guide and inspire his words.
When Paul and Barnabas finish speaking they still can barely restrain the people from going through with the sacrifices and worship. Apparently the followers of Zeus do not believe Paul’s words about one living God and are not convinced that their gods are vain things. Though Paul spoke the truth in the power of the Holy Spirit his message is largely rejected. This goes along with Christ’s teaching in the parable of the sower (Matt 13) – the truth is typically received by few. [It is worth noting that even Paul has times where his teaching is ignored. We cannot be discouraged in our own lives by the results of proclaiming the truth – we just need to faithfully proclaim it.]
Sometime after this – no way to know how much time elapses between verses 18 and 19 – Jews come from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium and stir up the people of Lystra against Paul and Barnabas. The crowds turn against the two men to the point where they stone Paul and drag his body outside of the city because they think he is dead.
Verse 19 describes an incredible turn of events. The crowds move from wanting to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods to stoning Paul to death because they hate him so much and think his message is so wrong. It also is amazing because the Jews from Antioch and Iconium are able to stir up a Gentile crowd against Paul. Jewish opposition to the gospel is typically based on how it claims the Messiah has come and has forever altered the believers’ relationship to the Law and the sacrificial system. In this case, however, the Jews are able to stir up the crowds without appealing to blasphemy against Judaism at all. They apparently turn public opinion using an entirely different approach than they used in their home towns.
The reason for the quick change in perception of Paul and Barnabas could have something to do with their reaction to the Zeus and Hermes worship. Perhaps the people do not like that Paul and Barnabas tried to turn them from their gods and refused their worship so vehemently. This could be what the Jews from Antioch and Iconium capitalize on to turn the city against the apostles.
Luke is unclear as to what exactly happens to Paul. The crowd that stones him assumes he is dead and leaves his body outside the city. The disciples – people of Lystra who have believed the gospel – stand around his body presumably praying for and/or mourning him. As they stand around him he stands up and goes back into the city. The text is vague as to whether he is actually dead and God raises him or if he is just unconscious and God heals him. Regardless, God supernaturally intervenes and allows him to continue his ministry. And amazingly he goes right back into Lystra (what do the people think when they see him?) and the next day embarks on a 90-mile journey to Derbe.
Paul and Barnabas spend time in Derbe and are apparently received much better than they were in Antioch, Iconium, or Lystra. They preach the gospel in Derbe and make many disciples. At Derbe they decide – or more likely the Holy Spirit decides – that they have traveled far enough and it is time to start the return trip to their home church in Syria.
Incredibly they go right back through Lystra, Iconium and Antioch – the cities where they faced the most intense and life-threatening persecution. The Holy Spirit apparently directs them back along this route – it is also the route of the main Roman road through this region – and protects them from any further harm. It is a testament to how much the apostles trust God for their guidance and protection that they go back through three cities where their lives were in real danger.
At each of their stops they encourage the new converts by telling them, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” This shows that the three cities are not just the sites of persecution directed at Paul and Barnabas but the people there continue to persecute those who believed Paul and Barnabas’ message. The gospel has put down roots and aroused the ire of those who hate it. The apostles make sure the new believers know that with belief come tribulations (what a great sales pitch!). The good news is that God predicted it and is aware of it and will never leave them to face it alone. Nothing is happening to them that is not expected. God is with the new converts and He intimately knows their plight.
Paul will later refer to this time of persecution in the last letter he ever writes and will make the same point. But you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord delivered me! And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (II Tim 3:10-12). Believers must expect persecution because they are citizens of a kingdom that is completely at odds with the kingdoms of this world. Jesus told His disciples the same thing – In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).
Paul’s words about tribulation also apply to the trip itself. The apostles go on the trip in obedience to the direct leading of the Holy Spirit. And while they enjoy amazing success they also face unprecedented tribulation and persecution. They obey and almost lose their lives. In retrospect they would have been much safer had they ignored the Holy Spirit’s leading. Yet there is nothing in the text about Paul and Barnabas becoming discouraged or disillusioned or even being surprised. They obey and suffer and seem to have no problem reconciling the two.
As believers it is very easy to think that if we obey God our lives should be smooth. Nothing in the scriptures backs that thought, however (not to mention how skewed our perspective of our obedience can be). Oftentimes the example in the Bible is of the believer who suffers because he obeys. Our western mindset sets happiness and blessing as the default settings of life and suffering and difficulties as unjust exceptions. Perhaps a better understanding of Jesus’ and Paul’s and James’ teaching would lead us to see smooth times as short respites from the ongoing tribulations that largely make up a believer’s life. This is not to say that we live as morbid fatalists. It IS to say that we expect troubles in a sin-cursed world and that rather than being disillusioned we glory in the fact that our Savior will never leave us or forsake us and that He is greater than the enemy who troubles us and has overcome the world the enemy controls.
As Paul and Barnabas make their way back they focus on six things. They preach the gospel, make disciples, strengthen the souls of the disciples, encourage them to continue in the faith in the midst of tribulation, appoint elders, and then – with prayer and fasting – officially commit the disciples to the Lord’s care as they leave. This really paints a picture of what missionary work is. These six acts – along with then reporting back to the sending body as they do in verse 27 – set the example for all missionaries to follow. And really, five of these acts (leaving out appointing elders) are what all believers should be about as they live out the Great Commission individually. Whether formal missionaries or not we all should be making disciples and then encouraging those disciples in the faith – stimulating them to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24) – and committing them to God’s care and protection through prayer.
Paul and Barnabas leave Pisidian Antioch and come to Perga – where they did not minister before – and then go on to Attalia on the coast. There they board a ship and sail back to Antioch – in Syria – where they started the trip and where the Holy Spirit sent them out.
In Antioch the missionaries gather the church and report on all that they saw and did and how God opened a door of faith to the Gentiles (hugely encouraging to a church made up of many Gentiles). The trip has likely taken around two years so they have much to relate and much to praise God for. Paul and Barnabas were commended to the grace of God (26) and the events of the trip certainly reinforce that He was with them the whole time.
Paul and Barnabas stay in Antioch for a long time and presumably minister in the church as they did before leaving on their journey (11:23-26). It is during this time that Paul likely writes his letter to the Galatians.