A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 14:15b-20 c. The sermon Paul preached (14:15b-18)
‘We are bringing you goodness, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’ Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
Although what Luke includes is only a very brief abstract of Paul’s sermon, it is of great importance as his sonly recorded address to illiterate pagans. It invites comparison with his sermon to religious and educated Jews in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, which is the only other one that Luke chronicles during the first missionary journey. One can but admire the flexibility of Paul’s evangelistic approach. I do not doubt that wherever he went his message included some good news of Jesus Christ, which does not change. This must be what Luke means when he says that the missionaries preached ‘the message of his grace’ (14:3) or ‘the good news’ (or ‘the gospel’). Nevertheless, although the substance of his message was invariable, he varied his approach and emphasis. The context within which he preached to the Jews in Antioch was Old Testament Scripture, its history, prophesies and law. But with the pagans in Lystra he focused not on a Scripture they did not know, but on the natural world around them which they did know and could see. He begged them to turn form the vanity of idolatrous worship to the living and true God. He spoke of the living God as the Creator of heaven, earth and sea, and of everything in them (15). Did he gesture to the sky, to the Taurus mountains to the south, and to the Great Sea beyond them? Moreover, he who made all things has not been inactive since. Although in the past he let all nations go their own way (16), yet he has never at any time or in any place left himself without testimony. On the contrary, he has borne a consistent witness to himself by his kindness to all human-kind, including Paul’s listeners. He has given them rain from heaven and crops on earth in their seasons, thus providing them with plenty of food for their bodies and filling their hearts with joy (17). Overawed by the majesty of this perspective, the crowd were restrained only with difficulty from sacrificing to them (18).
We need to learn from Paul’s flexibility. We have no liberty to edit the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. Nor is there ever any need to do so. But we have to begin where people are, to find a point of contact with them. With secularized people today this might be what constitutes authentic humanness, the universal quest for transcendence, the hunger for love and community, the search for freedom, or the longing for personal significance. Wherever we begin, however, we shall end with Jesus Christ, who is himself the good news, and who along can fulfill all human aspirations.
d. The stoning of Paul 14:19-20)
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered round him, got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
The stoning, which had been plotted in Iconium (5) took place now in Lystra. It was not a judicial execution, but a lynching. As the stones were hurled at him, did Paul remember Stephen, and even pray Stephen’s prayer? This must have been the occasion to which he was later to refer, ‘Once I was stoned.’ The enemies of the gospel had not killed him, however; they only thought that he was dead (19). Luke is not claiming that what happened next was resuscitation. The disciples, having followed those who dragged his body outside the city, now gathered round him, hoping to be able to minister to him, certainly praying for him, when suddenly he got up. It was a vivid illustration of another verse Paul was later to write in 2 Corinthians: ‘Stuck down but not destroyed’ or ‘we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out’. He was not only resilient; he was courageous. He went back into the city which had rejected him, to stay the night there (20a)
Next morning, Luke writes in his matter-of-fact way, Paul and Barnabas left for Derbe (20b). It was at least a sixty-mile trudge. How could Paul’s battered body manage it? ‘I bear on my body the marks of Jesus,’ he was soon to write to the Galatians; was he thinking of the wounds he had received in Lystra? ‘I once saw the track of a bleeding hare across the snow,’ said Dr. J.H. Jowett; ‘that was Paul’s track across Europe.’ Of course the companionship of Barnabas will have encouraged him. But as I once traced his route from Lystra to Derbe, I could not help wondering if his spirit had also been cheered by the spectacular, snow-capped mountain peaks around him, by the White Storks nesting on the village rooftops and by the pretty song of the Calandra Larks.
One is amazed at the fickleness of the crowd. One day they tried to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas as if they were gods, while soon after they joined in stoning Paul as if he were a felon. Yet Luke has recorded something similar of the Jerusalem crowd who with loud voices first acclaimed Jesus and then demanded his execution. Like Jesus, Paul remained unmoved. His steadfastness of character was upset neither by flattery nor by opposition.
Tomorrow: 6. Paul and Barnabas return to Syrian Antioch (14:21-28)
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.