Story 51 – Iconium, Lystra and Back Home
Based on Acts chapter 14
Nearly 100 miles away to the south-east of Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas eventually came to the town of Iconium where a very similar thing happened to what they’d just experienced in Pisidian Antioch!
The habit of Paul and Barnabas when arriving in a town was to go the Jews and preach in their synagogues. The reason they did this was that, if they’d started by going to the non-Jews, or Gentiles as they were known, then the Jews would never have listened to them or allowed them to visit their synagogues. So, to ensure their message would be heard as widely as possible, they always started at the Jewish synagogues. And, as in Pisidian Antioch, there was a strong reaction to their preaching, as a large group of both Jews and Gentiles believed their message. Also, as in Pisidian Antioch, there was a resolute group of Jews who refused to believe the message and set out to gather others to their way of thinking and poison their minds against Paul, Barnabas and the new believers.
The opposition to Paul and Barnabas and their message was both intense and persistent, but they didn’t run away. Instead, they stayed in the city for a long time and spoke boldly about all the wonderful things the Lord had done. And, to confirm that the message they brought was from Him, the Lord gave them power to do miraculous signs and wonders – outstanding evidence that their message was true! Yet even that wasn’t enough to change the minds of those who’d decided to reject the message. Instead, these disbelieving people worked hard to convince others to dismiss the message, until the whole town was divided, with some following the disbelieving Jews and others following Paul and Barnabas!
After a long stay in that divided city, those who hated the message and who especially hated Paul, got some of the city leaders on their side. With those leaders, they gathered a mob with the aim of attacking Paul and Barnabas and stoning them to death. Stoning is a Jewish form of execution reserved for people who blaspheme, which means to speak falsely about God!
Thankfully, somehow the believers and Paul and Barnabas heard about the attempt on their lives and fled, managing to escape to the smaller backwater town of Lystra. And, even though their experience had been tough at both Iconimum and Pisidian Antioch, they continued to tell everyone the Good News about Jesus.
When they arrived in Lystra, things seemed to go very well at first. There probably wasn’t a synagogue in Lystra, or many Jews in the town, and so Paul and Barnabas started telling the locals about Jesus. And, as they spoke of Jesus, Paul and Barnabas came across a man whose feet had been crippled from birth so that he’d never walked. This man sat and listened to Paul preach and, as he listened, Paul realised this man had the faith needed to be healed. So, in a similar way to how Peter and John had spoken to the crippled man outside the temple in Jerusalem all that time before, Paul called out to the man in a loud voice, ‘Stand up on your feet!’ At that word from Paul, the man leapt to his feet and started walking around!
As you can imagine, when the crowd saw what Paul had done, they were completely amazed and started shouting out in their local Lycaonian language (a language neither Paul nor Barnabas understood), ‘These men are gods in the form or human beings.’ Now, it just so happened that there was an ancient local story about the so-called gods of Zeus and Hermes having come to earth as mortal men and being refused shelter by everyone except an impoverished older couple. And, as a result, the older couple had been rewarded, but everyone else who’d refused to give them shelter – a 1000 households or so – were destroyed by a flood. So, when the locals thought that the gods had come down in a similar way to that old story – thinking Barnabas was Zeus and Paul, the chief speaker, was Hermes – they sprung into action, no doubt wanting to make sure they didn’t suffer the same fate as those who’d refused to shelter the gods in their ancient story. And, because neither Paul nor Barnabas spoke the local language, they had no idea what was happening.
You see, no sooner had the man been healed and someone said that the gods had come down in human form, than someone else hurried off to the local temple of Zeus, which was located just outside the city, to pass on this important news. Within no time at all, the priests from the temple of Zeus arrived, intending to sacrifice a bull to Paul and Barnabas!
Of course, as soon as Paul and Barnabas realised what was happening, they were horrified! Tearing their clothes as a sign of their horror and running out among the people, they shouted to the crowd, trying to convince them to stop what they were doing. Now, this crowd was made up of Gentiles who knew nothing of the Jewish Scriptures and so, instead of telling them about things from the Scriptures which they wouldn’t have known about or understood, Paul started reasoning with them about things they did understand – the natural world around them that God had created.
‘Friends,’ he shouted. ‘Why are you doing this? We’re human beings just like you! We came here to bring you the good news that you should turn away from these kinds of worthless things and instead turn to the living God. Look, in the past God permitted all nations to go their own way while, at the same time, never leaving them without evidence of Himself and His goodness. That evidence includes things like the rain He sends and the good crops you harvest so that you have food and joyful hearts…’
But, even with all their efforts, it was touch and go, and they only just managed to hold the people back from sacrificing to them.
That was when things took a turn for the worse, because Jews from the two cities Paul and Barnabas had previous worked in, Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, arrived in Lystra.
Whether they’d specifically travelled to look for the two men or whether they just happened to be in the city at this crucial moment we don’t know but, when they saw what was happening, they realised they had a chance to get their revenge on Paul and Barnabas and immediately sprung into action – no doubt enraged to find the two men carrying on their work of telling people about Jesus, even after all they’d gone through previously. So, seizing their opportunity, they spoke to the crowd, turning the fickle bunch who, just a short time before, had been intent on worshipping Paul and Barnabas – into a wild mob that wanted to do what they’d failed to do in those other towns and stone Paul to death! So, the stones started to fly, fuelled by the hatred of those who’d rejected the message of Paul and Barnabas about the love of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I wonder what Paul thought as the stones came flying towards him? Did he remember the time he’d watched Stephen being stoned to death because of his love for Jesus? Did Paul pray for those who were trying to kill him? We don’t know, but we do know that he remembered this event, referring to it in later letters.
So, the vicious and angry mob stoned Paul until he wasn’t moving and then dragged his apparently lifeless body out of the city, leaving him for dead.
What were Barnabas and the new believers to think? Was this to be the end of their missionary journey to tell others about the love of God in Christ Jesus? They must have been devastated as they gathered around the apparently lifeless body of Paul, no doubt praying and seeking the Lord for mercy – which they got. For, as they stood around him, Paul got up! And, in an act of great courage and boldness he walked back into the city – back among the group of people who’d literally just stoned him and left him for dead. Returning with the believers, he stayed the night in the city and then, the next day, he left with Barnabas on a 60-mile trek to Derbe.
Finally, once they’d told the people of Derbe about Jesus and seen many become followers of Jesus in that city, they returned to Lystra, then to Iconium and back to Pisidian Antioch. As they visited each of these cities, they encouraged and strengthen the ones who’d become followers of Jesus, those who’d believed their message. They encouraged them to continue their relationship with Jesus and to trust in Him, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.
While they met with the believers in each of these cities, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders or leaders for each church. And with much prayer and fasting, they committed these new elders into the care of the Lord Jesus.
From there, the two men travelled back through Pisidia to the area of Pamphylia, and specifically to the town of Perga – a place they hadn’t visited or had maybe bypassed when they’d arrived in that area because of their rush to reach Pisidian Antioch, probably because Paul had been ill and needed a healthier climate. However, now Paul was a lot better, so they preached about Jesus in Perga, and then went down to Attalia.
When they’d done this, the eventually returned by ship to Antioch of Syria, back to the city and church they’d originally set out from – the place where believers had first been called ‘Christians’. It had been the church in Antioch of Syria who’d entrusted the two men to the Grace of God to do the work which they’d now completed. So, arriving back in the city, they called the whole church together to tell them about everything God had done through them and how He’d opened the door of faith to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. After that, they stayed in Antioch of Syria with the believers for a considerable time.