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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Christ confronts the idolatry of this world through his servants
Text:Acts 14:8-19 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 66

Hymn 82:3 (after the Law of God)

Psalm 8

Psalm 95:1-3

Hymn 46

Scripture readings:  2 Corinthians 11:16-33, Acts 14:1-7

Text:  Acts 14:8-19

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

In Galatians 6:17, the apostle Paul said, “From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”  What did he mean by the “marks of Jesus”?  It means that if you’d seen the body of the apostle Paul you would have seen the evidence of much suffering.  In our reading from 2 Corinthians 11, he described some of the things he’d suffered.  Five times he was whipped – that’s going to leave some scars.  Three times he was beaten with rods.  And then he says, “Once I was stoned.”  And that’s referring to what happened to him in our text this morning in Acts 14. 

He was pelted with rocks and left for dead.  When people are stoned to death, they die from blunt force trauma, usually to the head.  The fact that Paul survived is remarkable.  And for the rest of his life he would have carried the scars of that attempt to kill him.  If you’d been alive back then and looked at the body of Paul, he would’ve said, “See this, this one is from one of the rocks that hit me, and this scar over here is from another of the rocks.”  You would have said, “Wow, it’s amazing you survived.” 

But it’s more than an amazing survival story.  In this account, we see Christ working through his servants.  You see, Jesus ascended into heaven, but he continued to work on earth through his disciples, especially the apostles.  He did it through the deeds they performed, through the words they spoke, and also through the sufferings they experienced.  In Acts 14, Christ was working to confront the false gods of Lystra, exposing them as frauds.  In so doing, he was calling the world to the gospel and the true God behind it.  So I preach to you God’s Word this morning.  The theme of the sermon is this:  Christ confronts the idolatry of the world through his servants.

We’ll see how his servants:

  1. Show mercy to a broken world
  2. Preach truth to a deceived world
  3. Suffer persecution from a hostile world

Our story takes place during Paul’s first missionary journey.  He was travelling around Asia Minor with Barnabas, preaching the gospel.  The Holy Spirit worked through their preaching to bring many to faith in Jesus Christ.  But there was also opposition, especially from the Jews.  The last place Paul and Barnabas preached was Iconium and there plans were being made by the Jews and Gentiles to stone the apostles.  But before it could happen they moved on to Lystra and escaped. 

Arriving in Lystra, they did what they did everywhere else.  They preached the good news of Jesus Christ.  They told of him as the Saviour of sinners.  As they did, there was a certain man listening.  He’d been lame his whole life – a paraplegic.  He was listening to Paul and as he listened, something was happening in his heart.  The Holy Spirit was at work.  He worked with the word to produce faith.  Somehow Paul was able to perceive that this was happening with the man.  Paul focussed his gaze on him and then shouted, “Stand upright on your feet.”  That’s exactly what the man did.  For the first time in his life he could stand up – he leapt up, in fact.  And then he started walking.  It was a miraculous healing. 

This man had been born a paraplegic.  We could think of another healing by Christ in John 9.  That was a man who had been born blind.  And the disciples of Jesus saw that man and asked the Lord, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  And Jesus told them that it was neither.  He was born blind so the works of God could be displayed in him.  So here too.  This man had been born a paraplegic, but it wasn’t because he’d somehow sinned or his parents had sinned.  He was born this way so God could be glorified.  God could be glorified as the one who shows mercy to a broken world through his servants.

These people in Lystra had their gods, the gods of the Greeks.  When it came to healing, Asclepius was the Greek god mainly responsible.  But to be healed by Asclepius, you had to go to a temple of Asclepius to offer sacrifices and then spend the night in the temple.  Even then, healing by Asclepius was more miss than hit.  And the other gods had been powerless to help too.

But now the servants of Christ have come.  They show mercy by preaching the gospel.  But they also show mercy by addressing the brokenness in this world.  Now of course they lived in a time when the Holy Spirit gave power to perform miracles of this sort.  He did that in order to jump start the spread of the gospel through the world.  We live in a different time.  We live in the age after the apostles when these supernatural gifts of healing no longer exist.  But one thing does continue and that’s the call to show the mercy of Christ to a broken world.  There’s so much brokenness around us.  So much drug and alcohol addiction, so much homelessness, so many children without a safe, stable home life, so much abuse, and on and on it goes.  It breaks your heart, or at least it should.  As Christians, we can be instruments in Christ’s hand to show that the idols of this world are powerless to help, but Christ in us is both powerful and merciful.  Loved ones, find ways to show mercy to a broken world.

We’re now at verse 11 in our passage.  When the broken man is healed, the crowds react.  They start shouting in their native language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.”  It was only later that Paul and Barnabas would have understood what they’d been saying.  They confused Barnabas and Paul for the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes.  Zeus was the most powerful of all the ancient Greek gods.  Hermes was his son.  Hermes was the messenger of the Greek gods, associated with speech.  Since Paul had been the one doing all the talking, they assumed he must be Hermes. 

Now behind all of this confusion is an interesting Greek myth.  In Greek mythology, Zeus and Hermes came down to earth in human form.  They visited a placed called Phrygia.  They knocked on a thousand doors but everyone refused to show them hospitality.  Finally, Zeus and Hermes came to the house of an elderly couple named Baucis and Philemon.  The couple warmly received the gods and they were rewarded richly for their hospitality – their house was turned into a temple and they were made temple guardians.  But Zeus and Hermes sent a flood to destroy everyone in Phrygia who had refused to host them.  The moral of the story:  be careful with strangers, because you never know when the gods might show up again.  If you don’t treat the gods right, they could destroy your town.

So now Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, heal a man, and the townsfolk think that this is it:  the gods have come back.  We’re being tested and this time we better get it right.  So the priest of Zeus brought the things necessary for worship, garlands made of wool intertwined with leaves and flowers.  They brought oxen for sacrifice and were getting all set up to worship the gods and treat them properly. 

It took a minute, but eventually Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening.  They’d been around the Greco-Roman world long enough to know what was happening when the priest of Zeus came along with garlands and oxen.  It was worship time and Paul and Barnabas were the ones about to be worshipped. 

When they realized it, they tore their garments.  That was an instinctive Jewish reaction to blasphemy.  It also sent a strong non-verbal signal that they weren’t responding positively to the worship about to be offered to them.  But in case it wasn’t clear from their actions, they added words. 

Paul and Barnabas made it clear that they were just men, exactly like the people from Lystra.  They were no gods, but they were bringing them good news from the true God.  They were calling them to turn from the idols that had deceived them for so long. 

Through the apostles, Christ was bringing truth to bear about God on this world deceived by idolatry.  The apostles don't quote the Bible word for word, but they bring biblical truth.  There was first of all the truth that idols are vain things.  They’re not able to do anything – they’re worthless and meaningless.  This continues to be true today of everything that’s made into a substitute for the living God.  Idols will always ultimate disappoint you, whether it’s food, sex, money, alcohol, sports, or anything else.  Those idols will never be there for you when you’re lying in a hospital bed about to leave this world.  But turn to God, and he will be there for you. 

Next there was the biblical truth that God is the creator of the universe.  Greek mythology had its own account of how everything came to be.  But it was all lies.  It’s the same today with the world’s account of how everything came to be.  There was once nothing and then there was a big bang and then suddenly there was something and all this something evolved into other things through random chance occurrences over billions of years.  But the truth is that the living God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them.  Everything we see around us is God’s handiwork.  Take the eagles.  They’re amazing.  God created them with the ability to see a greater range of colours than we can.  They have binocular vision and can see 8x further than we can.  That’s helpful when they’re soaring at altitudes of over 2 km above ground level.  They can easily spot a rabbit from that height.  Incredible.  God made the eagles and he made them amazing – they’re a testimony to his creative genius.  God, not idols, made all this.  God, not evolution, made all this.  That’s the truth a deceived world needs to hear. 

The last truth we’re told they preached was the goodness and kindness of God.  That’s in verses 16 and 17.  In times past, God was patient with the nations.  But he never left himself without a witness.  He’s always done good to this world.  This is about his providence.  We don’t live in a world ruled by chance or luck.  Nothing is random.  Everything is being managed.  And the Bible teaches us that it is managed by our infinitely wise and good God.  He bestows good things on his creatures, even though they don’t deserve it.  The apostles specifically mention rain from heaven and fruitful seasons.  Jesus said that the rain falls upon the just and the unjust.  God indiscriminately blesses this world with what it needs to be fruitful so all his creatures can continue to live and thrive.  He gives food and gladness, things that satisfy the heart.  The apostles proclaimed the truth about God’s providence and in this deceived world, we’re called to do the same. 

Practically, as Christians, we should try to avoid speaking about luck and chance.  Rather than being lucky with something, it’s better to say we were blessed.  Not, “We were lucky with the good weather,” but “We were blessed with the good weather.”  Luck comes from no one.  Blessings come from someone.  Blessings come from God.  Just being careful about the way we speak every day gives us opportunities to be Christ’s instruments today to bring truth to a deceived world.

As Paul and Barnabas said these words, it just barely kept the people from going through with their planned worship.  The apostles did succeed in stopping them, but it was close.  How did the people feel about Paul and Barnabas not being Zeus and Hermes?  We don’t know.  The Bible doesn’t tell us. 

What we do know for sure is the remarkable turn of events in verse 19.  The Jews elsewhere had been planning to stone the apostles.  They were too late – Paul and Barnabas moved on.  But now these Jews tracked them down to Lystra.  We don’t know how long this took, but it would seem from the broader context that Paul and Barnabas did have some time to make disciples.  And the distance from Antioch to Lystra was about 160 kilometers.  That would have taken some time to travel, at least a week.  So we should realize there’s probably a gap of a few days between verses 18 and 19.

At any rate, those Jews came and somehow they managed to persuade the crowds.  They persuaded the crowds that the apostles were somehow a threat or danger.  If we go by what the Jews said later on in Thessalonica in Acts 17, likely they were telling the crowds that the apostles were turning the world upside down, acting against the decrees of Caesar, and saying that there was another king, Jesus.  In other words, they were revolutionaries and if people followed them, they could be sure that Rome would come down hard.  That would be enough to make the crowds panic and think these men were dangerous to the public good.  The Jews flipped the crowds.  One day the crowds thought Paul and Barnabas were gods and a few days later, the Jews worked them up to believe they were a great danger.  It’s a little reminiscent of what happened with Jesus, isn’t it?  One day he was greeted with Hosannas and a few days later it was “Crucify him!”   

Here in Acts 14, once the crowds were worked up, they took Paul out and stoned him.  Now maybe you’re wondering:  where’s Barnabas?  Why wasn’t he stoned with Paul?  I don’t know.  Perhaps he hid from the crowds or somehow escaped.  Scripture doesn’t tell us.  We do know that Paul was stoned and they thought they’d killed him.  Of course, they didn’t.  The next verse tells us that some disciples gathered around him, he revived, and went back into the city with them. 

Now what I want you to see is that this horrible persecution, this attempted martyrdom, also had a message.  It was also part of how Christ confronts the idolatry of this world. There are three different parts to this.

First, Paul’s stoning involved a message from Christ to the world about his work in Paul.  Paul was so firmly rooted in his faith in the true God that apostasy wasn’t an option.  Though he was faced with death, he stood firm and refused to compromise.  He did that because of the work of the Holy Spirit in him.  When we endure persecution, even when it leads to martyrdom, it’s a testimony about the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Christ’s work in us cannot be overcome.

Second, Paul’s stoning involved a message from Christ about the world that stoned him.  Unbelief has no justification.  It has no true rational basis.  Idolatry and false worship make no sense at all.  So rather than debate with Paul, a debate they would lose, the world resorted to blunt force, literally blunt force trauma.  That tells us something about the desperation of unbelief.  They can’t get their way with words, so they’ll start throwing stones.  We see the same thing continuing to happen today with the persecution of Christians around the world.  Christianity is regarded as dangerous in many places, but rather than reason about why it’s allegedly dangerous, the world resorts to force and violence.  When we see that happening, it’s a reminder that unbelief is irrational.  It has no adequate justification. 

Finally, what happened to Paul involved a message about the one for whom Paul suffered and nearly died.  On the one hand, what happened showed the ultimate value and worth of Jesus.  That Paul was willing to put his life on the line showed that Christ really mattered to him.  But on the other hand, we also see something of the message of the cross.  Just as Christ was mistreated, lied about, so also Paul.  Just as Christ was beaten, so also Paul.  Paul wasn’t crucified, but he nearly died by stoning.  He shared in the sufferings of Christ and portrayed those sufferings to the world.  He demonstrated in a real way how God’s power is made perfect in weakness, how what the world regards as shameful is actually something God takes and uses for his purposes.  When the world will no longer listen to our words, our suffering can bring a powerful message confronting the world and its idolatrous views of strength and power.  The world thinks that strength and power are everything.  But the cross and suffering Christians who share in it say:  no, there’s real power and strength where you don’t expect it, in weakness and even in death.               

You see, there’s a lot more than just a fickle crowd going on here.  Even with the stones piling up and Paul bleeding and almost dying, Christ was still at work.  He was at work to advance his cause in this hostile world. 

On Paul’s second missionary journey he returned to Lystra.  He found there a disciple who was highly spoken of by everyone.  His name was Timothy.  He accompanied Paul for a time and later became pastor of the church in Ephesus.  Through his ministry, even more people heard the gospel and believed it.  So you might look at Paul’s first visit to Lystra and see it as a missionary failure.  It wasn’t.  Christ worked through what happened there to continue building his church.  We have to trust that he’ll continue to do the same today through us, regardless of our circumstances.  And if it’s persecution, let this passage encourage you to remember that, unlike idols, persecution suffered for the Lord is never vain, empty or purposeless.  AMEN.


Our faithful God in heaven,

Thank you for the gospel which gives us hope and joy in this broken world.  Thank you for our Saviour Jesus, the most precious gift anyone has ever given.  We pray that you would help us to be his servants in this world still filled with idols.  Strengthen us with the Holy Spirit so we can show mercy to the broken.  Help us to have the compassion and love of our Saviour for those who are hurting, whether it’s the impoverished, the disadvantaged, the abused, the addicted.  Please give us more love for them.  And help us too to speak truth into a world that’s been deceived by its idols.  Help us to help them see the truth of who you are as a good Creator and King and the truth of who Jesus is as Lord and Saviour.  And we ask for strength from your Spirit when we’re faced with opposition to our faith.  Please help us to remain steadfast and immovable.  Help us always to give a good testimony of who you are and what you have done in our lives, regardless of the consequences.                                                         

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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