Exegetical Exercise (Acts 14 8-11, 19-23)

Karel Dujardin painting Paul healing lame man at Lystra
Paul, looking intently at him …

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, December 17 is Acts 14:8-11, 19-23 (so, skipping most of the story where the people of Lystra mistake Barnabas and Paul for Zeus and Hermes, and are “scarcely restrained” from offering sacrifices to them, even after Paul preaches a sermon urging them to turn to the living God who “made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them”). Here are my notes on the text:

Context: This text continues the story of Barnabas’ and Paul’s first mission trip, which began in chapter 13 with their trip to Cyprus and the episode with Bar Jesus. Barnabas and Paul keep starting out by preaching in Jewish synagogues, followed up by preaching to Gentiles. They encounter interest, but also repeated opposition, from “the Jews” (13:45, 13:50, 14:4-5). All this preaching to and making disciples of Gentiles on this trip will lead into the controversy around how to include the Gentiles, which will form the substance of the 1st Jerusalem council, described in chapter 15.

In verses 8-11 Paul heals a man lame from birth. There are parallels with Peter’s and John’s healing of the lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:1-10): Paul “looks intently” at the man; tells him to “stand up” (or, “arise” – reminding readers of the importance of rising in the larger story that Paul is serving); and the man immediately begins to walk. A difference here (v 9) is that the man has been listening to Paul’s preaching, and when Paul gives him that intent look, Paul “sees” that the man has “faith to be healed” (literally, to be “saved” or “rescued” – so, while the immediate issue is healing the man’s lameness, the text also points to his spiritual condition).

In verse 11, the “crowd” that sees this miracle comes to an ironic conclusion: “the gods have come down to us in human form.” Ironic, because they are completely wrong – Barnabas is not Zeus and Paul is not Hermes – and yet, they are close, because Paul’s healing miracle does attest to God having come to the world in human form, as Paul would presumably affirm.

Skipping ahead, vv 19-23 describe opposition and the missionaries’ response to it.

“Jews” from Antioch and Iconium come to Lystra. This Antioch is presumably “Antioch of Pisidia,” a city in this region, not the Antioch of Barnabas’ and Paul’s home church. They persuade the “crowd” against Paul. This is a quick change of heart for the crowd. In the last verse (18) the crowd could scarcely be restrained from sacrificing to Barnabas and Paul as gods. Now they go along with stoning Paul. (Maybe this should remind us of another quick change in popular opinion, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.) The text seems to leave a lot out. What motivates these opponents? They undertake a long journey, to another town, where there isn’t even a synagogue, to stalk Paul and Barnabas and to turn people against their mission. Why? The text doesn’t say. Sometimes people today will go out of their way to pursue religious, or other, disputes. If those cases are anything to go by, we know that when that happens something important – or at least, something the people involved think is important – is at stake. Here, we can’t tell from the text what that is. In Acts 13:45 the author says Barnabas’ and Paul’s opponents are jealous. Even so, we don’t know what the opponents are preaching or saying to counter Barnabas’ and Paul’s evangelistic message, or what makes the potential success of that message so significant to these opponents.

V 20 might report another miracle. “The disciples” gather around Paul, who has been left for dead by his attackers. Paul rises – like the lame man, and like Jesus. Even if this is not exactly a miracle but just a really great outcome after a scary bad situation, the image is still that of the church (the gathered disciples) as a community of resurrection. Paul then goes back into the city where he was just a bit ago almost killed. Hmm.

V 21 Barnabas and Paul in Derbe evangelize and make more disciples; the word translated “many” has a connotation of “sufficient, adequate, large enough” – so, they make “enough” disciples. Then they go back to all the cities they have visited so far – and where they have encountered opposition so far. The text doesn’t say “they are risking life and limb,” but by now we probably should know this. We have grounds for thinking that the disciples in these cities are risking life and limb, too. V 22 stresses the missionaries’ efforts to encourage these disciples; they “strengthen souls”, “encourage them to continue in the faith,” and tell them that persecutions are an entrance to the kingdom of God. These activities suggest the new churches are facing ongoing opposition.

There are a lot of “theys” in v 23; mostly they seem to refer to Barnabas and Paul: “they” appoint (literally, “choose by stretching out a hand” – which in other contexts can mean “elect”) elders “for them” – presumably, for the disciples. But now the grammar gets a little obscure. When “they” entrust “them” to the Lord in whom “they” had come to believe, who is doing the entrusting, who is being entrusted, and who is believing? Barnabas and Paul could be entrusting the disciples to the Lord in whom the disciples believe; but the disciples may be entrusting the travelers to the Lord; and Barnabas and Paul believe in the Lord as much as the disciples do. So the last part of v 23 may use this ambiguity of grammar to remind us that there is mutual concern between Barnabas and Paul and the new churches, and that they share a belief in the Lord.

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