Iconium, Lystra and Derbe

Passage: Acts 14  (Please take the time to read this chapter for yourself before reading this blog post.  As always, try to set aside preconceived notions and consider the passage at face value.  Do your best to stick to observation — what it says, not what it means. Then be sure to put what I have written to the test against the Scriptures as those Berean believers of old did with Paul’s very words.)

14:1-2 — Iconium lay some 60 miles to the east-southeast of Pisidian Antioch along the eastern branch of a Roman road that had been constructed in 6 B.C. for military purposes, the via Sebaste.  At the time of Paul and Barnabas’ journey it would have been in excellent condition and frequent use, having been built for the passage of Roman legions some fifty years prior.  Nevertheless, a journey of that distance through the rolling hills and mountains of southern Turkey would have been more than an afternoon stroll.  Today Iconium is the thriving city of Konya, incidentally the point of origin of the Muslim sect known as the “whirling dervishes.” (An excellent article with colorful maps and photos of modern-day Konya is available at http://www.welcometohosanna.com/PAULS_MISSIONARY_JOURNEYS/1mission_5.html)

Luke succinctly describes their entry to the synagogue, their preaching, the results among those who believed, and the evil reaction among those who did not, exactly as transpired in Pisidian Antioch before.

14:3 — “Therefore” (pay attention!) Paul and Barnabas spent a long time in Iconium.  Why?  Because of the faith of those who had believed, and because of the opposition of those who had not.  The remainder of the verse indicates that it was God who enabled them to remain and speak boldly by certifying their message of grace with miracles.  Remember, Paul and Barnabas start among the Jews of each new community.  And Jews require a sign!  Paul and Barnabas at this time in their ministry are performing miracles in the same manner as Peter and John, and for the same purpose.  Many years later Paul would explain the passing of the need for miraculous signs in his prison letters, but for now they were very necessary.  The important thing in this verse to understand is not that they performed miracles, but that God extended their time in Iconium by doing so.

14:4-7 — The city was divided over their message.  It’s interesting to note here that Luke uses the word “apostles” to describe Paul and Barnabas and their companions.  Were the Twelve with them?  No, Luke’s narrative in chapter 15 clearly indicates they were still in Jerusalem.  So why would Luke use apostolos, and why in the plural form?  Well, the passage indicates that Paul and Barnabas were performing miracles, a singular mark of those who were first-generation promulgators of the Gospel, having seen the risen Christ in person and having been commissioned personally by Him.  Paul certainly fits this description, but what about Barnabas?  Luke’s use of the plural form here is a bit of a mystery, but will be explained later in the passage.

Eventually the Jews devised a plot to arrest and stone Paul and Barnabas.  But they became aware of it and fled Iconium for communities farther down the via Sebaste to the southeast, viz. Lycaonia, Lystra, Derbe and the surrounding region, where they continued to preach the Gospel.

14:8-20a — The focus now narrows to events in the city of Lystra.  Apparently before they had opportunity to enter the synagogue and present the Gospel to the Jewish community, they encountered a man who had been lame from birth.  Apparently they were speaking in public (perhaps there was no synagogue in Lystra?), and this man was listening to Paul attentively.  Paul became aware of him, studied him intently for a moment, and perceived that he believed he might be healed.  Have you ever had one of those premonitions, a situation when you became aware that this could be The Moment you’ve been waiting for your whole life?  I suspect that was exactly the case with this man.  And the Holy Spirit revealed it to Paul.  The eye contact that passed between them in that moment must have been electric!  Paul commands him in a loud voice to stand up, and he not only does so, but immediately walks as well!

It is indeed noteworthy that a description of approaching the community through the synagogue is absent in the case of Lystra, and yet Paul and Barnabas were obviously presenting the Gospel in public.  Others have noted that perhaps for the first time Paul and Barnabas were approaching Gentiles directly on their own merits. (This is what causes scholars to suspect there was no synagogue in Lystra.)  Jews were not absent entirely from the population (Timothy and his mother were from Lystra, Acts 16:1-2), but apparently the area was largely untouched by religions other than what they had inherited from Greek domination.  v13 tells us that there was a temple of Zeus just outside the city, and it probably represented the predominant religion of the area.  Consequently, on witnessing this miracle, the unanimous consent was that the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes had come to visit them.  The priest of Zeus and the citizens were so impressed that they insisted on making sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas!  With great difficulty they convinced the people that they were not gods themselves, but only human servants of the One God Who had always been kind and patient with them — now bringing them news of the greatest kindness of all, salvation through Jesus Christ.

We are not told how long Paul and Barnabas were able to remain in Lystra, but dissenting Jews from Antioch and Iconium were hot on their heels.  They won over the crowds, and apparently Paul was caught flat-footed in their midst.  He was stoned and dragged out of the city for dead.  But while his sorrowful companions and new believers gathered around his body, he stood up and walked back into the city, apparently under his own power.  (Well, that’s just an expression — in truth he did it under God’s own power!)  The following day he and Barnabas traveled on to Derbe on foot.  Various sources cite the distance as 30 to 60 miles, but in any case, quite a feat for a man who had just been stoned to death the day before!

Luke is very brief in his description of their time in Derbe.  He simply states that they made many disciples there.  There is no mention of persecution or opposition.  Indeed, in II Timothy 3:11 Paul writes to Timothy concerning the persecution they suffered on this first missionary journey, and Derbe is conspicuously absent from the list.

14:20b-23 — Where to now?  Derbe was an outpost on the extreme eastern border of the province of Galatia.  Before them to the east lay uncharted mountainous territory.  They were essentially at the end of the via Sebaste. Westbound travelers and merchants had to stop here to pay Roman tariffs.  It was the edge of the civilized world.  What’s more, only turmoil and hatred lay behind them.  Oh, yes, and one other thing — a trail of many new believers!  Most of us would quail at the thought of openly going right back through places where we had recently been stoned, but what is that to the Apostle who survived it?  I’m sure the Jews in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra smugly thought they had succeeded in chasing Paul and Barnabas out of their environs into the barbaric region to the east.  But God is indifferent to such puny plots of men, and Paul and Barnabas had long ago learned to be equally indifferent to them.  Indeed, as Paul would soon counsel these new believers, tribulations go with the territory. (v22b)  They purposely turned right around and headed back the way they came.

Luke tells us they strengthened the souls of these new believers, encouraged them in their faith (Gr. parakaleo — “came alongside”), explained that persecution should be expected and was part of the process of entering God’s kingdom, appointed leaders among them, prayed and fasted with them, and commended them to God’s keeping.  These short verses present for us today a model for evangelism and church planting — including not only the initial “salvation experience”, but follow-up.  We would do well to imitate it in modern missions programs and church expansion.

14:24-28 — Luke ends his description of the first missionary journey by marking the route of return to their starting point at the Antioch church, passing through the regions of Pisidia and Pamphylia to the city of Perga, where they apparently preached the Gospel.  From there they went down to the sea port of Attalia and sailed back to their home country, probably through the port of Seleucia sixteen miles down the Orontes River from Antioch.  When they arrived they gathered the church together and related the story of how God had opened the door to the Gentiles.  ”And they spent a long time with the disciples.”

All was not well, however, as we shall discover in the next post.

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