1. Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed.
Now Paul and Barnabas arrive in Iconium. This city name means “Little Image.” It was a city in what we call Asia Minor, and was the capital of Lycaonia.
The first thing these two men do is enter into the synagogue of the Jews. Notice that their turning to the nations in Pisidian Antioch did not change their behavior in the next town down the road. Their message was still to the Jew first.
Now in the synagogue, they speak in such a way that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believe. One cannot read these words without getting the impression that their ministry enjoyed considerable success. A “great multitude” of believers surely cannot be an insignificant thing. How great a “multitude” came to the synagogue, anyway? It would seem from these words that probably more than half the people in the synagogue believed.
Now those who believed are described as both Jews and Greeks. In my message on “What Is a Greek?” I set forth the idea that when the Israelites spoke of a Greek, they often meant an ancestral Israelite who had given up on his heritage and the law and culture God laid out for Israel, and was instead living the Greek lifestyle of the nations around him. Some of these still maintained their connection to their fellow Israelites, however, and could be found in any synagogue. Remember, synagogues were community gathering places, not religious organizations like our churches, and Israelites of every philosophy, persuasion, and belief system could be found there.
So not only do a great number of the law-keeping Jews in the synagogue believe in the Lord, but also a great number of the Greeks in that synagogue also believe. This was great success indeed.
2. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.
In spite of the faith of a multitude, there are still some among the Jews in Iconium who do not believe. These align themselves rather as enemies of the word of the Lord. Finding that they are outnumbered among their Jewish brethren, they turn instead to the Gentiles.
This verse does not tell us whether or not these were Gentiles who attended the synagogue or not, as we saw that some of them did in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13. But from verse 4, it would seem that these Gentiles made up the larger part of the city of Iconium, so it seems likely that these were not all synagogue attendees. This stirring up may have been done in several ways, such as agitating in the marketplaces, but probably there was also a lot of politics going on. Probably the leaders among the unbelieving Jews went to the Gentile city leaders whom they knew and among whom they had influence and won them to their cause as well.
The word “minds” here is in Greek a form of the word psuche, which means “soul.” I do not believe that “minds” is a very good translation here. The appeal was not to the reason of these Gentiles, but rather to their excitable emotions.
Again we would note, as we did in our article on “What Is a Greek?” that this says not that the unbelieving Jews stirred up the unbelieving Gentiles, but that the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles. Assuming that Luke is not libeling believers, this would indicate that, though there was a great multitude of Greeks who believed, there were nevertheless no Gentiles that believed. This helps to demonstrate my point that there were “Greeks” who were in fact Israelites living according to the Greek culture and lifestyle. It was a multitude of these who believed in Christ in verse 1, and not of Gentiles.
3. Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.
The “therefore” here probably refers back to verse 1, not to verse 2, for there is no reason why opposition and the agitating of the Gentiles should have caused them to stay there a long time. The fact that multitudes believed, however, was ample and logical reason for them to remain in the city, for it was necessary to establish these believers, to teach them the laws of the kingdom, and to bring them on to some kind of settled maturity before moving on to the next city.
Thus Paul and Barnabas remain in Iconium a “long time.” Who knows what interesting stories could be told about this time, or what intriguing episodes might have taken place? Certainly, there must have been many. Yet the Spirit’s object in writing Acts is not to record interesting stories or intriguing episodes, but rather to reveal to us the truths God wants us to know about this period. So He passes over all of these with just a summary statement of what went on during this time.
First, we are told that Paul and Barnabas spoke boldly in the Lord during this time. They had a multitude hearing them, a multitude that not only needed to be taught, but who also needed the good example that this boldness gave them. Then, we are told that the Lord bore witness to the word of His grace. He did not leave Paul and Barnabas alone to do the work, but participated personally in it. We are not left to wonder what that participation was, for we are told that He was granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.
Once again, we would note that the Bible does not bother to record all of these signs and wonders. There were, no doubt, countless signs and wonders during this time of which we have no record. The fact is that God was working powerfully around the world wherever His kingdom held sway. Even in the career of Paul, which Acts records from this point on to the end, we do not read of even close to all the miraculous things that occurred. This gives us a true foretaste of the kingdom of God, when the miraculous will be so prevalent that it will seem commonplace, and when God will work powerfully in any and every situation to ensure that His will is done on earth, as it is done in heaven.
4. But the multitude of the city was divided: part sided with the Jews, and part with the apostles.
This now takes us back again to verse 2. Through the negative work of the unbelieving Jews, the inhabitants of the city are divided. To their credit, not all of the Gentiles side with the unbelieving Jews and their attempt to stir up trouble for the apostles. Instead, the city is divided in half, with some approving of the apostles and their work, and some being persuaded by their enemies to set themselves against the apostles and their work. The Greek here indicates that the division was about what we would call fifty-fifty.
Now of those who approved of the apostles, this does not mean that all of them (or even any of them) actually became believers in Christ themselves. That does not follow at all. For example, we could speak of the tragic conflict between the United States government and the Branch Davidian followers of David Koresh in the early 1990s. Some who have considered this conflict might sympathize with the Branch Davidians and believe that the government had no right to do what it did in this conflict in which so many people lost their lives because of the government’s actions. Yet just because these side with the Branch Davidians does not mean that any of them want to become Branch Davidians, or would join them if they got the chance. You can sympathize with a certain side of an argument without joining yourself to them. That is what these Gentiles who were on the side of Paul and Barnabas were doing. They were not becoming believers. Indeed, no offer to become a believer was even being made to them.
Notice that the contrast is made between the Jews and the apostles. In this case, it is not the unbelieving Jews. Yet in context, we know that “the Jews” mentioned are those of verse 2, and so there is no reason to repeat once again the word “unbelieving.” Not so in verse 2, where there is no obvious correlation between the “Greeks” of verse 1 and the “Gentiles” of verse 2, and where it is assumed that none of the Gentiles were “believing.”
5. And when a violent attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them,
Now those who oppose the apostles make their move. The Gentiles and Jews act together on this. Moreover, their rulers are mentioned as being particularly culpable. This fits with what we see happening so often in the gospels and the book of Acts. Often the strongest support for the followers of the Lord comes from the common people, whereas the leaders are much more likely to reject and oppose them. Iconium is no exception to this, and it seems the leaders among both the Jews and Gentiles lead the charge in making this violent assault upon the apostles.
We see moreover that the plan of the opposition is not to arrest them, or to evict them from their city, as those in Pisidian Antioch had done. Rather, they seek to abuse them and then put them to death by stoning. They don’t want to simply remove Paul and Barnabas from among them. They want to end their testimony completely!
6. they became aware of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding region.
Paul and Barnabas become aware of this plot, it seems, while it is still in the planning stages. Considering how polarized the city was and how many there were who sympathized with the apostles, it is no surprise that the forces that moved against them were unable to keep their violent scheme a secret. Someone leaked word of this, and it got back to the apostles. Although, of course, we can never lose sight of the fact that these men were God’s representatives, and He was taking care of them. No matter how this word got back to them, we can be sure that it got to them because He wished it to be so. Therefore, we cannot totally discount the possibility that their knowledge of this plot could have been supernatural. Yet there is nothing here to suggest this, and the most likely possibility still seems to be that they heard this report from men sympathetic to their cause.
Now when Paul and Barnabas hear of this plot, they do not hang around the city to see how it develops. Instead they flee the city, leaving their enemies behind to stew in their absence. Yet they left a large number of believers behind them, and no doubt this was not the end of the conflict between the Jews who rejected the Lord Jesus and those who believed in Him. Yet this is again a story that we are not told, and instead we follow Paul and Barnabas from Iconium to their next destination.
Now the apostles have fled the city of Iconium, but they do not leave the region. Instead, they simply travel to other cities in Lycaonia, both Lystra and Derbe. Lystra means “Ransoming,” and was a city to the east of the great plain of Lycaonia. Derbe means “Tanner of Skin” or “Coverer with Skin.” This would lead us to believe that tanning hides and working with animal skins was a common occupation in this city. Lycaonia was the region in which these cities were located, and means “Wolf Land.” Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe were the three chief cities of this region, and so they are the three cities that we are told that the apostles visited. However, we are not to think that they only visited these cities, for we are told they also went into the surrounding region. Thus their ministry must have covered the whole of Lycaonia.
7. And they were preaching the gospel there.
Here we learn that Paul and Barnabas did not just go into the other parts of Lycaonia in order to escape the persecution they had faced in Iconium. Rather, they continued their mission in these places, and proclaimed the gospel to those who lived there. This was the task the Lord had given them to do, and, persecution or not, they continued to carry it out.
8. And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked.
Now while they are in Lystra, they encounter a man lame in his feet. This was not the result of some accident or injury, for we read that he had been a cripple from his mother’s womb, and because of the weakness in his feet had never walked. This takes us back in mind to the third chapter, where Peter and John met a man similarly lame from his mother’s womb at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. This time, the speaker is Paul, and the location is the far-away land of Lycaonia. Yet the same message is being proclaimed, and the same Lord is being presented. We will see that in this event the result is the same as on the former occasion, and that the same kind of healing miracle is affected.
9. This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed,
This lame man is sitting and listening to Paul speaking. Where Paul was speaking we have no hint, but considering the pattern set out for us in Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, we would guess fairly confidently that his message was being given in the synagogue. The majority of his audience would have been Jews or proselytes in the synagogue, but there would have been some interested Gentiles sitting on the fringes of the synagogue and listening in to and observing what was taking place.
Paul fastens his eyes on this lame man, and perceives that he has believed the words of God that Paul has been speaking. He can tell that this man has faith that this Jesus Christ whom Paul is preaching is the One Who has power to heal the lame. This was faith; the very kind of faith that God was looking for in order to act.
10. said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked.
Seeing the lame man’s faith, Paul acts. He does not go over to the lame man or take his hand, as Peter did. Rather, he just speaks a command in a loud voice, telling the man to stand up straight on his feet. And, lo and behold, at his command the man leaps up and walks. Remember, just as in the case of the lame man in chapter 3, this man had never walked before. Though as adults we find walking to be an easy thing, anyone who has been around a young child learning to walk has seen what a difficult task this is, and how much time it takes to master this difficult activity. Yet this man had never walked. Moreover, leaping requires an even greater level of skill. This man not only experiences strengthening in his crippled feet, but also the knowledge of the skill of walking and leaping that he had never learned, and had only observed others doing. In an instant this knowledge is his, and he obeys Paul’s command by leaping to his feet at his word.
Notice that the miracles that we saw earlier in the book of Acts have not begun to abate or lessen in any way. Rather, Peter healed with a touch, but Paul heals by a word. If anything, the power was increasing. The kingdom of God was present with power, and it was expanding out from Israel to cover the rest of the Roman Empire. Everywhere it went it went with power, and Paul carried that power with him as the representative of that government. The power was not leaving Paul or the other apostles and slowly fading away. If anything, it was increasing!
11. Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!”
The word “people” here is actually the word for a crowd, and does not mean that these were part of “the people” of Israel. It is clear from this statement that not all of those who observed Paul doing this were committed Jews or well-versed in the law. Perhaps, as in Pisidian Antioch, word had gotten around of this amazing new teaching, and many Gentiles otherwise unfamiliar with the truth of God or the Scriptures had come out to see this new teacher. Now, these people see this miracle that Paul has done. They are amazed by it, as anyone would be. Yet unfortunately, they misinterpret it.
This is ever the danger when we encounter the miraculous, and is a pit that many people fall into. They experience something that seems that it could not possibly be a natural thing that happens to them. Well, perhaps they are right, and this was a supernatural occurrence. Of course, that in and of itself does not prove it is something from God, for there are two sources of miraculous power, and one of them is from the enemy. Yet now they start fishing around for what this event means. This is something that they have little qualification in determining, and less so the less they know of the Word of God. Yet they blaze ahead and determine upon an interpretation of what this strange event means. Their interpretation may be doubtful, and even largely contradictory to the truth of the Bible. Yet having settled upon it, they cling to it as if it was the only possible explanation of what has happened to them. Then they loudly proclaim this interpretation of the truth, and tell all who come in contact with them of this miraculous occurrence and what they believe it meant. Any who question what they say they label as doubting their truthfulness, or even as doubting God. Yet one could certainly legitimately question someone’s interpretation of an event without necessarily calling that person a liar. Our knowledge of the supernatural is not very good, and most of the explanations people come up with are flawed to the extreme. Yet we are expected to believe not just their testimony of the event, but to swallow their interpretation of the event hook, line, and sinker. This we refuse to do. Men are ever likely to misinterpret supernatural events. It happened here in Lystra, and it still happens today.
Now the explanation that these people come up with for this miracle must have seemed very likely to them. There was a common myth in the region, said to have taken place in the neighboring province of Phrygia. It was that Zeus and Hermes (or Jupiter and Mercury) once came to visit a town. They were not recognized or welcomed into their homes by any of the people in the town. Only one farmer and his wife, named Philemon and Baucis, gave them hospitality. Therefore, the two gods killed everyone in the town and spared the farmer and his wife, turning their home into a temple. To read more on this myth, the Companion Bible references Ovid, Metam. VIII, or see this excerpt from The Complete World of Greek Mythology by Edith Hamilton. http://www.bookrags.com/notes/myt/PART6.htm
This myth was well-known to everyone in the town. Now, they see these two men, strangers, traveling together, and able to work great miracles. Nothing must have seemed more likely to these pagans than that their city was now experiencing a visit from Zeus and Hermes, just like in the myth. Thinking this, they would be very determined not to be guilty of the attitude of the town in the myth. They must recognize these gods for who they are, and offer them the proper respect! If not, their city might suffer some terrible fate, just like the one in the myth.
They were speaking in the Lycaonian language. This probably was not the language Paul was speaking to the Jews, so perhaps part of their misunderstanding was because they did not understand what Paul was saying or teaching. If they had, they perhaps would have known that he was not Hermes. Whether or not Paul and Barnabas could speak Lycaonian, we do not know. Paul spoke in tongues more than anyone else, and so we would not be surprised to find out that God had given him the ability to speak the language of this people.
12. And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.
According to the myth, the two gods who like to go around disguised as men are Zeus, the chief and father of the gods, and Hermes, his son and the messenger of the gods. They decide that Paul must be Hermes, because he is the chief speaker. Barnabas then must be Zeus.
The Lycaonians give Barnabas the chief place because he stands in the background and listens while Paul delivers the message. In their minds, the one standing back is the one in charge, whereas his lackey is the one speaking and doing all the work. This might fit well with the way this world thinks, but this has never been God’s way of doing things. His leader is the one standing up front and doing the speaking and the work. His men do not stand back and leave the hard labor to others. Only in the case of Moses and Aaron do we have something like these people imagined, and even then it was only because Moses requested it, not because God originally wanted it that way. Therefore, these Lycaonians show even in this how little they understand the mind of God.
Notice that Barnabas is listed first here, and Paul second. This is because the people of Lystra gave Barnabas the place of leader, so they named him first.