Witnessing Paul’s preaching and suffering in Lystra

It was on the first missionary journey that Paul and Barnabas took the gospel into the area of Galatia. In the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia, Paul delivered the address recorded in Acts 13, concluding with these words: “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39). These were challenging words to many. On the next Sabbath “came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God” (v44). The contentious situation that developed through Jewish agitation caused Paul and Barnabas to utter those stern words to the Jews: “Seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlast­ing life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (v46). Following this, the Jews stirred up many in the city and “raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts” (v50). The words of the Lord were taking a step towards fulfilment: “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15–16).

Preaching in Timothy’s home town

Completing the 100-kilometre walk to Iconium, they commenced preaching in the synagogue so that “a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed” (14:1). When Paul and Barnabas became aware that unbelieving Jews had stirred up the people and planned to shamefully treat them and stone them, they “fled” to Lystra. This entailed another 40-kilometre walk to Lystra, the city where Timothy, his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois lived. Little did the people realise that these men who walked into the city were fulfilling the words of the prophet, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom 10:15).

The dramatic events in Lystra are told by Luke in Acts 14. Here “long time … abode they speaking boldly in the Lord, which gave testimony unto the word of his grace, and granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (v3). Those who have visited the archaeo­logical remains of cities where Paul preached will realise that the actual city centre was quite compact. There was the agora or market place, the theatre, shops along the main thoroughfare in the city, baths and a gymnasium and temples and shrines, all in a short walking distance from each other. Realising this, we can understand how a city could quickly gather in a state of fervour should some extraordinary event happen. News of the healing of the man that had been crippled from his mother’s womb swiftly spread through the city. The superstition of these pagans had become the religion of many in Lystra. That a notable miracle had been done was not questioned; the question was, ‘Who are these two who wrought the miracle?’In their excitement they quickly attributed this unnatural miracle to Paul and Barnabas as manifestations of two of their gods. In the original Greek, Barnabas they called Zeus (AV Jupiter) – the supreme deity of the Greeks. Paul they called Hermes (AV Mercurius) – the messenger of the Greek deities “because he was the chief speaker” (v12). The temple of Zeus was at the entrance of the city so the euphoric crowd in ecstasy came to the priest of Zeus to offer sacrifice. We then have the desperate actions and words of Paul and Barnabas as they strove to bring the crowd to their senses, urging that they “turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein” (v15). With urgency in these words “scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them” (v18).

From Praise to Persecution

People are fickle. At one instant the people of Lystra were singing the praises of Paul and Barnabas and then a short time later, when Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived and incited the people, they stoned Paul, dragged him out of the city and left him for dead. “Howbeit, as the disciples [a number had been converted while Paul was in Lystra] stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe” (v20). We can read this quickly, but it was 150 km to Derbe. As Paul did this with his bruised body, feeling every painful step of that journey, he possibly reflected on the Lord’s words, “I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake”. But he endured this, no doubt looking down at his feet and reflecting upon the privilege of his call: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace!”

After preaching in Derbe the two returned through Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. Those who are involved in mission work will appreciate why Paul did this. Paul was both a diligent preacher and a wise ecclesial pastoralist. To preach was one step but with response came the next and more demanding step: to establish the new brethren and sisters on a sound footing with order and discipline. Let’s list the steps set out in Acts 14:22–23 (ESV):

  • They strengthened the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith
  • They told them that through many tribulations they would enter the kingdom of God
  • They appointed elders in every ecclesia
  • With prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed

Paul knew the necessity of structure and organisa­tion for the stability of an ecclesia. How unwise would we be not to see the need for these steps to be in place, not only in mission areas but in all ecclesias, even our own!

All of this would have had a powerful effect on Timothy, a young brother about 16 to 18 years of age, who witnessed these things. It was around AD 46 that Paul and Barnabas went on this first mission trip. We read that the “disciples” stood looking at the limp battered body of the apostle after he had been stoned. Was Timothy among them? It seems likely that he was. When Paul wrote to Timothy 20 years later, he reminded him that he was aware of those horrible events: “Thou hast fully known … my persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me” (2 Tim 3:10–11). This would have left a lasting impression on him.

Two faithful sisters

Timothy’s mother was a Jewess who believed but his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1). Through Paul we learn that his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, were people of “unfeigned faith” (2 Tim 1:5). Their faith was genuine; there was no hypocrisy in it. This same genuine faith had been passed through to Timothy. Reading these facts is interesting, but we need to dig a little deeper to find out what formed Timothy’s strong faith. The source of faith which is pleasing to God is His Word believed: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). Lois and Eunice were committed readers of holy Scripture and they instilled its teaching into the mind of Timothy. Paul confirms this, reminding Timothy that “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus”. Paul adds this definitive statement: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:15–17).

These two faithful sisters, believing that the Scriptures were the inspired word of God, knew the privilege and responsibility that was placed upon them: “Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut 6:5-7). These two sisters believed this implicitly and diligently taught the word of God to Timothy from his childhood.

“Teach them diligently unto thy children”

Here is an exhortation for parents and grandparents. How seriously do we “diligently” instruct our children and grandchildren in the word of God? When we gather as a family, do we bring our Bibles with us with the expectation that the Bible will be opened and read? Do we talk of the day’s readings and lessons we noted from them? Knowing that Lois and Eunice read the Bible with Timothy is interesting but unless it becomes a reminder of the charge we have been given to raise ‘a godly seed’we really are deficient in faith and a love for God and our children.

Timothy’s father was a Greek. It is pointless to wonder why Eunice was married to a Greek. What is important is to realise that she, like Esther, did not give up her faith in this situation. The exhortation we receive from the example of Lois and Eunice is that even in a divided marriage, prayerful and faithful persistence in reading and discussing the word of God with offspring can be rewarded.

We can imagine the discussion that would have been provoked by Paul’s words to the people of Lystra: “[We] preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein” (Acts 14:15). Would they have immediately realised that Paul was quoting Scripture? There are at least two quotations blended here. One is from Jeremiah 10, where Jeremiah warns against idolatry. There we read, “Yahweh is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king”, the “molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. They are vanity, and the work of errors”, “the stock is a doctrine of vanities”. The second citation is from Psalm 146:5–6: “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God: Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever”. Whether Timothy’s father was a believer in Zeus and Hermes we do not know, but this we do know: that these faithful three would have thrilled to hear Paul’s bold profession of these truths.

The day came when Paul and Barnabas left Lystra for Antioch “from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled’ (Acts 14:26). Timothy and the group of brethren and sisters had the exhortation ringing in their ears – “con­tinue in the faith” (Acts 14:22). Little did Timothy realise that the next time Paul visited Lystra he would choose him to be his “fellowlabourer in the Gospel of Christ”. Before leaving Timothy here, consider the lessons we have seen in the early development of this faithful young man. If we are young, is not now the time to prepare ourselves to take on the work of service in the Truth? If we are parents or grandparents, are we committed to instilling this spirit that we see in Timothy in our offspring? Knowing the details of the life of Timothy is interesting, but of little value if we do not try to implement the lessons it contains.