New Testament Lystrans

Priest of Zeus thought Barnabas and Paul were Greek Gods

Priest of Zeus thought Barnabas and Paul were Greek Gods

Bible References: Acts 14:7-20
Heart of the Story: Paul visited Lystra on his first missionary journey. It was a multicultural town that want to be sophisticated thinkers.

Story Line: Lystra was built on the southern edge of the fertile Lycaonia plain. Behind Lystra rose the gigantic Taurus Mountains. In 6 BC Augustus Caesar made Lystra a Roman colony and Roman garrison for southern Galatia. No doubt Augustus hoped to keep the plunder and blackmail of the wild mountaineers in check and open the area for peaceful settlement.

Lystra was a multi-cultural town. It was home to soldiers who retired from Roman legions. The military and former military were the aristocracy of Lystra and Latin was the official language; however, among themselves Lystrans spoke their native tongue, Lycaonian. Although some Jews lived in Lystra, the number was small; there was no Jewish synagogue. Much of the Lystran culture was Greek. A temple to Zeus was located near the town entrance. Local legend claimed that the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes visited the area, but were only recognized by a pious couple.

Paul visited Lystra on his first missionary journey, probably in 49 AD. He preached the good news of Christ to the town’s people. Soon after his arrival, Paul healed a crippled man who was lame from birth and had never walked. When the Lystrans saw the man walking, they named Barnabas, Zeus the chief Greek god, and Paul, Hermes, the God of speech or messenger of the gods. The priests from Zeus’ temple brought garlands for Paul and Barnabas’ necks and planned to sacrifice bulls in their honor. Possibly, they were determined not to neglect their gods’ visit a second time.

When Paul and Barnabas understood what was happening they tore their clothes and dashed among the people saying they were men just like the Lystrans. They assured the people that God wanted them to turn from idol worship and worship him, the living God. With difficulty Paul and Barnabas were able to prevent the town’s people from offering sacrifices to them.

Then, Jews from Antioch (130 miles away) and Iconium (20 miles) came to Lystra. These Jews persuaded many Lystrans that Paul and Barnabas were dangerous. The result was that the Lystrans stoned Paul. Thinking he was dead, they dragged him outside Lystra. When the disciples gathered around Paul, he stood up and went back into town. The next day Paul and Barnabas left Lystra.

Analysis of Lystran’s Behavior: Families, towns, clans, and nations often react to embarrassment and shame by striking out. Often rage is directed toward another family member, a church, or nation, particularly when the real cause of the shame or embarrassment is not within reach. How could the Lystrans move from declaring Paul and Barnabas gods to believing that Paul was such a danger that they stoned him (supposedly) to death?

After attempting to identify the missionaries as gods, the Lystrans learned from visiting Jews that the missionaries told the same story in two other towns, Antioch and Iconium. Both towns were larger and more polished than Lystra. In neither place did townspeople characterize Paul and Barnabas as gods. In fact they ran them out of town! Perhaps the Lystrans felt gullible and ashamed by what they saw as their naivety.

The priests of the Temple of Zeus were furious. They were ready to worship the missionaries as Zeus and his son Hermes only to learn that the missionaries wanted to replace Zeus worship with worship of an unknown god called Christ. Their status as priests of Zeus was threatened by Paul and Barnabas’ message.
Both native Lystrans and Zeus priests were embarrassed in front of Roman onlookers. This incident made them look foolish in the eyes of their Roman conquerors. How could they believe that the king of the Greek gods came down to visit tiny Lystra in the outback of the Roman Empire?

Reflection: How did Lystra being a multi-cultural town impact the Lystran’’ treatment of Paul? Was it better for the Lystran’s to take their anger out on Paul rather than on the new Christian church?

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