“But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:19-23 ESV)
Paul’s ministry, from a human perspective, is certainly not one of great glory, honor and accomplishment. In many of the cities he visited, he was met with great resistance and animosity from the locals and Jewish immigrants. Lystra is no exception, as you can tell from our focal passage. As Paul began to make disciples in Lystra, Jews from the previous cities he had visited showed up and began to incite a riot. In today’s passage, Paul is stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra by this “lynch mob.”
Luke tells us that as the disciples of Lystra gathered around Paul’s body to mourn his death, he suddenly got up and went back into the city. I don’t know about you, but going back into the city would not have been my initial reaction. I’m pretty sure that my reaction would have been, “Well, if that’s how you feel about it then I’ll go somewhere that appreciates my efforts.” Wouldn’t you do the same? Isn’t that how we would respond to those today who reject the gospel and react strongly against the message of Christ? However, let’s stop for a moment and consider the crowd’s reaction, its source and Paul’s response.
Mob mentality is a dangerous phenomenon. The general theory is that when a group gathers, most people in the group tend to “give up” their individual identity and distinct thought processing to the emotional state of the group. In other words, they don’t think through what they are doing but tend to follow the emotional responses and actions of the group. In many ways, this is mirrored today in social media. If you are on social media, and most of you are, then you may or may not realize that we tend to “like, friend, follow and share” with people who share the same base values and thought patterns as ourselves. We group together based on our characteristic likes and dislikes. Sounds a bit like the kindergarten playground, doesn’t it?
As this happens, then it becomes much easier for someone within our “group” with a strong emotional reaction to an event or post to incite us to respond or react without really considering the results or even the accuracy of the original accusation or post. Mob mentality in modern social media. By the way, this is also how fake news and click bait works across social media. Just feed people the information they want or expect to hear or incite an emotional response based their group characteristics and then step back and watch the feeding frenzy.
How does all of this play into our focal passage and Paul’s stoning at Lystra? Stay with me… we have an enemy in this story, but it isn’t the crowd that stoned Paul. I believe Paul knows that and responds accordingly. We often mistake the confused crowd for the enemy, but the real enemy is the “accuser” or Satan.
He knows us well and often uses our sinful and hurtful tendencies to his advantage. Jesus told the apostles, “…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18 ESV) Paul’s message of truth about God’s love and mercy through Jesus atoning death and victorious resurrection is causing the gates of Hell to shudder and crack and Satan reacts, violently. He utilizes mob mentality to physically lash out at Paul as they stone him and then drag him out of Lystra and leave him for dead along the road. I think Satan thought he had dealt a Paul a KO (knock out punch) as Paul falls to the ground and the stones pummel him. I think he looks down at Paul and says, “STAY down!”
Paul doesn’t stay down but he gets up and goes back into Lystra. Crazy, right? It is at this moment that I would have been saying, let’s go somewhere else. Somewhere they’ll listen or at least somewhere they won’t stone us. Paul gets up and goes back to the very people who just tried to kill him. Why? Why would anyone do that? Paul knew two things that we often need to be reminded of: 1) the crowd isn’t the enemy, they are the mission; 2) God’s grace is greater than Satan’s stones.
While the crowd may have been used by Satan as a means of attack against Paul and the gospel, they are not the enemy and are simply deceived by Satan’s lies and tricks. It is essential that we recognize that same thing about the “crowds” and those who oppose our beliefs, today. It is really tempting to see them as the enemy when they are just deceived by the real enemy. I know we often struggle, at least in our culture, to see Islamists as part of our mission, but they are. Paul was attacked and stoned by these people but he didn’t pray for God to rain down fire and brimstone on them. Instead, he got up and headed back into town to continue preaching the truth of the gospel of God’s grace.
What we often tend to do is to say that those who oppose and attack the gospel or seek to kill those who would bring the gospel to them don’t deserve God’s grace or the salvation that the Gospel brings and that would be ABSOLUTELY correct. They don’t, but then you and I don’t either. We don’t deserve the grace of God and the salvation that the Gospel offers to us. That’s really the point of the gospel and God’s grace, you and I don’t deserve it but we desperately need it. They DON’T deserve it, but they desperately need it! We seem to want to withhold grace from those who would oppose the gospel with violence until it is truly deserved. That is simply illogical and sets up an impossible situation (salvation by works) and one that is directly opposed to the truth of the gospel. We can NEVER reach a state in which we deserve the grace of God. We can NEVER be worthy of God’s grace or love. In reality, we are just like them…
“…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV)
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6 ESV)
Next, notice that Paul recognizes that God’s grace is sufficient to not only overcome the hatred of those who would oppose the gospel, it is also sufficient to give him strength and purpose to get up from the stoning he had just received and walk back into town. Whenever we face injury at the hands of those we are trying to love, it is tempting to just turn and walk away. Sometimes this happens in the midst of ministry within the church and sometimes it happens with those we are trying to reach outside the church with God’s grace. The question at hand is whether we get up, turn and walk away from them and the work of grace that God is seeking to do or whether we turn and walk back into town and the mission and ministry God has set before us?
I’ve been in ministry for over 40 years and most of that time has been spent as a pastor of small, rural churches. Of those 40 years, I’ve spent the last 30 in this church. I can assure you that during those years there have been times when I’ve hurt others and they’ve hurt me. The question is not whether you will be hurt by someone inside or outside the church, but how you’ll respond after you’ve been hurt.
Some might question, why this would happen within the church? Aren’t Christians supposed to loving and forgiving. Yes, we are but we are still a work in progress. The transformation of our hearts, minds and actions is still happening. We are striving to become like Christ but none of us have made it, yet.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3 ESV)
How should you respond when someone hurts you? With grace and forgiveness. Why? Because God offers you grace and forgiveness when you hurt Him by your sin. In fact, we are commanded to forgive in the same manner that we have been forgiven…
“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4 ESV)
“…and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.” (Matthew 6:12 NLT)
Finally, I want you to notice that Paul does leave town but comes back through Lystra and the other cities they had previously visited to encourage and strengthen them in their faith. As he does so, he tells them that “through many tribulations” they would enter the Kingdom of God. That’s encouraging, right? Consider these words from Hebrews:
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV)
At the time it is occurring, all discipline is painful and not really pleasant. We don’t normally face times of struggle and discipline with the thought, “I’ve really been looking forward to this.” However, we often look back on times of struggle and discipline and recognize the significant growth and maturity that occurred in us during those tough times. Paul wants these new believers to have hope, but he wants their hope to be based in the reality of the struggle of seeking Christ and striving for purity (see 1 John 3 passage, above). Our faith must be based on the same hope, the hope that our struggle has a purpose and a design. The struggle isn’t futile, it is intentional. The pain isn’t pointless, it is purposeful.
Remember, the discipline of God “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Don’t abandon the training, stay the course. It leads to God…