As Paul and Barnabas continued their first missionary journey they came to Iconium. This was the chief city of the district of Lycaonia, sometimes called southern Galatia. It is also one of the cities to which Paul addressed the Epistle to the Galatians later on. “And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews [again they went first to God’s earthly people], and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.”
I like that: “They so spake, that a great multitude.. .believed.” If it is possible to so speak that a multitude will believe, it is possible to so speak that nobody will believe! It is possible to preach so as to convert nobody, and I think a lot of preachers have learned how to do that. Year after year nobody is converted through their ministry. Why? In the first place they do not preach the gospel, and it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. And secondly, they do not preach in the power of the Holy Spirit, and it is only the Holy Spirit who uses the gospel to save sinners. Paul said, “Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). Notice that the preacher himself has to be right with God if he is to preach the gospel in the power of the Holy Ghost. Only then will poor sinners be won for Christ.
However, Paul and Barnabas had the same trouble to face in Iconium as in Pisidian Antioch: “The unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.” They did not immediately leave. The persecution was not so bitter that they could not go on, so they continued there giving testimony to the grace of God.
But they found the name of Jesus was divisive. It always will be. Those who accept Him are separated from those who reject Him; those who love and honor Him are separated from those who spurn and dishonor His name. When the apostles heard of the plot to kill them, they left Iconium and went to Lystra and Derbe.
Then we come to a most interesting experience which they had in the city of Lystra. First the people were ready to worship them as gods; and then they tried, as in Iconium, to stone them to death. So fickle is the mind of man!
And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked: The same heard Paul speak: who stedfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed…. (14:8-9).
What an interesting picture! Here stood Paul preaching the word. There was that poor cripple. As Paul was preaching Christ, suddenly he looked down and saw the man looking up expectantly, earnestly. He knew in a moment that the man believed the message and believed that Christ had omnipotent power. So Paul stopped in the midst of his preaching, and “said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet.” The man might have answered, “I cannot rise; I have never stood erect.” But there is energy in the gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. In a moment the man leaped and walked. I think I can see him springing to his feet actually dancing in front of the people, crying “Is it really true? I never walked in my life before!”
Oh, the wonders of the name of Jesus! What was done for that man physically was just a picture of what the Lord has been doing for people spiritually down through the centuries. Millions of people have been unable to take one step toward God, one step toward Heaven, until the gospel came and they believed it. When they did so they found they were able to rise out of their sinfulness and helplessness and walk in the way of the Lord, glorifying Him. This is one of the evidences that Christianity is really a revelation from Heaven. It proves itself by what it does for the people who believe it.
People say, We do not see miracles today. Oh yes, you do. God is working miracles—making sober men out of drunkards, making honest men out of thieves and liars, making upright men out of scoundrels, making good Christian women out of those who have been characterless and without reputation. He has taken those who have prided themselves on their goodness and morality and led them to a place of submission where they will admit they are sinners and find new life in Christ.
Yes, it is a miracle-working gospel. The lame man leaped and walked. When the people saw it, they were amazed, “saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.” They were worshipers of the Greek gods and they thought two of these had appeared on earth. They called Barnabas, Jupiter (Jupiter was the guardian god of the Romans, always pictured as tall and dignified); and Paul, a little energetic man, they called Mercurius. Mercury was always represented as quick and active; the wings on his shoes denote haste in carrying messages. And so the people were going to worship them.
Jupiter had a temple in that city and the priests of Jupiter brought oxen and garlands to sacrifice to the apostles. What an experience for these two men who had just been driven out of Iconium, barely escaping death by stoning! One might say, Isn’t this a wonderful triumph? Not at all! Satan was simply changing his tactics. First he tried to kill them. Now he would have them worshiped as gods. One evil was as bad as the other. Paul and Barnabas, when they heard of it,
rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and 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: Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness (14-17).
When Paul addressed a Jewish congregation he based everything on the written Word of God in the Old Testament. But on various occasions where we find him seeking to reach pagan Gentiles who did not know the Scripture, he makes an appeal to the omnipotent power of God as revealed in creation. He points to the heaven above and the earth below, the shining sun and stars, and says in effect: “All these bear witness to the omniscience and omnipotence of the Creator of all things. Gods such as you have imagined have not created all this. The idols you worship have not done it—but the true God who made you and the world and the universe and all that is in it.” And so he challenged them as to the folly of their idolatry. He would have gone on, as he did later on Mars Hill in Athens, proclaiming the story of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they would not listen further, so anxious were they to get on with their sacrifices.
But now see how quickly they change! “And there came hither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people” (19). In one moment this fickle people would have worshiped them as gods; a little later they were ready to stone them to death.
Then after stoning Paul thinking him dead, they dragged that seemingly lifeless body out of the city and threw it on the refuse heap. Let the jackals devour it. And so this apparently was the end of Paul’s ministry. They were finished with him. But God was not done with him.
I like to think this was perhaps the very time that Paul had the experience of which he speaks in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (12:2-4):
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.. .caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
I believe that at the very moment they thrust Paul’s body away, the real Paul—the man who lived inside of that body—was in the third heaven. God said, as it were, “I want to show you what I have in store for you.” Up there Paul did not know whether he was in the body or not. If in his body, he did not know it; if out of this body, he did not miss it. He was in paradise and heard unspeakable things that are not lawful for a man to utter. How long he was there we do not know. We do read that as his body lay there on the ground the disciples stood round about, evidently making plans for the funeral, probably with tears streaming down, saying, “What shall we do? We shall have to lay his poor broken body away.” But he suddenly rose up! I would like to have seen that.
It is such a graphic picture. There, gathered about the body of Paul, were Barnabas and the other believers, saying doubtless, “Is it not a pity that he had to die right in the midst of his wonderful ministry? If only he could have lived longer!” Then suddenly, I think, Paul opened his eyes, rose to his feet, brushed off his clothes and said, “It is all right. You dear brothers will have to put off the funeral a little longer!” He was ready to start again. Persecution could not thwart him. He must continue preaching the gospel of the grace of God. “He rose up, and came into the city, and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe.”
The next verse (21) tells us that when they had preached the gospel in that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch. It was at this time that Timothy began his journies with Paul. They visited each assembly, “confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (22).
And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. And after they had passed throughout Pisidia, they came to Pamphylia [retracing their steps down to the coast]. And when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down into Attalia: And thence sailed to Antioch [in Syria, the city they left to go on their missionary tour], from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And there they abode long time with the disciples (23-28).
And so the first journey of the earliest missionaries of the church had come to a wonderful end. What a journey it was! How many are going to thank God through all eternity that Paul and Barnabas ever went out with the gospel message of salvation to the Gentiles!