Jan and I alternate between reading devotional books and the Bible. The classic devotional, "Streams in the Desert," by L. B. Cowman is one of our favorites. But reading the Bible always brings deeper encouragement. We've been reading through Acts in large chunks recently. An episode in Chapter 14 gripped me days ago and I can't stop thinking about it. Let me share it with you.
Many of you know that in Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas were commissioned on their first "missionary journey." Sent by the Holy Spirit, they sail to Cyprus. They aren't on the island to sit in the sun and sip margaritas. They are there to preach the Gospel - that's what missionaries do! Its a wild journey. Sermons are preached. Miracles are performed. Demons are confronted. And people are saved. (Good place for an "amen!") Large crowds show up to hear what these two guys have to say. And it all makes the Jews jealous. Paul and Barnabas become public enemy #1 and #2. The Jewish religious establishment wants these guys dead.
In Acts 14, the missionary team heads to Iconium. Same as in Cyprus, they preach and people are spiritually transformed. But, the Jews will not relent. Their new goal is to stone the two missionaries to shut down this evangelistic effort. But, Paul and Barnabas catch wind of the plot and head to Lystra, and this is where the plot thickens.
When they arrive in Lystra, the first thing they see is a man crippled from birth who had never walked. Paul saw faith in him and said in a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." The man springs up and starts walking and the crowds go crazy! The people conclude that these guys must be gods and even start referring to them as Zeus and Hermes. The people are so moved by the miraculous healing that they bring sacrifices and are fully intent on worshipping these guys as gods. Paul and Barnabas object and say, "We are only men like you." But the crowd has bestowed super hero status on these guys. They could barely restrain the people from offering sacrifices to them...UNTIL the Jews from Antioch and Iconium show up.
What happens next is shocking. Remember, the people thought Paul and Barnabas were gods? But the Jews come in and turn the whole situation around in a few hours - notice the words in Acts 14:19 - "having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead." Wait. From super hero status to stoning victim? What were these people thinking? What a dramatic swing of emotion! From love to hate. From elevation to demotion. From gods to goats. From worship to stoning. And it appears all of this happened in less than a day.
Paul miraculously survived the stoning. The people left him for dead, but the rest of Acts 14 reports that God raised him up to even greater success in evangelism. They weren't deterred by their persecutors and neither was the Gospel.
But, back to the people. If I could speak to that crowd, I would ask one question - "How were you so easily persuaded?" They thought they were gods. Yet, they stoned them hours later. What happened? Since we can't get answers from them, I 'm going to offer my ideas on how this could have happened. As you read this list, I hope you will check yourself and ask, "Am I easily persuaded?"
1. The Jewish leaders intimidated them.
v. 19 says they "persuaded the crowds." The leaders probably appealed to Old Testament proof texts, they made up stories about what Paul and Barnabas did in Cyprus, and they appealed to the authority of their positions in Judaism. Religious leaders can be very intimidating, particularly if people think they have the power to influence their spiritual status.
2. Jealousy is a powerful motivator.
We know from the text (13:45) that jealousy was the main motivation. This is undebatable.
3. Everyone went along with it.
Crowd dynamics entail an entire field of study. Suffice it to say that apparently no one stood up to object. No one took a stand and said, "We can't stone them. They healed a man and are preaching a true message. We must defend them. I'm not going along with this scheme!" Imagine the crowd resisting the Jews from out of town and saying, "Go back to where you came from! These are good men and we will not let you harm them!" It's much easier to go with the crowd. Resisting would have taken uncommon courage.
4. People have short memories.
Paul and Barnabas simply entered the city, healed a man crippled from birth, and then preached a sermon. It was the people who cheered and lifted them up. Did they forget this? The two men did nothing but good. But, somehow the Jews convinced them these guys deserved death. Short memories!
5. Satan blinds people's eyes to the truth.
Clearly, Satan wanted to put Paul and Barnabas out of business. He has uncanny ability to blind people's eyes to the truth. To keep them from seeing what's right and to convince them to feel totally justified in doing what is wrong. This is exactly what happened in this episode. The missionaries survived and lived to preach another day. But Satan's opposition didn't stop that day. He kept it up. The rest of Acts leaves no doubt that Satan will always resist the advance of the Gospel. He still does.
Be alert my friends, lest you be easily persuaded and wander from the truth and from godly conduct. We're all only a few bad decisions away from making the same mistake made that day in Lystra.