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Acts 14:14-18 meaning

The local priest of Zeus brings oxen to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, because Paul healed a lame man by God’s power. Paul and Barnabas tear their robes and preach against this mistake. They explain that they serve the living God who created everything. God allowed the Gentiles to stray for some time, but He was still active in blessing their wellbeing. Their words do not seem to sink in, but they are able to, with difficulty, prevent the people of Lystra from sacrificing cows to them.

After healing a man born lame, Paul and Barnabas are regarded as gods by the crowds of Lystra, in the region of Galatia (modern-day Turkey). Barnabas is declared to be the Greek god Zeus, while Paul is declared to be the god Hermes. The local priest of Zeus has brought oxen to sacrifice to Barnabas and Paul.

The way Luke frames it, Paul and Barnabas were not aware that the Lystrians believed they were manifestations of their false Greek gods until the sacrificial bulls were brought to them. This may have been because the crowds’ declaration that “The gods have become like men and have come down to us” (Acts 14:11) was uttered in the local Lycaonian district’s language, a language which Paul and Barnabas probably did not understand. But now they see a pagan priest joyfully bringing oxen dressed in decorative garlands through the crowd, headed toward them. 

Someone, perhaps a new Lystrian disciple of Jesus, may have explained the situation to Paul and Barnabas, because until now they have not reacted to what was going on. Learning that they have been mistaken for Greek gods, the pair act immediately to correct the crowds’ mistake: 

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd (v. 14). They move as quickly as they can, they rushed out into the crowd, to prevent having a pagan sacrifice made on their behalf. 

The detail that Paul and Barnabas tore their robes shows the common Jewish response to any word or act of blasphemy. It showed great outrage, disapproval, even mourning that something has been said or done in insult to the One True God. Surely it got the attention of their worshippers. Now among the crowd, Paul and Barnabas begin shouting their correction, crying out a sermon about the truth of the living God (v. 14): 

They were saying, Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them (v. 15).

Paul and Barnabas make a couple of distinctions and contrasts between what is not true and what is true. They first ask the Lystrians why they are bringing oxen to be sacrificed to them. Why do they believe Paul and Barnabas are gods? They challenge the Lystrians to reevaluate their perspective. Paul and Barnabas speak truth in contrast to the lie. The lie is that Paul and Barnabas are Hermes and Zeus, Greek gods, not mortals. But Paul categorizes the Lystrians as Men when he addresses them, and then immediately places himself and Barnabas into the same category: We are also men

We have the same nature as you, we are not divine. We are the same race, the same kind as you, just as much in need of God’s power in our own lives as you do. We are not gods. 

Paul then states the reason he and Barnabas are in Lystra: we are here to preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God. The gospel (the “good message”) reveals that there is divine power, but it is from a living God, not these vain things, which is anything other than the living God. In the case of the Lystrians, these vain things are Zeus and Hermes, and any other Greek god or goddess. 

The vain things are the beliefs and actions that are ineffective, that are vain because they are based on a lie, and therefore can produce no good result. When something is in vain it is without success or benefit. The vain things are the belief that there are such divine powers as Zeus and Hermes that can be manipulated, and that Paul and Barnabas represent those powers. 

The truth is that there is one living God, and that Paul and Barnabas are merely men of the same nature as the Lystrians, acting as the living God’s messengers to teach them this gospel, or good news, that they can have a true relationship with the living God

Paul displays why the living God is the one true divine authority by describing His creative work—Paul’s God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. He created all that exists. Unlike the human-like gods of Greek imagination, the living God is real. The living God is a true God that is above all. This is not a god that can be manipulated. This is the God that created all things. 

The Greeks believed in a lengthy creation myth. Their creation story is rampant with chaos, death, and incest between the gods. Many of their gods are personifications of nature; the sky is a god, the earth is a god, the sea, and so on. Many generations of gods destroy one another while accidently making the world. Zeus does not appear until much later in the Greek accounting of where the earth, life, and reality came from. In his story, he has a beginning, being born to another god. He grows up to kill his father and thereafter becomes king of the gods. 

Paul’s God, the living God, is the only God, and He made everything that is (Colossians 1:16). All things that are made were made by Him (Genesis 1, John 1:1-4). He is the true author of reality and life. By contrast the Greek gods are sinful, vengeful; they are born and they die. They are not real, but primarily serve as a means for humans to rationalize their own behavior. But the true God, the God whom Paul is trying to lead these Lystrians to, made everything and is eternal. This God can actually lead humanity to recover what was lost, and have their design restored. 

The goal of the gospel is to free the Lystrians from believing lies, from worshipping idols, from pursuing vain things that have no result. The Lystrians are being called to turn from these vain things to God the Father. To turn from lies to the truth, to turn from death to life, from sin to right living (Romans 6:18, 8:11). To believe in Jesus, and be born again to a new spiritual birth (John 3:3, 14-16). 

Paul and Barnabas continue, explaining how the living God is not an exclusive, distant Jewish God who is unknowable. Rather, He is a God who has allowed the Gentile pagans to ignore Him, while giving them blessings and hints of His presence regardless of their ignorance:

In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (vs. 16-17).

Throughout history, In the generations gone by, God did not impose Himself on the people of Lystra or their ancestors. God gave humans choice. God does not make choices for humans. Rather, He permitted all the nations to go their own ways. The phrase all the nations refers to the Gentiles, which means all people groups outside of the Jewish people. 

The Jews were God’s chosen race, but that did not mean God had chosen to love and bless the Jews alone. God called Abraham and promised not only to bless him, but to bless all nations through him (Genesis 12:3). Then Abraham’s descendants became the nation of Israel. In the covenant/treaty God made with Israel, He made clear they were chosen for a job, to be a holy nation of priests to live as an example to all the nations and bring them to knowledge of God (Exodus 19:6). 

In individual instances during the generations gone by, some Gentiles did come to faith and obedience to the living God (Joshua 2:11, Ruth 1:16-17, 2 Kings 5:15). But the Jews broke their covenant/treaty with God and failed to fulfill their task to be a holy nation of priests. They killed their own prophets and ultimately their own Messiah (Matthew 23:37). 

All this while, God permitted the Gentiles to go their own way. He allowed peoples like the Babylonians to form their myths of Marduk and Ishtar, the Canaanites to worship Moloch and Asherah, and Greeks to invent their legends of Zeus and Hermes. This does not mean God endorsed or did not care about these idolatries. God hates all sin (Psalm 5:4). But He permitted it all the same. 

However, Paul and Barnabas point to the living God as the true source of the good things that all the nations had experienced: and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (v. 17). Though God permitted the Gentiles to invent their own supernatural stories and forms of worship to their false gods, God was not silent. 

God is always speaking, as the heavens declare His glory (Psalm 19:1-3). His creation is a constant witness to His gospel (Romans 1:20, 10:16-18). 

He did not leave Himself without witness. He sent rains from heaven to make the crops of the Gentiles grow, so that they experienced fruitful seasons for their own survival and contentedness. He was the one satisfying the hearts of the Gentiles with not only food but gladness. Why would God send gladness to those who did not know Him? Because He loves those whom He has created (John 3:16). 

God did good to all the peoples of the earth; that was the witness He bore of Himself, His provision and goodness. All humans are God’s creation, and since the beginning He has done good to us, in that He sustains our lives and brings us the baseline of gladness we feel in simply being alive. All good things are a direct result of God (James 1:17).

Because He revealed Himself to the Israelites through Moses and permitted the Gentiles to go their own ways, the Gentiles took the rains and fruitful seasons and the gladness of being alive and attributed it to invented deities, to sun gods, weather gods, and other false gods representing the things in creation. They failed to recognize the true Creator, who is above and beyond it all.

Paul will teach along similar lines in Acts 17:22-31 to the Athenians, showing that God allowed a time period of ignorance among the Gentiles, but that He is the true Creator of all men. He will assert that all humans are from Him, and that the Greeks themselves were stumbling toward this truth but falling short by worshipping creation, rather than the Creator. 

In spite of their words, the people of Lystra are determined to conduct their sacrifice. The great irony is that they are so insistent in believing Paul and Barnabas are gods that they refuse to listen to them. This again underscores that the true nature of paganism was self-focused. 

Despite Paul and Barnabas’s objections and clarifications of who they themselves were (We are also men of the same nature as you) and who was the true power behind creation, life, and the healing of the lame Lystrian man (Acts 14:9-10), the crowds were slow to listen:

Even saying these things, with difficulty they restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them (v. 18).

Despite correcting the lies the Lystrians believed by saying the truth, it was not easy to dissuade the crowds of their own preconceived notions that Paul and Barnabas were Greek gods visiting them. The people of Lystra were set on offering sacrifice to them, and only through great struggle and difficulty were they ultimately restrained. 

Luke, the author of Acts, does not explain the details of how this situation resolved, but gives the impression that the Lystrians abandoned their intention to sacrifice the bulls to Paul and Barnabas, yet it was a close call. 

It does not appear that the crowds listened to Paul and Barnabas’ explanation nor were persuaded of who the true God was. Perhaps Paul and Barnabas had to continue to protest the would-be sacrifice, to disavow the idea that they were gods, until enthusiasm for the ritual died out due to the damper that the Christian preachers put on it.

Confusion and deception clouded the hearts of the people of Lystra. They witnessed a miracle from God, and assigned its origin to the man who performed it, Paul. Then, despite Paul’s efforts to lead them to the truth, it seems most did not believe. We know from Acts 14:23, Acts 16 that some of the Lystrians did believe in Jesus, but the majority of them seemed to remain in confusion and unbelief. In the following section, enemies of Paul and Barnabas will come to town and light the powder keg of this ignorance to great effect and harm against Paul. 

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