It is increasingly obvious that we live in a religiously pluralistic society. Star athletes in Western nations have Islamic names; a Hindu worship center may be across the road from our church. The challenge is not that our neighbors are not Christians but that they are often adherents of a non-Christian cult or religion. How can we begin to witness to them? Luke gives us one strategy in his narrative of Paul's first proclamation to a completely pagan Gentile audience.
At Lystra, a fortified Roman frontier outpost eighteen miles south-southwest of Iconium, Paul is preaching the gospel to people of the local ethnic groups. Luke tells us that a man crippled from birth is sitting (possibly as a beggar), hears Paul's message and has faith to be made whole. To describe the man's aspirations Luke uses a term that is part of a word group he also uses to describe salvation; thus he links the healing that is about to take place with the salvation Paul has been proclaiming (13:26). The miracle will picture the completeness of restoration brought by God's salvation in Christ.
Paul fixes his attention on the man and sees that faith is present. So he calls out a command that is a creative word. The crippled man, showing faith by his obedience, leaps up and begins to walk. The healing is instantaneous and complete (compare 3:7-8).
Should miraculous deeds be an essential part of a contemporary strategy for approaching adherents to non-Christian religions? John Wimber's initial articulation of "power evangelism" would answer with an emphatic yes. His analysis of the Acts account of the early church's mission concludes, "Rarely was church growth attributed to preaching alone. . . . [Signs and wonders] were the catalyst to evangelism" (1986:118). Others would limit the working of signs and wonders to the apostolic age.
Luke takes a middle position that gives exclusive support to neither of these options. While Luke gives no evidence that miraculous gifts will necessarily cease with the close of the apostolic age, he does not present them as essential to the church's advance. When miraculous deeds and gospel proclamation occur together, proclamation is primary. During the first missionary journey, proclamation accomplishes God's saving purposes apart from miraculous deeds at Pisidian Antioch and Derbe. Jesus teaches that miraculous deeds, even his resurrection, in and of themselves cannot produce faith (Lk 16:27-31; 24:25-27). Indeed, they may be misinterpreted. Proclamation--the proper interpretation--is needed to declare the source and purpose of miraculous deeds. What miraculous deeds do accomplish is to manifest the divine power of God's Word and to authorize the preacher. Just as Paul, through spiritual discernment and Spirit-impelled command, was the means for the crippled man's restoration, so today God can choose to accompany the faithful preaching of his Word with miraculous deeds, especially in cultural contexts in which Satan's control is most evident.
The crowd's response to the miracle shows both total excitement and total lack of comprehension. They cry out in Lycaonian, their heart language, that the gods Zeus and Hermes have come in human form. They repeatedly address Paul and Barnabas with divine homage. This is not surprising, for Ovid the Roman poet relates a legend of a previous visitation by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian region. They came in human form and inquired at one thousand homes, but none showed them hospitality. Only a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, took them in. The pair were rewarded by being spared when the gods flooded the valley and destroyed its inhabitants. The couple's shack was transformed into a marble-pillared, gold-roofed temple, and they became its priests.
The crowd's reaction to Paul and Barnabas, then, is understandable. They want to avoid punishment and garner any blessings that the gods may desire to dispense. They see Zeus, the weather god, and Hermes his messenger as the providers of fruitful harvests.
The crowd's response clearly illustrates the problem of communication to people with a non-Christian background. Unless the Holy Spirit opens their hearts and minds to receive and understand the gospel message as true, they will continue to interpret it and any miraculous manifestations in the only way they know how, in terms of their non-Christian religious beliefs and values. From one angle, this reinterpretation process simply is a communication problem. But from another angle, if the reinterpretation persists, it becomes syncretistic, permitting other worldviews to maintain themselves over against Christian truth claims.
Paul and Barnabas react with intense disgust. In Jewish fashion they show their revulsion at this blasphemous false worship by tearing their clothes. They rush out into the crowd, insisting that the worship stop.
Paul's speech begins with an attack on idolatry. His initial question, Men, why are you doing this? assumes that there is common ground between his audience and himself--that they can join him in his negative evaluation of idolatrous practices. He points out the miracleworker is not worthy of worship, since he is a human being like they. He identifies idols as worthless things that his preaching has called them to turn from. Idols are worthless, empty, indeed deceitful, because they do not produce the effect they promise (compare Jer 2:5).
Paul next proclaims the one true living God, the Creator of all that is. He is the true source of the miraculously benevolent. Later Paul says the supply of rain that makes the ground fruitful, providing human beings with abundance of food and gladness of heart, is the ongoing witness that the living God, not Zeus and Hermes, exists. Such arguments occur throughout the Scriptures (Ps 147:8; 104:13-15; Jer 14:22; Mt 5:45). Paul also implies the moral consequences of not recognizing the living Creator as God. Paul's call to conversion and his explanation of God's permissive will in allowing all nations to go their own way assume human accountability. He is explaining why in every past generation God did not act in judgment as he did in Noah's generation.
Paul's speech models elements that must be included in any strategy of effective witness to adherents of a non-Christian religion. We must assume common ground with the person, our humanity. We are both made in the image of God with an ability to reason and evaluate experience. We must have a flexibility of approach in presenting the gospel. We must be familiar enough with the person's religious beliefs to know what they are substituting for the one true God and his ways. We must correct them, but just as important, we must figure out how the gospel is "good news" so we may tell them how to truly fulfill their religious aspirations. Finally, we must witness with urgency, making the person aware of the consequences. Since we are all accountable before God, our dialogue with non-Christians is not a simple exchange of religious opinions but a discussion of life-and-death issues.
Disgruntled by Paul and Barnabas's rejection of their worship, a crowd, incited to riot by Jews from Antioch and Iconium, stones Paul. They drag him out of the city, discarding what they think is a corpse.
Paul's suffering issues in a quiet victory. Lystran believers gather around him. He gets up, reenters the city and the next day proceeds to Derbe to preach there. Victory is manifest in his recovery, as instantaneous as the cripple's healing, and in his freedom of movement.
This last scene teaches us that being an instrument of God's saving blessing to others, even of miraculous workings, is no guarantee that we will be immune from persecution, including physical suffering.
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