This is part of an ongoing study of the book of Acts. If you’d like to catch up, you can read the previous studies here. Before you begin today, be sure to read the entire chapter of Acts 14-15 here, and don’t forget to sound off in the comments below.
As Paul and Barnabas continue on in their journey through modern-day Turkey, they come to Iconium. They must have followed their standard procedure of speaking in the synagogue first, then going to the Gentiles. This time, Luke tells us that their preaching was very effective, but that it stirred up the usual trouble. As opposed to shaking the dust off their feet this time, they persevered in Iconium to see even more people turn to Jesus.
Luke makes special mention here that God backed up their words with “signs and wonders.” This is a generic term we first saw in Acts 4 for miracles, healings and anything else overtly supernatural. But Paul and Barnabas suffered the same fate as Jesus did, even with the signs and wonders the Lord poured out. Miracles will not change the heart of onlookers unless they are already seeking the truth. Jesus did too many miracles to count, according to John (John 21:25), but was left with 120 followers immediately after His death. Even with the supernatural outpouring from God, Paul and Barnabas were not able to fend off their detractors and had to flee Iconium to escape their assassination plans.
Luke intentionally uses a phrase in this passage to draw our attention back to Acts 4. He tells us that Paul and Barnabas spoke with boldness and that the Lord poured out signs and wonders. This is exactly what the disciples prayed for in Acts 4:29-30. It is no accident that Luke includes this phrase here as he wants us to understand that is is a prayer and a model that the church pursued from that time in Acts 4 on.
After fleeing not too far away, Paul and Barnabas immediately begin praying for people to be healed, of which a man crippled from birth benefitted from. The city was so amazed at this healing that they began proclaiming that their gods were among them. Here we see that they esteemed Barnabas as the leader and Paul as the spokesman by calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, as Zeus was the highest deity in the culture and Hermes was his son and messenger between gods and humans. This shows us that at this point in his life, Paul was still following the lead of Barnabas, the man who had cared most about him through the years.
One of the things we must keep in mind while reading Acts is that we are being told stories from Luke’s perspective, who received most of his information from Paul. Many people have wrongly assumed through the centuries that Paul was the greatest apostle of the Bible, but such a distinction is inappropriate and does not exist. Apostleship was not earned, but ordained, and as such an apostle could only carry out their ministry under the grace that God allowed to them. Paul’s authorship of much of the New Testament has nothing to do with him being a greater apostle than any other, but God’s ordination for him to write those epistles to his name. This passage shows us a tender and realistic side to the relationship between Paul and Barnabas.
Tender as their relationship was, they were not upset at the fact that the people of Lystra had called one of them greater than the other, but that they were beginning to worship them as gods. After having spent many sleepless nights running from assassins for the name of Jesus, they were broken over their own names being elevated as opposed to Jesus. Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes, a common sign of mourning and remorse in ancient cultures, and tried to convince the people from sacrificing to them.
Unfortunately, things turned quickly against Paul. Jews who had pursued him from Antioch and Iconium convinced the crowd, already in a frenzied mob state, to turn on Paul. They went from thinking he was a god to a devil. They rushed to stone him without judge, jury or advocate. After they were convinced he was dead, they drug him outside the city and left him for dead.
Let the reader understand here: Paul was dead. It is unlikely that people were stoned every day in this culture, but they were all aware of what death looked like. In these days there were no morticians or ICU’s to tend to the weak and dead. Everyone had to deal with these matters of life and death themselves. They were not unsure of whether Paul was dead. If they had been, they had the entire time they drug him outside the city to realize he was “playing possum.”
In my humble opinion, this is when Paul refers to his heavenly experience.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows.
2 Corinthians 12:2
Like many near-death (or death) experiences, I believe this is when Paul experienced this. I have no way of knowing this for sure, of course, but it is more than remarkable that the man a group of experienced men thought was dead simply got up and went back into the city that just tried to kill him.
Not only did Paul and Barnabas keep going after this, they won converts in Derbe and then returned to Lystra! These cities were not so big that the two could have been lost in the crowd. Certainly someone would have recognized them. It is equally amazing to think of their bravery and the terror that must have come over the people to see the man they killed return to their town!
From there, Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps and check on many of the cities they had established churches in before they returned to Antioch in Syria. When they arrived home, they told the church of the grace and power that God had moved in on their behalf.
If you are a Gentile, Acts 15 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible for you. It is here where the early church dealt once and for all with the issue of “Judaizers,” or people who wanted every Christian to adhere to Jewish laws and customs in addition to their faith in Jesus.
As is often the case, when someone’s message has a hard time taking root around them, they wander away to find new converts. Today, our prisons are filled to the brim with every manner of wild and crazy teaching that people have been run out of churches for trying to teach. In Antioch, we see those teaching things that had already been rejected in Jerusalem.
Paul and Barnabas, who actually followed the Jewish laws and customs, sharply opposed the men claiming all Gentiles must be circumcised and follow Moses’ Law. The church realized the issue needed to be settled once and for all, so they commissioned Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem and call a council to make a determination on the matter.
When they arrived, they convened and several Pharisees were already prepared to make their case. Peter reminded the crowd of his experience in Caesarea with Cornelius that had begun the notion that Gentiles need not be circumcised or follow the Law of Moses. James then stood up and settled the matter with the passage of scripture that would cause much trouble in years to come.
James understood that when the prophet Amos spoke those words in Amos 9:11-12, there was coming a day when God would accept the Gentile nations as they were, without becoming culturally Hebraic. That day was before them.
This James, by the way, was not the one who died in Acts 12. This James, as he was referred to often, was “James the brother of Jesus.” Some have disputed, because of how Jewish culture referred to family members, whether or not this James was Jesus’ brother or cousin. Either way, he was a close relative of Jesus and would eventually become the only apostle to stay in Jerusalem.
They asked that Gentiles only refrain from four things; 1) food scarified to idols, 2) drinking blood, 3) the meat of strangled animals and from 4) sexual immorality. The last one is fairly self-evident, as it defiles anyone who partakes in it, but the first three are less clear-cut.
The letter the apostles sent to Antioch (verses 23-29) and the rest of the church world stated that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” a phrase that gives us a sense of divine leading not communicated in verses 5-21. There is no place in scripture that fully explains why they asked the Gentiles to refrain from the first three things, but it seems to make sense, for the sake of unity, for Gentiles to give up these things. These were three things that Jews could not do. If there was to be continued fellowship around the supper table, these were non-negotiables. We know from Acts 2 that the disciples broke bread together daily in each others’ homes. This was a pivotal and essential part of being a unified church between Jews and Gentiles, and the Holy Spirit was not going to let them create two churches; one for Jews and one for Gentiles.
This was a Holy Spirit compromise that we would do well to implement today. The last requirement is universal. Sexual immorality defiles whomever engages in it. The first three were cultural to preserve unity. They were things that Paul made clear in 1 Corinthians 6 and 10 that were relatively arbitrary in and of themselves, but for the sake of unity of the body of Christ, they were not worth transgressing. Today we live in a very multicultural world and country, but our churches are more segregated than ever across racial, cultural and socio-economic lines. What compromises could we make today for the sake of unity?
Two men, Judas and Silas, went from Jerusalem to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to bear witness to the authenticity of the apostles’ letter. Judas would return home, but Silas decided to stay in Antioch.
Unfortunately, this is where we say goodbye to Barnabas. As he and Paul were thinking about leaving Antioch to return to the churches they had planted, they had a large argument over whether or not to take Mark. We see that “blood runs thick” here. Mark was Barnabas’ relative, and he wanted to give him another chance. Paul was not going to let Mark abandon them again like he had done previously in Perga. Even though the disagreement was probably based in the flesh, we see that God used it as an opportunity to double the number of missionaries He had working for Him. Barnabas and Mark returned to Cyprus, their homeland, while Paul took Silas with him on his next journey, which we will continue in chapter 16.
In case you have wondered if Paul and Barnabas and Mark ever “made up,” wonder no more.
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Questions for Chapter 14-15
- Why would one need to be circumcised to be saved?
- Why did the church need to go to Jerusalem to settle their dispute?
- Does the Holy Spirit instruct us in new ways God is moving apart from Scripture? Did He then?
- Why was this “Jerusalem Council” Important? (this became the model of leadership for the next several hundred years)
- Why were the 4 prohibitions important? (idol food, sexual immorality, strangled food & blood)
- Who is James?
- Why did the 12 apostles send men with Barnabas and Paul?
- Why did Paul and Barnabas split company? (Mark was Barnabas’ nephew (or cousin)