Lystra: A Lame Man Healed & the Reaction Part 3b
by John Lowe
16 Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.
Paul’s message was not based on the Old Testament, because this was a pagan Gentile audience. Had he started immediately to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be like preaching on “The Lord is my shepherd” to people who have never seen a sheep. He started, therefore, with the witness of God in creation (v. 15; also see Acts 17:22). He made it clear that there is but one God who is the living God, the giving God, and the forgiving God. And He has been patient with the sinning nations (see Acts 17:30); because of their ignorance, He has not judged them for their sins as they deserve. The implication is that now, when they can no longer plead ignorance, their only hope is in repentance: “AND THE TIMES OF THIS IGNORANCE GOD WINKED AT; BUT NOW COMMANDETH ALL MEN EVERY WHERE TO REPENT” (ACTS 17:30); and Romans 3:25, “WHOM GOD HATH SET FORTH TO BE A PROPITIATION THROUGH FAITH IN HIS BLOOD, TO DECLARE HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS THAT ARE PAST, THROUGH THE FORBEARANCE OF GOD.” This verse has also been translated, “THIS WAS FOR THE PURPOSE OF SHOWING GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS, BECAUSE IN HIS DIVINE PATIENCE AND MERCY HE HAD DISREGARDED PREVIOUS SINS.”
Some interpret verse 16 to mean that God will not judge the heathen who lived before the Apostolic Age. However, verse 16 must be taken with verse 17. Up to the time of the church, God gave no direct revelations to the “nations” (that is, “Gentiles”) so they were responsible only for their reactions to the general revelation discernable in Creation (see Romans 1:18-20).
17 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.
This is Paul’s final point. God had been sending rain from heaven and causing the crops to flourish. Fruitful harvests had brought plenty of food to nourish the body and cheer the soul. Such ideas of divine providence would not have been strange to the ears of the Lystrans. They were often expressed by pagan writers in speaking of the benevolence of the gods. What was new to them was Paul’s message of the one God—that all the benevolence of nature came from the one and only God who was Himself the source of all creation. He is attempting to turn their attention to the living god who is the Creator. The rains and the seasons; the sun and the stars; food and the joy of life—these are the signs of God’s goodness. He wants to draw them away from their heathen, pagan idols and the mythology of the Greeks by telling them about the God who loves them and the Savior who died for them.
It has often been argued that Paul drew opposite conclusions from the argument from natural providence in the Lystran sermon as compared to Romans 1:18-25. That is true, but it is equally true that the two are in no way contradictory. The basic premise is identical in both: God has revealed Himself in His works and in creation. The contexts and hence the application of the premise are radically different in the two instances. In the speech at Lystra as well as the speech on the Areopagus (see Acts 17:24-28), Paul used the argument from creation to build bridges, to establish a point of identification with his pagan listeners. While they may never have heard of his God before, they had seen Him—in His providential works of nature. In Romans 1:18-25 Paul was seeking to establish humanities responsibility before a just God. The Gentiles could not claim that they had no responsibility on the grounds that they had received no revelation. They had received revelation in God’s providential works of creation and had perverted that revelation by worshipping nature itself, exchanging the Creator for the creation. The Gentiles were thus without excuse: “FOR SINCE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD GOD'S INVISIBLE QUALITIES—HIS ETERNAL POWER AND DIVINE NATURE—HAVE BEEN CLEARLY SEEN, BEING UNDERSTOOD FROM WHAT HAS BEEN MADE, SO THAT MEN ARE WITHOUT EXCUSE” (ROMANS 1:20). We simply do not know how Paul would have moved to establish the Lystrans’ need to repent had he went on the discus repentance and judgment. His sermon was not completed at Lystra. The Areopagus’ speech gives an idea of how he would have proceeded. There the call to repentance is closely linked to the Gentile idolatry (see Acts 17:29), which is precisely the argument of Romans 1:18-25).
The expression “filling our hearts with food and gladness” is a figurative way of saying that in providing “food” for their bodily needs, “God” filled their “hearts with” the “gladness” that comes from the enjoyment of “food.”
18 And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them.
Evidently, Paul and Barnabas were cut short in their witness. It is anything but a complete exposition of the Gospel. Paul never got beyond the basic monotheistic message of one God. The heart of the Christian message from the beginning until now is what God has done in Christ. And yet in this sermon, there is no mention of Christ at all—no Crucifixion, no Resurrection. Luke was well aware of its incompleteness. Verse 18 indicates that the sermon was cut off. The crowd was still intent on sacrificing to the apostles, so impressed had they been by the healing of the lame man. Even with his brief sermon on God, Paul could scarcely restrain them. The time in Lystra, however, was not over. There would be occasions in the future to introduce them to Christ. Just how he would have moved on to speak of Christ to a pagan Gentile group we will see in the Areopagus sermon of Chapter 17. It is, however, interesting to speculate on how he would have been treated if he had accepted the honor of divinity which the people were eager to bestow upon him. And it is to his everlasting credit that he had both the wits and the grace to see clearly the vanity of any temporary advantage that such an honor might have given him, and to walk steadily in the footsteps of his Lord and Master who set aside His divine entitlements so that He might taste human life even to its dregs and die the death of man, even the death of the Cross.
The message had its desired result. The people reluctantly desisted from their intention of sacrificing to these servants of the Lord.
1 Something worthless, trivial, or pointless.
2 The Areopagus or Mars Hill is a bare marble hill next to the Acropolis in Athens. It is especially popular with travelers for its connections with a speech made there by Paul the Apostle. The Areopagus, like most city-state institutions, continued to function in Roman times, and it was then that the Apostle Paul delivered his famous speech about the identity of “the Unknown God.” (see Acts 17). Also, the Supreme tribunal of ancient Athens was called “The Areopagus.” It was named for the Areopagus (“Ares’ Hill”), where it met. It began as the king’s council and had broad judicial powers. Its prestige fluctuated from the mid-6th to the mid-4th century BC, after which its power revived and continued under Roman domination, when it reacquired extensive administrative duties.
3 God, in His omniscience directing nature, the universe, and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence.