“Conversion, or Perversion?”

Sermon for 16 May 04

Texts: Acts 14:21-23


Big Idea: The Word of the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword.

Purpose: To explore how the same Word unites and divides.

Interrogative: Are you moving forward?  Enduring hardship?


            When last we visited the world of Acts, we touched upon two major conversions: that of Cornelius and that of Saul, the future apostle Paul.  The first is the conversion of a  God-fearing gentile and the second is the conversion of a Pharisaical Jew to Christianity for the express purpose of bearing witness to Christ among the gentiles.  Here, then are the two hinges upon which the door of opportunity swings, the door that opens up the whole world to Christian witness.  In brief, the conversion of Cornelius and the conversion of Paul tend in the same direction: they are both about the missionary work of the church outside the confines of Jerusalem and outside the mainland of Palestine and Syria.  They are representative of the fulfilled prophecy of Acts 1:8 which our Lord spoke prior to the gift of the Holy Spirit.


            Again, the last time we looked into Acts, we surveyed some fourteen years.  Our scope today will be much more restricted, covering a total of some three years.  This period of time is related to the first missionary tour of Paul, 47-49 A.D..  The first missionary tour occurs in Roman Galatia, the southern most part of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.  This region, divided into three regions (Lycaonia, Phrygian and Pisidia) constitute Galatia--and is to be distinguished from Gaulic Galatia, the northern half of Asia Minor, from whence migrated the peoples who populated northern France and Ireland in subsequent centuries.  At the time of Paul’s journey there, the region was still 25 years away from “pacification.”  Pacification has to do with the subjugation of native populations, as in our frontier phase of history.  It was a military program of the Roman empire by which outlying regions were assimilated to the growing empire.  It was part of Roman conquest, or expansionism.  So, if this conjures up pictures of the wild and wooly West, those pictures would be approximately true.  Galatia had its centers of civilization where Greek and or Roman culture prevailed and it also had well-established trade routes.  There were well-garrisoned Roman roads and there were long, lonely miles of untamed trade routes--travelers moved about at considerable risk to life and limb as well as wealth.  Brigands, armed thieves and robbers, plagued the region and there was always the risk of running into a marauding tribe of hostile people.  The island of Cyprus, where Paul, Barnabas and Mark first preached was an urbane and civilized place in comparison to Galatia.  And these factors may have contributed significantly to John Mark’s decision to desert his companions at Perga.  Politics, education, society and religion were slowly developing together in Galatia but the region was pretty primitive--urban centers being the major exception.  Of it Paul wrote, “perils of rivers, perils of robbers.”


            Still, in the cities of Galatia, evangelism was hardly a cake-walk.  Christianity, the new kid on the block, was disliked for a variety of reasons.  Why?  Well, one reason is that Christianity had the impact of disrupting existing social relations.  Today, in India, one of the most forceful oppositions to Christianity comes from the caste system of the Hindu’s.  The “untouchables” are an integrated part of the economy, of how things get done.  The lower castes perform services that the upper castes find vital, but distasteful.  In Christianity, there are no castes!  In Islamic culture, women are second-class citizens; they frequently have fewer opportunities and civil rights.  Again, our gender equality in Christ disrupts the Islamic way of doing things.  The Jews found Christian repudiation of legalism and dead works offensive.  And, incidentally, so do the neo-pagans of our own day.  Christianity is not pluralistic, even though it is truly tolerant.  Our adherence to the biblical standard of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is under assault this very day by some who find the Christian position offensive.  Christian opposition to abortion threatens the reproductive rights industry in America.  These tensions go a long way towards explaining the nearly universal persecution of Christians from the beginnings in Jerusalem.  We also know that 2 Tim 3:10-12 is true on an individual level:

But you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance,

2 Tim 3:11  persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord delivered me!

2 Tim 3:12  And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.


            So, let’s collect ourselves and journey back in time to Antioch in Syria.  The first missionary tour was initiated in this gentile fellowship, presided over by five teachers and prophets who were also the elders.  This leadership group included Barnabas and Paul.  The local church catches a vision and issues an Abrahamic-like call.  It is a little wild, vague as in open ended (from the human vantage point).  After some prayer, worship and fasting, three men are commissioned to take this missionary journey: Barnabas, Paul and a younger disciple, from Jerusalem, called John Mark.  The first place they go is Cyprus and the second place in Asia Minor--the respective homelands of Barnabas and of Paul.  It is perhaps worthy of note that they begin their venture into the unknown, the gentile mission, with the known, like stepping into the chilly waters of a lake in the spring.


            While much else must have ensued, Luke focuses on three, main telling incidents on this tour: the power encounter with the proconsul in Paphos, Cyprus, the preaching in Pisidian Antioch, Pamphilia (or Roman Galatia) and the pagan crowds in Lystra (where Paul took refuge after the work in Iconium).  We begin with Cyprus.  Landing in Salamis, the trio journeys west some 90 miles to Paphos.  Along the way, they preach.  We are about to hear about the first direct approach of the Apostle Paul to a gentile unbeliever.  Upon arriving in Paphos, they encounter a Jewish sorcerer by the name Elymas Magos--also known as Bar-Jesus, “son of salvation,” who is the court wizard for Serguis Paulus, the Roman proconsul.  The fact that Elymas, which means “expert, or skillful,” is there at all adds to our knowledge of Paulus interest in the word of God, his susceptibility to superstition.  Elymas, perceiving the threat that the truth poses to his livelihood, influence and prestige, comes against the progress of the gospel in Paulus’ life.  For this wicked thing, Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, calls down blindness on him.  Because Elymas is perverting the truth, he is made literally blind.  Simultaneously, Paulus converts as a result of this power encounter, or show down between the gospel and the occult, between Paul and Elymas!  It seems common for the practitioners of the occult, or even for those involved in witchcraft to oppose the preaching of the gospel in all times and places--especially when a new ministry is starting up.  And this dynamic is the source of this sermon’s title.  Whenever, and wherever the gospel is preached the results are either, hopefully, conversion or, sadly, perversion.  We see this over and over again in the missionary work of Paul and in the life of the church we experience today--the same preached word abounds to light, or to darkness depending upon the soul condition of the hearer.


            After Paulus’ conversion, the missionaries sail to Perga (13: 13a) and they part company. Paul appears to have some debilitating illness, perhaps chronic malaria fever (Gal 4:13) which affects his vision and, perhaps, gave him intense, stabbing headaches.  So, there may have been health reasons contributing to the decision to travel up to the cool plateau of Taurus, some 3,500’ above sea level, and on to Pisidian Antioch.  This city, of Seleucid origin, was a Roman colony-the governing/military center of Galatia.  It was politically Galatian, but geographically and linguistically it was Phrygian.  It contained a large population of Jews because the disposition of Rome towards Jews outside of Jerusalem and Judea had been highly favorable since the time of Julius Caesar at least.


            Paul and Barnabas enter the synagogue on their first Sabbath.  Some commentators have suggested that the texts for that occasion may have been Deut. 1 and Isaiah 1 due to allusions in Paul’s sermon which follows.  This is the first full summary of a Pauline sermon.  The theme: How God brought Israel the Messiah, our Savior.  The sermon falls into three parts: first, the Old Testament preparation (vv.16-25) in which Paul moves quickly from the patriarchs to the monarchs, covering 450 years.  Then, Paul leaps from David to Jesus, David’s descendant.  He, secondly, focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv.26-37) through the citation of three passages: Psalm 2:7 which establishes the Messiah as God’s Son, Isaiah 55:3 which expresses the blessing promised to the Davidic line and Psalm 16:10 which declares that God’s Holy One will not see decay.  The sermon then concludes (vv. 38-41) with presenting the choice of life or death.  Paul declares that forgiveness is proclaimed through Jesus, that justification is available through faith in Jesus (not through the Law which had proved impossible).  And, from Hab. 1.5 a warning embedded in a prophecy:

"Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days-- You would not believe if you were told.

The initial response to this sermon was extraordinary and huge crowds appeared the following Sabbath arousing the jealousy of the Jewish leaders and these men opposed Paul and Barnabas, “judging themselves to be unworthy of everlasting life’ (v. 46).  In brief, their fleshy reaction to Paul’s preaching reveals their true hearts.  The rejection of Christ is always deliberate--validating the prophecy uttered by Simeon in Luke 2--and so, too, is their abandonment of their high calling before God as stated in Isaiah 49:6:

He says, "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

God used the Jewish opposition here to move His agenda forward.  The whole area around Antioch became aware of the controversy as the word of the Lord spread--and, of course, the persecution intensified.  While this passage doesn’t explicitly state it, Paul and Barnabas were probably driven out violently (2 Tim 3 again).


            We do know the violence that befell Paul in Iconium and Lystra.  Iconium is some 100 miles Southeast of Antioch.  It was an ancient city, Greek in culture and both an agricultural and commercial center--present day Konya, Turkey, the fourth largest city in that country.  There, again, Paul encountered stiff opposition through “disobedience to the faith,” a stubborn and hard-hearted refusal to believe.  Faith and obedience go together, just as do unbelief and disobedience.  And these disaffected Jews poisoned the minds of others against Paul and Barnabas.  The apostles, messengers of the gospel, spent a considerable season in Iconium correcting the false witness and bearing a true one.  God granted them favor, wonders and signs accompanied the preaching of the Word confirming, before all, the genuine authority of the gospel.  But, the division worsened until the whole city was divided--some believing the slander and others not!  Eventually this unhappy condition bred a plot and the city authorities joined in; but Paul and Barnabas being aware of it fled to Lystra.


            In Lystra another power encounter occurs with the dramatic healing of a congenital defect--a man lame from birth, like the man healed by Peter and John at the temple fifteen years earlier, occurs.  Here the miracle results in allegations of divinity.  This seems bizarre unless you are aware of a narrative by Ovid in his Metamorphosis published some fifty years prior to this event.  According to this story, Zeus and Hermes--or Jupiter and Mercury, their Roman names visited the hill country of Phrygia disguised as mortal men.  They went about seeking hospitality but were rebuffed by all but a poor peasant couple known as Philemon and Baucis who lived beside the road.  The gods sent floods to destroy the inhospitable people of that region.  The people from that region were determined that if the gods were ever to re-visit, they were determined not to make that mistake, even though it was fictional, again.  That is why, the priest of Zeus showed up with oxen to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas whom they mistook for Zeus and Hermes because of the miracle they performed in Lystra.  At this point Paul preaches to a non-Jewish audience, a group of illiterate pagans.  He chooses to talk about God’s revelation in nature, in the provision of food and rain, and that God wants to give them joy.  Natural theology is about as far as he can go because they do not have any foundation in special revelation, or scripture.  This seems to settle things down until troublemakers from Iconium show up and bring about a reversal of sentiment: the multitude that were on the brink of offering sacrifices to them, now turn on Paul and stone him and dragging what they supposed to be his corpse out of the city.

            Acts 14:20  But while the disciples stood around him, he arose and entered the city. And the next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe.

Now what happens here is obscure.  2 Cor 11:23  Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.

I take to mean that Paul may well have died in this brutal lynching--not it was not a judicial sentence but an act of mob violence.  And that is the point of his walking back into the city, a proof of resurrection power.  Paul walks back into Lystra to the horror of those who, with cause, believed him dead.  In support of my contention here, I would argue that unless Paul had been dealt with miraculously, he could hardly have set out for the trek to Derby the following day.  Yes, even if he had been able to stagger back into town--which the texts does not suggest--how could a man so harmed simply walk away?


            Now we read that in Derby they won many converts and it is while they are there that they decide to retrace their steps, and encourage the new believers.  Paul was indeed a walking testimony of the “hardships” Christians have to endure to enter into the Kingdom. (v.22)  On this trip they appoint elders with prayer and fasting.  They preach all the way back to Perga and from thence sail back to Antioch, Syria.

Acts 14:21  And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, Acts 14:22  strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God."  Acts 14:23  And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.


Once there the church is gathered and the apostles give a full report.  At this point we can declare that the gentile mission has been fully embarked upon, there is no turning back.  It is okay, I think, to hear thinly veiled relief in the expression, “So they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (v. 28)