In Lystra we are instantly brought in contact with a totally new subject, which is heathen superstition mixed with mythology. It is the mythology and superstition of a rude and unsophisticated people that Paul and Barnabas will encounter. Such a mix of contradictions will bring not only the attempt to worship that which is not God but also carry with the cruelty of Satan.
The subjects Paul brought before these illiterate idolaters of Lystra were doubtless such as would lead them, by the most natural steps, to the knowledge of the true God, and the belief in His Son's resurrection. He told them, as he told the educated Athenians, of Him whose worship they had ignorantly corrupted. Paul informed them of whose unity, power, and goodness they might have discerned through the operations of nature, and whose displeasure against sin had been revealed to them by the admonitions of their natural conscience.
During one of his preaching sessions Paul observed a cripple who was earnestly listening to his discourse (Acts 14:8 - 9). He was seated on the ground, for he had an infirmity in his feet, and had never walked from the hour of his birth. He looked at him attentively, with that remarkable expression of the eye which we have already noticed. The same Greek word is used as when the Apostle is described as "earnestly beholding the council" (Acts 23:1, see also 13:9). On this occasion that penetrating glance saw, by the power of the Divine Spirit, into the very secrets of the cripple's soul.
Paul perceived that he had faith to be saved (Acts 14:9). As Peter said in the presence of the Jews, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk," so Paul said before the worshippers of false gods at Lystra, "Stand upright on thy feet." The obedient alacrity in the spirit, and the new strength in the body, rushed together simultaneously. The lame man sprang up in the joyful consciousness of a power he had never felt before, and walked like those who had never had experience of infirmity.
And now arose a great tumult of voices from the crowd. Such a cure of a congenital disease, so sudden and so complete, would have confounded the most skilful and sceptical physicians. These Lycaonians thought at once of their native traditions, and crying out vociferously in their own language, they exclaimed that the gods had again visited them in the likeness of men!
And when the multitude saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices in Lyconian, saying, 'The gods have become like men and have come down to us.'
And Barnabas they called Zeus (the KJV has "Jupiter"); and Paul, Hermes (the KJV has "Mercurius" or Mercury), because he was the principal speaker (Acts 14:11 - 12, HBFV).
How truthful and how vivid is the worship scene brought before us! How many thoughts it suggests to those who are at once conversant with heathen mythology and disciples of Christian theology! Barnabas, identified with the Father of gods and men, seems like a personification of mild beneficence and provident care. Paul appears invested with more active attributes, flying over the world on the wings of faith and love, with quick words of warning and persuasion, and ever carrying in his hand the purse of the "unsearchable riches."
Worship of men
At Lystra the whole population was presently in an uproar. They would lose no time in paying due honor to their heavenly visitants. The priest attached to that temple of Jupiter before the city gates was summoned to do sacrifice and worship the god whom he served (Acts 14:13). Bulls and garlands, and whatever else was requisite to the performance of the ceremony, were duly prepared, and the procession moved amidst crowds of people to the residence of Paul and Barnabas. They, hearing the approach of the multitude, and learning their idolatrous intention, were filled with the utmost horror.
Paul and Barnbas "rent their clothes" at the sign of them being worshipped, and rushed out of the house in which they lodged, and met the idolaters approaching the vestibule. There, standing at the doorway, they opposed the entrance of the crowd and Paul expressed his abhorrence of their intention, and earnestly tried to prevent their fulfilling it, in a speech of which only the following short outline is recorded by Luke (Acts 14:14 - 17).
This address held them listening but they listened impatiently. Even with this energetic disavowal of his divinity and this strong appeal to their reason, Paul found it difficult to dissuade the Lycaonians from offering to him and Barnabas an idolatrous worship (Acts 14:18).
The crowd reluctantly retired, and led the animal victims away without offering them in worship to Paul. It might be supposed that at least a command had been obtained over their gratitude and reverence, which would not easily be destroyed, but we have to record here one of those sudden changes of feeling, which are humiliating proofs of the weakness of human nature.
The Lycaonians were proverbially fickle and faithless in their worship. Certain Jews from Iconium, and even from Antioch (Acts 14:19), followed in the footsteps of Paul and Barnabas, and endeavored to excite the hostility of the Lystrians against them. When they heard of the miracle worked on the lame man, and found how great an effect it had produced on the people of Lystra, they would be ready with a new interpretation of this occurrence.
A lie that leads to murder
The Jews from other cities stated that the miracle Paul produced had been accomplished, not by Divine agency, but by some diabolical magic. This is probably the true explanation of that sudden change of feeling among the Lystrians, which at first sight is very surprising.
Those in Lystra readily adopted the new interpretation, suggested by those who appeared to be well acquainted with the strangers, and who had followed them from distant cities. Their feelings of worship changed with a revulsion as violent as that which afterwards took place among the "barbarous people" of Malta (Acts 28:4 - 6) who first thought Apostle Paul was a murderer, and then a god.
The Jews, taking advantage of the credulity of a rude tribe, were able to accomplish at Lystra the design they had meditated at Iconium (Acts 14:5). Apostle Paul was stoned, not hurried out of the city to execution like Stephen, but stoned somewhere in the streets of Lystra. His dead body was then dragged through the city gate and cast outside the walls. This is that occasion to which the Apostle afterwards alluded in the words "once I was stoned" in his long catalogue of sufferings (2Corinthians 11:25).
Paul, by the power and goodness of God, was resurrected from what was likely a death insured by those who hated him and his message. As the new disciples stood about him, he miraculously rose up from lying on the ground and came back into Lystra (Acts 14:20)! His labors in Lystra had not been in vain. These courageous disciples were left, for the present, in the midst of the enemies of the truth.
Even as Jesus taught that when you are persecuted in one city flee to the next (Matthew 10:23), Paul, who was both worshipped and stoned in Lystra, departed the next day with Barnabas to Derbe (Acts 14:20).
Derbe, as we have seen, is somewhere not far from the "Black Mountain" which rises like an island in the south-eastern part of the plain of Lycaonia. A few hours would suffice for the journey between Lystra and its neighboring city. Derbe may have been a quiet resting place after a journey full of toil and danger. It does not appear that Paul was hindered in evangelizing the city. The Bible states that the fruit of their labors was the conversion of many disciples (Acts 14:21).
Revisits and going home
Paul and Barnabas turned back upon their footsteps, undaunted by the dangers that awaited them, and revisited the places they had recently journeyed through. They revisited Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, where they had been reviled and persecuted.
When the time came for the pair to return to Syria, after an eventful trip which saw them worshipped then Paul stoned, they traveled to Attalia. The evangelists then sailed back to the port city of Seleucia and walked back to Syrian Antioch where they had begun their journey. Arriving in Antioch in the fall of 46 A.D., the pair stay in the city for almost three years (Acts 14:26 - 28).