One of the most alarming things that has ever happened to me, within a Christian context, is when I once prayed over a village in India and a man threw some coins on the floor, then prostrated himself before me and grabbed my feet so I couldn’t move! Thankfully, one of the local Christians released the gentleman’s grip on me, helped him to standing and returned his money. The man was following the cultural (superstitious) tradition of honouring ‘holy men’, regarded as gods, with financial gifts and excessive deference. I was horrified that he thought he should exhibit this behaviour to me – he was confusing my message of Jesus with me as the messenger!
I can clearly envisage the scene in Lystra, then, as Paul and Barnabas, having healed the lame man, have to fight not to be treated as gods themselves and I understand their repugnance at such an idea. The less educated local population of Lystra, steeped in superstition, believed them to be the Lycaonian equivalent of Hermes and Zeus and started bringing animals to sacrifice in honour of the apostles. Despite Paul and Barnabas’ protestations, they ‘scarcely restrained’ the people. It was very evident from their actions that they did not need, nor sought out, the accolades of the people of Lystra. Paul and Barnabas’ focus was on the Gospel, that men and women might be saved, not that they be recognised as ‘super-preachers’ or, even worse, worshipped as gods in their own right.
The second story we see, from the same city, is where Paul is almost stoned to death! What a turnabout in events! From exaltation to lapidation! Stonings were very gruesome and it is possible that Paul would have been pushed into a rocky pit, about ten feet deep, initially wounding his face, front and even organs. This in itself would often kill the person being stoned. Then he would have been turned around onto his back and the crowd would have thrown very large rocks down on him, not only further injuring his front, but impaling him on the rocks beneath. Paul was then dragged out of the city and left for dead. Could there have been a starker contrast with the adoration he had experienced just a short time before?
It’s all the more astounding that the next day he went to preach the Gospel at Derbe with Barnabas! It’s almost as if Paul got up, dusted himself down and said ‘Right, where now?’ Paul was neither influenced by adulation, nor by hostility. His identity in Christ was so solid that he did not need human approval to motivate him to do the work he had been given by God, nor did he live in fear of man. By Acts 14:21b, we learn that he had gone back to Lystra to preach again!
Are we secure enough in Christ’s love for us not to crave praise or despise criticism? Can we follow Paul’s example?
Marshall Segal, at desiringGod.com expresses Paul’s principles succinctly:
‘… as we retreat from the treacherous and counterfeit roller coaster of human approval and hide ourselves in Christ, we no longer need to fear (Matthew 10:28), we’re no longer tempted to boast (1 Corinthians 3:21), and we will no longer cower to please others (Galatians 1:10). We will live, instead, for the pleasure of knowing God and being known by him (Philippians 3:8).
Beware of acceptance, and beware of rejection. Beware of followers, and beware of enemies. Beware of praise, and beware of criticism. Above all, be content in what God says about you because you are in Christ.’