They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Gods are Back!

Baucus & Philemon Entertain Zeus and Hermes

Towards the end of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas were forced to flee from Iconium (Acts 14:5-6) into the rural and relatively uninhabited countryside of the province of Galatia. After traveling on foot for over twenty miles in “no-man’s land”, they came to the rural outpost of Lystra. Lystra was in the district of Lycaonia, which means, “wolf land” and was a backwater location. The people were so backwards there that they still spoke their original Lyconian dialect and had never learned Greek or Latin.

Upon arriving in town, Paul saw a lame man who was crippled from birth and had never walked. Paul spoke to the man and realized he had the faith to be healed, so he told him to stand on his feet and walk. Miraculously the man was healed and the people in Lystra who witnessed the miracle went crazy! They began to shout, “The Gods have come down in human form! The Gods have come down in human form! They called Barnabas, Zeus and Paul, Hermes and tried to worship and sacrifice animals to them! Paul and Barnabas had to rush into the crowd and stop them saying, “Don’t do this! We are men just like you!” What was going on here? What was happening in this strange story in rural Galatia? Knowledge of Greek mythology surrounding this area of Lycaonia, makes this story extremely fascinating and will give us an understanding as to why the towns people were so excited. Listen to the ancient legend that was supposed to have taken place right here in this area many years before:

Zeus and Hermes decided to leave the heavens one day and visit Lycaonia to see how friendly the people were. Disguised as mere humans they entered the city and began knocking on doors and requesting food and lodging. Everyone was extremely unfriendly and no one would give them the time of day. They were rejected thousands of times. Finally, at the edge of town, the gods encountered an old woman and her husband, named Baucus and Philemon. They quickly welcomed the strangers into their simple home and offered them all the food and drink they had. They even tried unsuccessfully to catch and kill their only goose to eat, to the extreme amusement of the strangers. They entertained their guests wonderfully until nightfall and then the old couple gave the strangers their bed and they slept on the floor. When morning came, Zeus and Hermes revealed their identity to the old couple. They told them the story of what had happened the day before with the towns people. Zeus and Hermes then completely wiped the town off the map and put a lake in it’s place. On the shore of the lake, they built a castle for Baucus and Philemon. They also gave them one wish and their wish was to be together forever. The gods granted them their request, so that when they finally died, they would turn into and oak and linden tree that were entwined together.

When you know this story, the text quickly begins to make sense. When the Lycaonians witnessed an obvious miracle, they knew the gods were back in town! “The gods are back”, they thought, “We can’t mess up again! Let’s handle this the right way this time!” They rushed to shower gifts and kindness to the gods that had once again visited their small city. Barnabas must have been the more imposing of the two, because they assumed he was Zeus, the supreme god and the one that they had a temple to in town (Acts 14:13). Hermes was the messenger god, so Paul must have been the one doing most of the talking! You can really get a great mental picture of what that scene must have looked like. Paul and Barnabas probably had no idea about the legend and didn’t know what in the world was happening. You can imagine how they tried to stop them when they didn’t speak the Lycaonian language! There must have been some really tense but also comical moments!

This is another great example of how knowing the culture makes such a difference in understanding some of the Bible stories. The Bible events took place in time and space and they had their cultural mores, customs and stories that were passed down, just as we do. It is so exciting to be able to learn some of these and thus unlock some interesting details of the narrative that would otherwise be unknown. This Bible passage from Acts, which on first reading seems to make little sense, becomes a fascinating story of the culture and times of the people that Paul and Barnabas were trying to reach with the good new of the God of the Bible and his son, Jesus, the Christ.

Christ Crucified – A Stumbling Block to the Jews

Seven Sorrows: Crucifixion (Albrecht Dürer)

Reading through the stories in Acts of Paul’s missionary journeys, Paul and his companions always stop first at the local Jewish Synagogue. In every case they eventually meet with some opposition from the local Jewish leaders when they attempt to explain the story of Jesus as the Promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures. Western thinking Bible readers find it hard to understand why some of the Jews had such a hard time recognizing and accepting Jesus as the Messiah that they had been waiting for. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, in Chapter 1 verse 23, said, “…..but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” What did Paul mean when he stated that the crucifixion was a stumbling block to the Jews? Was Jesus being crucified a problem for them? Was this one of the reasons why the Jews did not want to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah? Many valid reasons have been given for the Jews unwillingness to accept Jesus as the Messiah, but one that is rarely mentioned can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures that the Jews were so familiar with.

When God was giving Moses the Law outlined in Deuteronomy, He gave a specific command concerning someone who was hung on a tree. Deuteronomy 21:22 says, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. ” To God and therefore to Jews, hanging on a tree symbolized divine judgment and rejection. This verse and this concept were part of the fabric of their society; you were under God’s curse if you had been hung on a tree for your crimes.

When the apostles began to proclaim the good new that Yeshua from Nazareth was God’s son come to Earth to be the Messiah, and that He had been crucified and hung on a cross, but raised on the third day, that thought gave the devout Jew a lot of problems. This was a huge red flag for them. “How could this be the promised Messiah if He had been put to death in such an unholy manner?  Deuteronomy says that he is cursed! Our Messiah wouldn’t be unholy!”

Paul explains to his audience of Jews in Galatians 3:13, that , “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (referring to the Deuteronomy passage). Peter says in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Yeshua, the Messiah, by taking all our sins with him on the tree became a curse for us and paid our unholy death penalty that we deserved.

For an observant and well studied Jew, you can see how Jesus’ crucifixion was going to be almost impossible to accept. It went against Scripture and everything they had been taught. It would be much more of a stumbling block to the Jew who knew his Scriptures than a Gentile who would not have known any better. The crucifixion and resurrection would have been a hard concept for a Jew to have grasped, especially since they had been looking for a warrior Messiah to deliver them from the bondage of the Romans (e.g Acts 1:6).  This certainly helps to explain some of the reasons why Paul met such opposition and hostility when he went to the Jewish synagogues on his missionary journeys. There were obviously other issues involved, such as jealousy, but this must have been one of the big issues. All the Jews were looking for a Messiah but something about the crucifixion made them think that this Jesus didn’t fit the criteria as they read the Scriptures. Jesus’ manner of death was indeed a stumbling block for the Jews, as Paul said and once again our knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures helps us understand why.

From Saul To Paul

The Conversion of Sergius Paulus

Perhaps no one in in the Bible was more like Christ than Saul of Tarsus. We first meet Saul in Acts 7:58, at the stoning of Stephen and then learn of his conversion experience on the road to Damascus in Acts Chapter 9. Most Christians have assumed that God changed Saul’s name to Paul at his conversion experience to signify his new faith in the Messiah Jesus. Now that he is a changed man, God switched the “S” to a “P” to give him a new name and signify that change. But, is this really the case? Did God change Saul’s name? Did he leave the Damascus Road using his new, ”Christian” name? A careful look at the Text will give some revealing insights into this interesting subject.

First of all, when do we find evidence in Scripture of the name change? Was it right after the Damascus Road experience? Actually, there is no mention of it until four chapters later in Acts Chapter 13, on Paul’s first Missionary Journey. Acts 13:9 says, “then Saul, who was also called Paul…”. This is the first mention of the name Paul in Acts and most scholar’s time-line date his first missionary journey approximately fourteen years after his conversion experience in Chapter 9!

Did God change Saul’s name to Paul and was this change done to minimize his Jewishness and emphasize his Christianity? Again, Scripture gives no indication that this is correct. In fact, it appears as if it was not a change of name at all, but another name that Paul also went by (Saul who was also called Paul; see above verse). Saul was a devout and observant Jew and remained one all his life (e.g Acts 17:2, Acts 18:18, Acts 20:1, and Acts 28:17 just to name a few). He was very proud of his Jewish name and the heritage it represented (Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, the same tribe as Israel’s first king, also called Saul). He would have never wanted to change his name and renounce his Jewishness.

In English, it looks like Saul just switched an “S” for a “P” in order to have a different name. But, in Hebrew, his name was Sha’ul, and Paul is the English word for the Roman (Latin) name, “Paulus”. To go from Sha’ul to Paulus isn’t quite as catchy and takes away the Saul to Paul rhyme that we find in an English translation. It is also possible that Sha’ul had been given the Roman name Paulus early in life. Paulus in Latin means, “little”. Sha’ul grew up in a very Greek and Roman city, Tarsus, so he may have been called Paulus by his Hellenistic friends.

Sha’ul decided to start using his Roman name, Paulus only after going to the Gentiles and having an encounter with the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus (one of the top officials in all the Roman Empire). It is no coincidence that Sha’ul took the last name (Paulus) of the prominent man who was his first convert. By using the Roman name Paulus, possibly even at the suggestion of Sergius Paulus, Sha’ul now had easier access to the Romans he was trying to tell the good new of Jesus to. We know from the study of Acts that Paul spends the rest of his life trying to go to Rome to preach the gospel – often to the highest Roman authorities. The name Paulus undoubtedly helped him to gain access to Roman circles.

Whatever the case was, it certainly doesn’t appear from Scripture that Saul’s name was changed to Paul by God. It is likely that Paul changed or started using the Roman name of Paulus in order to be a more effective witness to the Roman world he was trying to reach. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 sum it up well, “To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to those not having the law, I became like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law…. I have become all things to all men, so that by all means I might save some.”