Study in the Acts of the Apostles. Presentation 29. Faith v Superstition Chapter 14v8-20. Presentation 29. Introduction.
Acts of the
Apostolic preaching was concerned with more than informing men's minds. It was not simply a matter of telling people the ‘good news’. It was much more than a C1st "Newsnight".
The apostles’ aim was to bring men and women to faith. In the passage before us we see not only the creation of that faith in the life of some, and the hostility of opposition in the lives of others, but one further response which with its roots in pagan superstition distracted men and women from the substance of the gospel. Our starting point is the crippled man who was healed v8ff.
In recording this incident does Luke expect us to compare and contrast it with the similar event recorded in Acts 3 where Peter was instrumental in the healing of the cripple at the temple gate? I believe so. What God did in Jerusalem, he was doing in other cities! What God did through one apostle, he was doing through others.
But Luke is surely anxious to show that there are cripples of various sorts including spiritual cripples all around our world who are waiting to hear the words of v9 spoken tenderly and authoritatively to them,
'Stand up on your feet'.
Today men and women read this story and see how hope was given to the hopeless and strength to the weak.
Then they look at their own lives, the burden’s they carry, the heartaches that are theirs, the spiritual longings that remain unsatisfied, the sense of hopelessness and despair that
grips them and will often say,
‘I wish I was that man. I too am a cripple though I might
not want others to know it and I long to be able to stand.’
Such people are to be
congratulated on two counts:
First, they have been able to make an honest diagnosis of their condition and secondly because they long for change. But it is here that many encounter difficulty.
We read in v9 that this man ‘had faith to be healed.’ People today say, ‘If only I had that kind
of faith’. But how does faith come about? Some mistakenly believe that it is something we are born with, or, a proficiency we develop, or, something produced only in those who have an aptitude for religion. They think faith is a quality which like green fingers, only a few people seem to possess? They see it as something which lies beyond them.
How did this crippled man come to faith? “He listened to Paul as he was speaking” v9. Now the force of the language is that he listened intently. We are not told the contents of Paul's sermon.
And as we have already learned, lying at the heart of all apostolic preaching was the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection. A Gospel of God’s grace and mercy. Revealing a God who cared for men in their brokenness and need. How different from the callous disregard and unfeeling disinterest associated with the gods of the Greek and Roman world.
As this man listened something very wonderful happened! The creative Word of God built a bridge into his heart and across that bridge the gift of faith came. Did Paul have this man and others like him in mind when he wrote to “faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ” Rom 10v17. Faith is something God creates primarily through the ministry of his Word. For in it he reveals what he is like. A God who is trustworthy, merciful, gracious and just. This is why there is such an emphasis on the preached word in scripture! It builds a bridge for faith to enter men’s hearts!
Some people are waiting for warm feelings of certainty to accompany the creation of faith and they will not attempt to exercise faith until those feelings appear. If I tell the Eskimo visiting Dubai for the first time that when he punches button 35 in an elevator that he will ride skywards, he may have anything but feelings of inner assurance. Yet when he has gone through the procedure several times, he will experience them. But his feelings will have no bearing on whether he gets to the 35th floor or not. Whether he presses the button tremblingly or with buoyant enthusiasm, the result will be the same.
We are all cripples of one sort or another. We can find so many things to be debilitating in our lives. Is God interested? The gospel assures us that he is! Is God able to intervene? The gospel reveals a God who intervenes. Is God willing to intervene? He is more that willing. When God’s Word creates faith in our hearts, he calls upon us to exercise that faith. To believe in his care, his power, his willingness to intervene and to respond to his call to us to ‘stand on our feet’.
Trust him to deal with those things that are debilitating your life!
The healing of the crippled man had an electrifying effect in Lystra. However the response of the population in Lystra is quite different from that of the temple crowd in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 3. Then the crowd worshipped the living God for the healing of the crippled man. The healing miracle made them eager to hear the gospel for themselves and discover how they might benefit from it.
But here in Lystra the inhabitants begin to worship the gospel messengers saying, “the gods have come down to us in human form”.
It would appear that the background to this readiness to worship them lay in the legendary history of Lyconia which told the story of Zeus and Hermes coming to earth in disguise. No one would offer them hospitality. Then two old peasants invited them in and showed them kindness. The couple were rewarded while the inhabitants who had refused them shelter they wiped out. So when Paul and Barnabas appeared and the crippled man was miraculously healed they reasoned that they must be the gods of their legend returned and they did not want to be wiped out by appearing inhospitable. An attempt is made to honour Paul and Barnabas with sacrifices and to proclaim them gods.
The people of Lystra were bringing to the gospel the baggage of their past and interpreting gospel events in the light of their myth and superstition. This happens when people separate the message of the gospel from the effect of the gospel. The effects of the gospel are intended to authenticate both the message proclaimed and the proclaimer.
Had the crowd allowed the gospel message to interpret what was happening, then their worship would be given to Jesus. But their superstition and not God’s word conditioned their thinking so they behaved in the most inappropriate of ways. Superstition is the enemy of faith!
Little wonder the apostles tore their clothes. The people’s superstition had put them on a pedestal to be worshipped when their aim as gospel messengers was to be no more than signposts pointing people to Christ.
Preachers are rightly concerned when people think more highly of them than of the message they preach. They may say, “he’s doing a great work, etc.” but focus on the preacher can be a great stumbling block to faith. What they should be thinking is that God is doing a great work through such and such a person. We mustn’t separate the effects of the gospel as we see them from the message of the gospel and from the one who is the object of that message, Christ himself!
The apostles not only refuse to be put on pedestals but seize the opportunity to instruct the ignorant crowd. This crowd had no Jewish background to which to appeal. So what do they do?
They begin with the familiar world of nature around them in order to point to God. Their hearers knew all about the rain and the sun and the seed time and harvest. Beginning with these things they lead them to consider the God behind it all. They chose to begin with the God who is witnessed to in the created order and who provides man with his most basic needs.
This was a necessary starting point if the good news of Christ was to have any relevance at all. They could take nothing for granted they could assume nothing. Paul did not change the substance of the gospel but he changed his method of delivery. That kind of flexibility is something we can learn from. We have to begin where people are and discover a point of contact – where for them the rubber hits the road! This involves recognising their felt needs and demonstrating the way in which the gospel can meet them there.
What does that mean in our increasingly secularised world? Many of the people we have contact with hunger for love , acceptance and security. Add to this a longing for freedom from the pressures and expectations of their peers.
For others it is a longing to escape from a drug dependant existence and the need to be somebody.
Wherever we begin our gospel proclamation we ought always end in the same place - pointing to Christ who alone can fulfil the deepest aspirations of the human heart.
There is a sudden and dramatic shift in the crowds response to the apostles. It moves from worship to stoning v19. One is reminded of the fickleness of the Jerusalem crowd who greeted Jesus so warmly on Palm Sunday but who cried out for his blood on Good Friday.
How are we to account for this reaction? We read in v19 that they were manipulated by a group of Jews who followed Paul around on his missionary journey stirring up trouble for him wherever he went. But what made them so open to manipulation?
The apostles did more than simply communicate facts. They called upon people to put their faith in Christ, which involved trust and commitment. It meant allegiance to and obedience to Jesus. The gospel made demands.
In the heathen world, the gods were there to be manipulated and bribed by an appropriate sacrifice, they cared little for morality or justice. This should not surprise us given man’s capacity to fashion gods in his image whom he wants to believe in rather than worship the God who is there. For this reason, then as now, many people feel more at ease in a world of superstition than in one of faith.
Of course the initial response of this crowd to the apostles was impulsive and emotional. They had not thought through the implications of their message. Once the nature of its challenge began to grip them, then both Christ
and his gospel was adamantly rejected.
If the response of faith results in joy for the
believer, then hostility is invariably the result of
unbelief. And unbelief is nothing less than a
settled sprit of disobedience that determines
to remain a rebel rather than submit to Christ’s
rule. The crowd’s initial response was
therefore spurious and superficial.
In Jesus parable of the soils, the seed which sprang up quickly but withered under the heat of the sun because there was no root there, reflects the response of the crowd. Only the root of faith can sustain a commitment to Christ in the heat of the day.
The Word that created faith in the crippled man’s heart was refused admittance to the hearts of many in the crowd and therefore was not allowed to create faith. They had " hardened their hearts in unbelief".
May God help us to keep our hearts open to his Word. Only then can faith be created and sustained enabling an interventionist God to minister to our needs.