Read This Page in My Language
Sermon: Acts 14:8-18
Easter 6 – May 26, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
Has anyone ever mistaken you for God? I would suppose not. I, however, can say that I have been mistaken for God, and for Jesus, sometimes. It’s not because I was glowing with light or looked like God, but because sometimes little children mistake the pastor for God or for Jesus. Many pastors have had this same experience. When children are about two or three years old they see the pastor up in front with the robe on, he looks a little imposing, and he’s the one who reads and speaks God’s word and everyone listens. Their child-like mind logically tells them that’s God, that’s Jesus.
We can smile a little at this misidentification from little children, but be kind of glad about it. It shows us that at even at a very young age children understand the concept of God and that he has words to say to us and we want to listen. However, by the time the children are about four years old they make the correct conclusion, “That man’s not God. He’s just the pastor!”
And it’s a good thing they eventually come to that conclusion. They obviously need to make a clear distinction between God and mere human beings.
In our text today there were some people in the ancient city of Lystra, some adults, who didn’t make that clear distinction. They mistook Paul and Barnabas for two Greek gods. There’s some interesting lessons we can learn from this account as we keep in mind that question
HAS ANYONE EVER MISTAKEN YOU FOR GOD?
Once again we find Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. They were traveling in the south central part of present day Turkey in a province call Lycaonia. They came to a town called Lystra where they met a man who had not been able to walk from the time of his birth. This really was a pitiful situation. In these days often people who were born with some type of physical disability were considered to be cursed by God. They of course didn’t have access to the kind of medical treatments that we are privileged to have today. Sometimes they were abandoned by parents and left to beg in the streets.
Paul looked directly at him and told him, “Stand up on your feet!” And he did. He jumped up and began to walk. His lifelong nightmare was over thanks to Paul, Barnabas, and particularly God himself.
The people of Lystra were of course astounded at this miracle. It had to be amazing to witness this healing. And they realized that God needed to be thanked too. The only problem was they thought Paul and Barnabas were two of their Greek gods. And who can blame them? Paul and Barnabas were two strangers who had just walked into their town. The residents of Lystra had never seen them before. And then all of a sudden Paul and Barnabas heal a man they knew to be unable to walk from the time of his birth. They kind of made the same mistake that little two or three year olds make when they call the pastor God or Jesus. They misidentified two men as gods.
Most of the people in the provinces of the Roman Empire were able to speak Greek. But people often reverted to their own native or local language among themselves. In all their excitement the people of Lystra cried out in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They called Barnabas Zeus, the leader of the Greek gods, and Paul they called Hermes, because he did most of the speaking like Hermes who delivered the messages of the gods.
It would have been interesting to see the look on Paul’s face and Barnabas’ face when this happened. I can imagine that as they watched the man jump up and walk around they had pretty big smiles on their faces. But then something happened that made the smiles quickly disappear. The people of Lystra turned into a frenzied mob. They were so convinced that these two men were their gods that they couldn’t stop shouting and praising them. Even the priest of Zeus brought wreaths and bulls to offer sacrifices to them. We might smile a little at the predicament that Paul and Barnabas found themselves in. But for them this was no laughing matter.
Paul and Barnabas were horrified that they had been misidentified as Greek gods. Nothing could have undermined their purpose and their message about Jesus Christ more. They actually tore their clothes as a sign of great concern and sorrow. They rushed into the crowd and shouted, “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you.”
When a little child mistakes a pastor for God or Jesus, the pastor can smile a bit and let it go. Eventually the child will know the difference. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t just let this go. These were adults. They were not just going to eventually know the difference.
The first truth we want to learn from this account is how much reverence and respect that Paul and Barnabas had for the true God. This was not a funny situation. Paul and Barnabas were believers in Jesus Christ. They had traveled miles on foot to proclaim forgiveness and salvation in Jesus’ name. They had deep and holy reverence for God. And then to be mistaken for God, to be standing in the place of God, at least in the eyes of these people, was horrifying to them. Had they allowed this misunderstanding to go on even for a minute, it would have shown great disrespect for God. It would have undermined their entire purpose for being there, their whole message about Jesus.
The people in these Greek-speaking areas had a bit of a problem maintaining the distinction between their gods and humans. They thought of their gods in very human terms. Their minds pictured them as humans. And, while it was rare, they quite firmly believed that sometimes their gods came to them in human form.
Twenty-first century Americans need to maintain a very clear distinction between a holy and righteous God and sinful humans. God is God. We are not. God is holy. We are not. And for those reasons God is above us. He is our Creator. He has authority over us. He gives us his commandments. He tells us how to live. And when we don’t obey him he has every right to threaten us with punishment. God does not randomly become some petty, weak, vulnerable human being as the Greeks imagined their gods to do. We don’t become gods when we leave this world. We are not parts of God like drops of water that eventually make up a whole ocean that is God.
Paul and Barnabas understood this holy God/sinful human distinction and principle. That’s why they were so distraught to be misidentified as gods. They desperately tried to get the people of Lystra to understand that they were not the gods. They said, “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.”
Paul and Barnabas appealed to their natural knowledge of God. They obviously knew that there was a God who created the world. Paul reminded them that this gracious God provided their physical needs. He caused the rain to fall and the crops to grow. That’s how God had made himself evident to them and all people.
But Paul’s point was that this God who made himself obvious in nature would also hold sinful people accountable one day. God’s judgment would come down on the world. But Paul and Barnabas had good news to preach, a way to escape God’s judgment. They had good news about Jesus who had died on a cross to atone for the sins of the world. God the Father had raised him again from the dead to prove that sins were forgiven.
Paul and Barnabas were so upset because, not only had the people of Lystra mistaken them for gods, the crowd had become so frenzied that they didn’t even hear Paul begging them to understand and know the true God. And then, to make matters worse, Jewish leaders who refused to believe Jesus was the Messiah came from Antioch and Iconium, the previous cities they visited, and persuaded the mob not to listen to Paul and Barnabas. They even tried to stone Paul to death.
The real tragedy in this account is that the people were so intent on believing that Paul and Barnabas were gods who had come down to them in human form that they missed out on hearing about the one real time that God did come to the world as a human being. There were times in the Old Testament when God took on a human form to interact with people. We assume that God took on human form to speak with Adam and Eve. He did appear in human form to Abraham and Moses. The Angel of the LORD, who was God himself, made a number of appearances. But those appearances were temporary to serve a certain purpose, to deliver a certain message to certain people at a certain time.
In his letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul tells us, “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!” Jesus, God the Son, took on a human nature once and for all, for all time and through eternity. He became one of us to die for us, to atone for our sins, and save us from the judgment of God that indeed is coming on this world.
Jesus didn’t look like God when he lay as a little baby in the manger. Jesus didn’t look like God when he was growing up in Nazareth. Jesus didn’t look like God when he went about preaching in Galilee and Judea. But he was God. He demonstrated that truth in all his miracles. He made his deity very clear when he rose again from the dead. And he will come as the Son of God and the Son of Man to judge the world.
Be ready for that time when God really does come down to this world once again. Repent of your sins each day. Look to Jesus for forgiveness. Look forward to his return, and live your lives as if waiting for him to appear at any time.
It’s not likely that anyone over the age of three is going to mistake you or me for God. That’s a good thing. But since we know the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of the true God, let’s strive to be like God, to be like Jesus, to those who meet us and know us. Let them know what God is like in your words and actions. They won’t mistake you for God, but they just may come to know God and his Son Jesus through you. Amen.