The Speeches of Acts, Part 17: Acts 14:8-18

The speech of Paul recorded in Acts 14:8-18 is so brief that one might decide not to treat it among the Speeches in the book of Acts; however, it warrants inclusion as the first (apostolic) address to Gentiles specifically, and because it prepares the groundwork for the much longer speech by Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

The outline of the speech is extremely simple (here it is actually an outline of the narrative itself):

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 8-14)
    • Introductory Address (v. 15)
    • Central Proclamation (vv. 16-17)
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 18)

Narrative Introduction (vv. 8-14)

A healing miracle is recorded, similar to that in Acts 3:1-10, only here the event is noteworthy as the first reported in the context of the mission to the Gentiles. It takes place at Lystra, in the southern portion of the district of Lycaonia, during the first Missionary Journey of Paul (and Barnabas) in Acts 13-14. One may divide this narrative section into three parts:

    • The healing miracle (vv. 8-10)
    • The reaction of the crowd (vv. 11-13)
    • The response of Paul and Barnabas (v. 14)

The crowd reaction is particularly striking and memorable, as the Lycaonians shout out: “The gods becoming like men have stepped down toward us!”—the miraculous power apparently being understood as the work of gods in human form (v. 11). Barnabas is identified with Zeus (Rom. Jupiter) and Paul with Hermes (Rom. Mercury) (v. 12); for a story involving appearances of Zeus and Hermes (also set in Asia Minor), see Ovid Metamorphoses 8:617-725. So extreme is the reaction that the priest of Zeus brings gifts and sacrificial offerings to present along with the crowd (v. 13). Paul and Barnabas respond with horror, tearing their clothing, and rush into the crowd hoping to put an immediate stop to things (v. 14). This sets the stage for Paul’s address to the crowd in verses 15-17.

Introductory Address (v. 15)

This begins with a vocative (“Men!…”, cf. 13:14, 26, 38, etc) followed by a question: “(For) what [i.e. why] are you doing these things?” Paul’s address then is two-fold, stressing his (and Barnabas’) proper identity:

    • “We also are like-passioned [o(moiopaqei=$] men (along) with you…”—The declaration of the crowd was that Paul and Barnabas must be the gods (Zeus and Hermes) “become like men” [o(moiwqe/nte$ a)nqrw/poi$]; Paul’s response is a forceful play on words, that he and Barnabas are simply “like-passioned men” [o(moiopaqei=$ a&nqrwpoi], that is, they are fully ordinary human beings (affected by various things) like everyone else.
    • “…to bring the good message [eu)aggeli/zomenoi] for you…”—the same verb eu)aggeli/zw is used in 13:32 where Paul likewise emphasizes his (and Barnabas’) role and purpose in proclaiming the good message (Gospel).

The clause in verse 15b clarifies the “Good Message”, specifically as it relates to Gentiles, those unfamiliar with the Old Testament Scriptures and Israelite/Jewish religion:

“…to turn away from these empty (thing)s (and) upon [i.e. toward] (the) living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all the (thing)s in them”

This exhortation away from (pagan) polytheism, involving various forms of image/idol-worship, will be expanded considerably by Paul in the Athens speech (17:22-29). Here Paul refers to the Lycaonian (Greco-Roman) religious worship (and superstition) as “empty/vain [ma/taio$] things”, using standard Old Testament terminology (cf. 1 Kings 16:13; 2 Kings 17:15; Isa 31:2; Jer 2:5; 8:19; Zech 10:2, etc). The empty/vain things (idols, etc) are contrasted with “the living God”—cf. Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10; 2 Kings 19:4, 16; Psalm 42:2; 84:2; Isa 37:4, 17; Hos 2:1, etc.; in the New Testament, see Matt 16:16; 26:63; 2 Cor 3:3; 6:16; Heb 3:12; 9:14, etc. In preaching to polytheistic Gentiles, God is emphasized as Creator of (“[the one] who made”) all the things (natural phenomena, etc) typically venerated as representing divine powers—heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, sea, etc.

Central Proclamation (vv. 16-17)

Syntactically, these verses form a single sentence with verse 15; note the structure:

    • “…(the) living God”
      • who [o^$] made the heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them (v. 15b)
      • who [o^$] in the (times) come to be (but now) passed along [i.e. in times past], let [i.e. permitted] all the nations to travel in their (own) ways (v. 16)

The main proclamation occurs with the compound clause in verse 17:

    • “and yet he did not leave him(self) without witness,
      working good(ness)—”
      • giving rain to us (from) heaven and fruit-bearing seasons
      • filling (us full) of nourishment and our hearts (with) a good (state of) mind [i.e. joy/gladness]

Taken together, vv. 15b-17 serves as a well-constructed theological statement, from the standpoint of what we would call “general (or natural) revelation”, which could be understood by almost anyone, more or less apart from the specific (special) revelation in the Scriptures. For the basic message of verse 16, stated somewhat differently, see Acts 17:30. On creation as a witness to God—his character and existence—see the famous passage in Romans 1:19-20ff; on the goodness of God (as Creator) in terms of rain and harvest, the fruitfulness of the earth, etc., cf. Lev 26:4ff; Deut 11:14; 28:12; Job 5:10; Psalm 147:8-9; Ezek 34:26ff; Zech 8:12; and especially, in a similar context, Matthew 5:45. The final clause in verse 17 appears to be an echo of Psalm 104:14-15, 27.

Narrative Conclusion (v. 18)

The reaction to Paul’s address suggests that the people did not entirely understand what he was telling them—

“and relating these things, (only with) difficulty did they settle down the throng so as not to slaughter [i.e. offer sacrifice] to them”

that is, Paul and Barnabas could hardly stop them from offering sacrifices. Clearly it was easier for missionaries to address Gentiles with a Jewish context (that is, proselytes or ‘Godfearers’, such as Cornelius [cf. Acts 10-11]). Relating to the wider pagan/heathen world, without benefit of a common understanding based on the Scriptures and familiarity with Israelite/Jewish religious tradition, would prove to be more difficult work (note also the lack of initial success in Athens). Yet even in the early missionary work of Paul and Barnabas in Asia Minor there were numerous Gentile converts, as indicated in verses 21-23 and 27-28. These last references coincide with their return trip to Antioch and set the stage for the “Jerusalem Council” in chapter 15.