Paul’s mission to the Galatia brought him into contact with people who were not only Gentiles, but “pagans” from the perspective of the Jews of Judea. When we read the book of Acts, all the Gentiles described prior to Lystra (with the exception of Sergius Paulus) are “God Fearing Gentiles” like Cornelius, a man who was already living a Jewish-like life both morally and religiously. But when Paul arrives in Lystra, he encounters Gentiles who are so unlike Cornelius it is difficult to find ways to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul heals a man in Lystra who was crippled in the feet. This miracle in intentionally parallel to Peter’s healing in Acts 3, although the results are much different! In both cases, the man is crippled from birth (3:2, 14:8), in both cases the man responds to his healing by “leaping” (3:6, 14:9), and in both cases the verb “look intently” is used (13:4, 14:9). While these seem like common enough vocabulary for such a healing, these words are only used in these two stories in Acts, indicating Luke’s intention that we read these two miracles stories together.
However, the setting of the two miracles could not be more different. In Acts 3, the miracle takes place in the temple courts, Paul is in a Gentile town which is more likely to believe he is Hermes incarnate than a representative of the Hebrew God! When Paul was among Jews in Iconium he did many miracles and saw great success. The working of a miracle among the Gentiles of Lystra is counter-productive and results in Paul being stone and left for dead.
There is only the briefest hint at the sort of “sermon” Paul might have preached to this crowd. This is unfortunate, since this is the first time in Acts that Paul addresses a pagan audience. Often Paul’s speech in Acts 17 at Mars Hill is set up as an example of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentile world, rarely is this speech in Acts 14.
Paul states that there is a living God, as opposed to the worthless idols that never show their power. Like Acts 17, Paul does not allude to the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, he uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power. This might be called “general revelation,” since the crowd would neither know about the God of the Hebrew Bible, nor would they care what he did for the Jews.
But Paul is not giving up on the biblical story at all in this sermon. He begins with God’s creation and provision. He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own world view, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them).
But notice that Paul more or less attacks the gods of Lystra: they are worthless things. This is even more powerful when you realize that the priests of Zeus have brought out bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas. Paul could very well be pointing at these prepared sacrifices when he says, “worthless idols.” The noun used here (μάταιος) means that these idols and their sacrifices “lack truth” and it is pointless to worship them because they are not true at all!
This does not sound very emergent to me. . .how can this brief sermon of Paul be used as a model for contemporary evangelism? Should we directly attack another world view as “worthless”?