“Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.” (Acts 14:18 ESV)
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” (Romans 1:16–17 ESV)
In an article called The Power of the Word, R.J. Rushdoony records this:
“Soon after Oliver Cromwell came to power, a group of London clergymen came to him with a complaint. These men, who until recently had been persecuted by the Church of England, now charged that these Anglican divines were stealing their congregations away from them. “After what manner do the cavaliers debauch your people?” asked Cromwell. “By preaching,” the deputation replied. “Then preach back again,” said Cromwell, and dismissed them.
Because these men had forgotten the power of faithful preaching, they were looking to the power of the sword to replace the power of the Word and the Spirit.
Paul tells us, “[F]aith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Not man’s words but God’s Words give hearing, faith, and power. Hence, Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).
When the church forsakes the faithful ministry of the whole Word of God, it forsakes power, and it loses hearing and hearers. Then not only do churchmen trust too much in political action above the power of the Word, but the people do as well. The state grows strong, because people believe more in its power than in God’s.
Cromwell’s Commonwealth ended with his death. The deputation of London ministers suggests why. The very men who should haveproclaimed the Word of God looked to the power of the sword to hold their congregations. By downgrading the power of God’s Word, they had forsaken it.
So, Rushdoony taught “When the church forsakes the faithful ministry of the whole Word of God, it forsakes power, and it loses hearing and hearers.” We cannot make people respond rightly with anything but the power of a superior Word, not natural words, not swords, not anything but the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power. The case in point is our text today.
The apostles refuse worship by the gentiles whom God has opened a door depicted in the saving of the man in Lystra. As a result the heathen respond unfavorably because the hope for salvation is provided for the heathen only by supernatural grace alone found in the gospel.
It is demonstrated in Acts 14:8–18 (by the revelation of hope through the cripple, the response of the heathen to the sign, and the refusal of homage by the apostles) that the power of God for saving the gentiles is in the gospel only.
The Revelation of Hope that demonstrates the power of God to save the gentiles is in the gospel only.
The reason for this refusal is first set forth in vv.8–10. It was a revelation of hope which is explained in v.27 as God opening a door of faith to the Gentiles. This makes it clear that God has done the work here. This is clearly not of man, hence the reason for refusal of human worship or homage.
The way this hope given is described is clearly divine not human. The man’s condition is one from birth (v.8) so that he never had known what it was to walk! (v.8) Such is our condition that cannot be cured any other way than by a divine work. The work comes about in v.9 first by listening to Paul’s preaching, and second in that meeting with the Word proclaimed, Paul saw that the man had faith. Faith is a gift not something human. It is on the basis that Paul sees the man’s faith that he says to him with a loud voice to stand upright and he began walking (v.10)! Now, the words “made well” are curious in that they describe in the ESV footnote not merely health, but the word behind those words “salvation.” This is why we must press the matter here. The thing that was done to this man was representative for all gentiles whom God will save. It was not about a healing. The sign miracles are rather judgments on those who don’t believe. But for those who do believe, who are given faith by God, who look to Jesus Christ alone for salvation, there is hope, regardless if one is not descended from national Israel. In fact, the basis of salvation has been shown up to this point to be be a matter of grace to the Jew, and now we see it is also the same for the Gentile. People are saved by grace alone.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6 ESV)
Matthew Henry writes,
Herein the scripture was fulfilled, that when the wilderness of the Gentile world is made to blossom as the rose then shall the lame man leap as a hart, Isa 35:1,6. Those that by the grace of God are cured of their spiritual lameness must show it by leaping with a holy exultation and walking in a holy conversation.
The place Lystra means dispersion, and so we see the gospel now going to the nations. This is a historic moment for the movement of redemptive history. It is the covenant of grace now including very visibly the gentile peoples.
The Response of the Heathen that demonstrates the power of God to save the gentiles is in the gospel only.
This miraculous sign of salvation for the world did not mean all in the world would be saved. Rather we see immediately a rejection of the point that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in vv.11–13. On the natural side of this was a kind of social justice fable circulated of two of the mythological Greek gods written by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, where he wrote of an elderly couple who received two incarnate gods with hospitality. The rest of the place was unkind and inhospitable, and as a result the gods destroyed the other people with a storm that flooded the valley; It is said that they then favored the couple’s meager home and turned it into a luxurious mansion with a roof made of solid gold. This story by Ovid said that this took place in the very valley where Paul was preaching and where this miracle was performed (Sproul). The response in v.11 matches this, and they identify them as the king of the gods and the messenger of the gods. In that town the priest in v.12 of the very idol temple of Zeus comes out like a Hindu might today with garlands and with oxen. He came out to sacrifice with the crowds.
The best natural revelation can do is to make more idols, now out of men. They seek to worship men not the Lord. The darkness that the heathen are in is so dark that no matter if signs are performed before them, they cannot see how to rightly respond, nor will they.
The Redirection of the Honor that demonstrates the power of God to save the gentiles is in the gospel only.
Now in vv.14–18 Paul and Barnabas response as soon as they hear of the heathen’s actions that ignore the fact that salvation is by the grace of God alone. To show this, first they tear their garments (often a sign of great mourning) in v.14 and take immediate and swift action to bring into question the response to the heathen (v.15). It is not good enough to respond to God, it is only a response to God in the right way that matters. But they cannot even listen to this as they are in darkness. Nevertheless, and secondly Paul and Barnabas take strides to teach them that they are not God, but are mere men with natures like their own. Because they are not the Creator, but creation they are not proper objects of worship. They go further in teaching them not only of their insufficient natures for worship, but that the good news involves (according to the apostle) turning from this type of idolatrous worship to serve the one whose authority extends over the whole of creation “heaven and earth” (v.15b). The apostle explains that God is patient with the heathen (v.16) and gracious (v.17) to give them a natural witness that is clear enough to make this known (v.17). But as we see in v.18 there was no stopping their depraved response to the work of God. This teaches us all that unless their is special revelation given by the Word and Spirit there is no hope for humanity, underscoring the truth that salvation is by the grace of God alone, here distinguished from natural or common grace.
When we see misdirected worship, it ought to be our duty to tear our garments per se and mourn that men and not God is worshiped; and we must secondly teach people that God alone is to be worshipped. But finally we must keep in mind that if we do not bring the gospel to bear there is no hope of success.
This brings us to our own day. We must know what we are up against here and elsewhere. Here there is the gods they were taught from youth. That is one thing, but the major thing is stated in Ephesians 6, that we wrestle not against flesh, but rulers in heavenly places. The matter is that we are not up against these heathen, but up against the whole demonic world and Satan’s schemes. Where there is an offensive work of God there will be everything in nature and in the spiritual realm against it. What is amazing about the gospel is that it will not be impeded by any of these things. Though the matter is difficult to stop, it is scarcely able to be done, it is done. We should expect it as v.26 says to be a work, hard work at that. But also, in this work we see that the door of faith has now been opened to the nations. It comes only by the gospel. Only by being covered in the truth AND wielding that ruth can people come to Christ. Come to Christ! Turn from your foolish idols. Receive Christ creator, Lord, redeemer, and judge. Amen.
Note here that the gospel is not opposed to the law here, but to natural revelation. That is the matter. When it comes to reaching the heathen who do not have the law, we are prone not to go to the law to bring them to Christ, but to nature. But nature doesn’t save, the gospel is the power of God for salvation. We may be prone to go to the law for the Jew, but there is no power in the law to save, but only in the gospel. And again, the matter here is for the Gentile, we must not go to nature to save them, but to the gospel, that is where Paul learned the power comes from (Romans 1:16–17) for both [Jew and Gentile]!
*An audio sermon on this text is found here.