Which Bible story best speaks to today’s challenging times, specifically living together in moments of tension and hostility? Let me suggest the story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14.
Paul and Barnabas were missionaries sharing the good news about God. In the city of Lystra, they healed a man who had been born lame, returning strength to his weakened legs as he “leaped and walked.” Onlookers’ reaction to this healing was quite interesting. They recognized divine activity in the miracle. God had indeed showed up, but they saw this good work of healing in their own terms, turning it into praise for Paul and Barnabas. Fixated on miraculous power, the people incorporated Jesus into their existing pagan views and beliefs. A large crowd came to revere and deify Paul and Barnabas, mistakenly identifying them as two popular Greek gods—Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:8–18).
The story itself exposes the human tendency toward idolatry and adulation. The apostles could have easily accepted the public honor bestowed upon them, enjoying favored treatment while winking at the people’s ignorance. They could have asserted a favored position with the pagans as “God’s people.” Instead, Paul and Barnabas showed appropriate humility, insisting on their common humanity. They rushed into the crowd, tearing their garments and exclaiming that they were no different from anyone else. Notice what they said:
Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.Yet, he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladnessActs 14:14–17, ESV
Paul and Barnabas resisted the temptation of adulation, refusing to assume an air of superiority. Their story warns us that accepting a false perception of superiority only breeds oppression and prejudice. Allowing such an illusion of superiority—whether to Blacks, Asians, Jews, pagans, or Christians—based on favored status will only separate us and engender an attitude of injustice. Instead Paul and Barnabas chose to commune in humanity with others, shattering any perceptions of superiority. They did not allow the message of Jesus to be associated with supremacy as the world does. We must not incorporate Jesus into our own terms or other answers to life. No one is superior to another. Accordingly, Paul and Barnabas ascribed worth to others as they actively denied the people’s belief that they were superior.
Likewise, Paul and Barnabas refused to accept favored treatment. They declared that they were no better than others. Instead of encouraging a focus on themselves, they turned the focus on God’s love, pointing to God’s heart, which is inclined towards all people. I find it remarkable that Paul and Barnabas did not quote proof texts to counter the people’s heathenism or dispense condemnation on their superstition; instead, they directed their attention to natural theology, revealing the character of God. The apostles encouraged the people to contemplate the greater truth about God in the various natural wonders that provide bounteous joy and flourishing. God is good to all, shining the sun and sending the rain to fall on everyone, showing His indiscriminate kindness. Paul and Barnabas pointed to God’s gifts of fruitful productivity and the joy they bring to all hearts and lives.
Breaking down barriers that divide is critical for embracing God’s love as revealed in the gospel of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas were vocal in sharing that we are all beneficiaries of God’s kindness and love. God’s love is for the entire world. Like the apostles, we must learn to locate our lives in the love of God and share His universal kindness. How much more effectively might we share the good news if we worked to chasten every sense of superiority and follow a more powerful way? Paul and Barnabas corrected the people’s misperceptions of superiority, helping them see beyond their superstitions. Are we turning a deaf ear or a blind eye on favored treatment and injustice, or are we willing to emulate Paul and Barnabas, rushing in to follow Jesus’ example by pursuing justice to keep God free for everyone?
In the story of Paul and Barnabas, we see the first missionaries’ readiness to see God’s justice done on earth. We all share the good news of God’s healing love. It is God’s good work that reminds us to always seek justice by opposing misperceptions of superiority. May we live in ways that transform us through the power of God’s love, a love that’s like the sun and rain, reaching all and making us fruitful and radiant with joy. In the messy landscape of human perplexity, we are called to bring that kind of love into the world. May we relinquish our self-focus and pursue the only effective way to live together in healing and justice. This is the only way to follow Jesus.
Craig Ashton Jr.