After fleeing Iconium, Barnabas and Paul came to Lystra, one of the major cities of Lycaonia. Since Luke never mentions that the apostles enter a synagogue in Lystra, there probably aren’t enough Jews there to warrant one. Therefore, they began preaching to or perhaps conversing with the locals about God. Exactly where they were in the city is not clear, but it was near the city gates (cp. Acts 14:13), where a beggar was probably placed hoping for alms (Acts 14:8), and he listened attentively. Actually, though, Luke never says the man hoped for alms; I suppose it is possible the man knew a trade in which he could labor with his hands, but if this is true, it would be surprising that Luke doesn’t mention the oddity, for back then most people who had a serious impairment weren’t trained to become financially independent. On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise the reader to discover a man who was never able to walk was a beggar in the first century CE.
Luke tells us in Acts 14:7 that the apostles came to Lystra and preached the Gospel. However, this must be seen as a beginning summary of all that would take place, because, as the events transpire, it quickly becomes apparent that the locals wouldn’t know how to interpret Jesus or the Gospel message through experiences within their own religion. This would have to be taught them once they were instructed that God is One, and he alone is the Creator, and this is the type of language Luke records Paul using as his account develops.
It is possible that Barnabas and Paul found a few Jews in the marketplace at the gates of the city and began speaking freely with them about salvation through Jesus. If this is what occurred, then the apostles could have been preaching about Jesus to people who would understand, and the beggar listened thoughtfully. However, I don’t understand how the Gospel, as we know it, could have been preached freely to people, who knew nothing about such things—who had no way to relate to the God of Israel. Nevertheless, in whatever manner Barnabas and Paul were presenting God to the locals, Luke tells us that the beggar was listening (Acts 14:8).
While he was speaking, Paul noticed the lame man was attentive to what was said, so he fastened his eyes upon him and commanded the man to stand up. When the man stood up and walked, the people who saw him, realizing what was done, thought Barnabas and Paul were gods come down in human flesh. There is a story in Greek literature of Zeus and Hermes appearing as human beings, so this is how the locals interpreted what was done (Acts 14:11). The news spread rapidly and soon there appeared a procession of the locals with their priest leading two bulls they intended to sacrifice in honor of the gods—Barnabas (Zeus) and Paul (Hermes)! It isn’t clear how the apostles became aware of the reason for the procession, but when they finally realized what was about to occur, both of them tore their clothes (Acts 14:14-15; cp. Matthew 26:65), and were scarcely able to prevent the awed gentiles of the city from carrying out their plans (Acts 14:18).
Luke intends for us to see that Paul healed a lame man, just as Peter had done (cp. Acts 3:4-8) in the context of Jesus mission (cp. Luke 7:22; 4:18). He also wants us to understand that what happens to Paul occurs in the context of Jesus’ passion. In both instances the whole city came to Jesus and Paul in praise, yet the same people in a short time would want them dead. Jesus was crucified and Paul was stoned. Whether or not Paul was really dead isn’t clear in the text, but we can be assured that normally when a person got stoned, he died. Yet, just as Jesus rose from the dead, so did Paul—at least in type if not in reality. This is Luke’s message here. If the Gospel couldn’t be preached to these gentiles, they were certainly given a picture of the Gospel of Jesus in what occurred to Paul, and this would be something they would be able to relate the Gospel of Jesus to later.
We don’t know how long it was before Jews from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium came to Lystra and stirred up the gentiles there against Paul and Barnabas. However, it seems the apostles were preaching there for awhile before they came, because Luke tells us in Acts 14:20 that the disciples encircled Paul’s body after he was stoned. Therefore, since there were no believers in the community before the apostles’ arrival, they had to have been preaching awhile to gain disciples of Jesus through the Gospel. In fact, it may be because of the success of the Gospel that the visiting Jews were able to turn the gentiles against Paul and Barnabas. They may have tried to show the gentile community that Barnabas and Paul were dividing the religious base of the Zeus’ temple, just as was done in the Jews’ hometown synagogues, and so painted a picture of the apostles subverting the community through their preaching. This was also an accusation against Jesus (Luke 23:5), and stoning, if suggested by the visiting Jews, was the punishment of blasphemy, which was the accusation under which Jesus was condemned to be crucified.