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God’s Word for You

Acts 14:11-12 Zeus and Hermes

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, June 30, 2020

11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they began shouting and saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 They called Barnabas ‘Zeus,’ and Paul ‘Hermes,’ because he was the main speaker.

The healing of the crippled man, a man who could not possibly be helped through human means, was so astonishing to the Lystrians, that they reacted in two ways. First, they fell to their native language. Second, they accepted the only possible explanation: this was a divine act.

We can quickly mention the Lycaonian language. Almost none of it survives except that it is mentioned by certain ancient authors, and there are a few examples in various inscriptions. Once thought to be related to the language of the Assyrians (Akkadian), it is also possible that it was a dialect of the language spoken in Cappadocia.

There was a legend that the gods Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter and Mercury) once visited this area: “Hither (to Phrygia) came Jupiter in the guise of a mortal,” Ovid writes (Metamorphosis VIII,626). An elderly couple, Philemon (not the Biblical slave owner) and his wife Baucis, tried to entertain the disguised gods. After visiting “a thousand homes, seeking a place for rest,” the gods found “a thousand homes barred against them” except for one old married couple who made do with no servants. After fetching a copper kettle and a cabbage and some other oddments, and after propping up the uneven leg of their little table with a potsherd, they tried to catch the only goose they had to kill and cook for the strangers. The goose eluded the couple “and finally seemed to flee for refuge to the gods themselves” (lines 687-688). But Jupiter had enough. Enough, that is, not of the old couple and their attempt to kill the only meat they possessed, but with the whole neighborhood. They flooded the valley, drowning all the wicked neighbors, and they turned the old couple’s little thatched house into a marble temple. After the poor old couple had tended the temple for many years, the gods turned the old couple into an intertwined pair of trees: “An oak and a linden tree,” Ovid says, claiming to have seen them himself (ipse locum vide, line 622) “surrounded by a low wall.” Perhaps being turned into a tree after a long life was seen as a blessing. Their last words, Ovid imagines, were a hurried “Farewell, dear mate” to one another, as they were “be-fronded” with bark and leaves, and trees they remain “to this day.”

This local tale is the background of the city of Lystra when it was confronted, as they could only imagine, by another pair of men who had the power of the gods in their mouths. “The gods have come down!” they shouted. The reason that they called Barnabas “Zeus” is probably because of the way he looked and behaved. He was older than Paul, and in this case, he had allowed Paul to take the lead in the preaching. Therefore, he appeared to be the ‘greater’ Zeus, who would have his herald, Hermes, to do the speaking for him. Hermes was fabled to be energetic and quick, and doubtless Paul’s restless and rapid movements added to the image in their minds.

As we will see in the verses that follow, the people of Lystra did more than simply call Paul and Barnabas “Hermes” and “Zeus.” They began to make a sacrifice to them. The people of our time would laugh at them, not because of their pagan beliefs, but because to most people today, they were fools for treating anyone at all as a god. For this attitude, modern men and women are worthy of all the tortures in store for them in hell. We Christians condemn the idolatry of the Lystrians because it did nothing for their eternal souls; they had to be taught the gospel by Paul and Barnabas (but, once again, there would be interference from certain jealous Jews who were trying to murder Paul and bring an end to Christianity). But notice how the Lystrians accepted the miracle that healed the crippled man. It was a divine miracle; it could not have been done by humans. In this, the Lystrians were far superior to all of today’s skeptics.

The man lost in the shuffle here is the man who was healed. He, at least, had faith that Paul recognized. His healing, at least, was not reversed by the unbelief of the crowd, and we pray that his faith was also undamaged by the ravings of the crowd. Holy as to his soul and healed as to his body, he was blessed by God, rescued like Lot from an entire community of unbelief, perversion, and sin. If we can escape the perversions and the delusions of the world around us with our faith intact, we, too, are blessed. How hard it is, Jesus warned, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23). We Americans live in the richest, wealthiest, and most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Recognize the difficult path ahead of you. Recognize how narrow is the eye of the needle, and pray for God to support your faith and to carry you at last to everlasting life.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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