The Ignored Witness of Benevolence

The Gospel Sent Abroad

The Holy Spirit, presumably speaking through the Christian prophets ministering in Antioch, indicated the intent to further the message of Christ in Cyprus and Asia Minor. God commissioned Paul and Barnabas to preach the Gospel, first, to the Jews in the synagogues, and then to everyone else. They were sent by the church, which meant that the church financially supplied them the funds to travel and sustain them. It also seems clear that both the leadership of teachers and prophets, along with the church, would continue to pray for them while Barnabas and Saul (Paul) fulfilled this mission (Acts 13. 1-3). This endeavor, instituted by God, is commonly known as “Paul’s First Missionary Journey.”

After considerable success, along with miraculous signs both on Cyprus and Asia Minor, Barnabas and Paul arrived in Lystra where Paul healed a man lame from birth, who had the faith to be healed, after listening to the message of the Gospel Paul was preaching. This event sparked a misguided reaction among the Pagans of this city. They referred to the apostles as Zeus and Hermes and wanted to sacrifice animals to them thinking they were these gods come down to them. Barnabas and Paul tore their clothes, which, to moderns, probably seems strange.

Excursus on Tearing of Clothes

This “tearing of clothes” seems to be a universal sign of distress and outrage in the bible, along with indicating strong disapproval, the rationale being a ruining of a valuable commodity. Before the invention of modern weaving machines and automation associated with clothing production, all garments were made by hand and thus very costly. All the spinning of yarn, weaving, sewing and assembling the articles of dress were individually made, taking a great deal of manual and meticulous labor. Therefore, to rend one’s garments showed opprobrium in reaction to some saying or event.

The Witness

It almost seems strange after the crowd’s actions that Paul would have the presence of mind to deliver a theological summary of God’s work toward humanity before His sending of the Messiah. Paul, however, seemed to always be immersed in the scriptures, owing to his Jewish upbringing and training, along with studying his scrolls and parchments after his Christian conversion (2Tim. 4.13). Paul insisted to the crowd that he was not special in his nature or righteousness but that the Good News he was bringing had power to save:

“Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the 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 follow their own ways;  yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14.15-17 NRSV).

Paul insisted that, although God left humans to follow their own imaginings, still He was kind to them. God created mankind and everything to sustain them, even filling them with joy and satisfaction from the good produce He created. Jesus also affirmed this same idea in Mt. 5.45: that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (NIV). This, of course, is an ancient truth, recognized in the Book of Job: Is there any number to his armies? Upon whom does his light not arise? (ESV). The Psalmist also states: The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made (Ps.145.9 ESV).

How did the majority of humans respond to this kindness? Were they kind in return to their fellows and not go to war against them? Did they quit their foolish superstitions and seek the truth? Did they stop relying upon their own devices in their daily lives? Were they forgiving toward others and not exact revenge?

There were some, however, who intersected with the Israelites and turned to God. Judah took Tamar, a Canaanite, and fathered Perez whose line God used to bring Jesus (Mt. 1.3). Possibly, some of the “mixed multitude” who came out of Egypt under Moses converted to the Lord. They were obviously impressed with the one sent to rescue the Israelites from Pharaoh’s power (Ex.11.2). Rahab the harlot hid the Israelite spies and also became an ancestor of the Messiah (Mt.1.5). During the time of David, Uriah the Hittite proved more righteous than David in the instance of Bathsheba (Mt.1.6). Also, David’s guard, the Cherithites and Pelathites were Philistines who possibly converted and intermarried with the Hebrews (1Chron. 18.17). Some of David’s “mighty men” were Gittites, Philistines from Gath, who probably converted to the God of Israel.

Is there an application to Christians today from these accounts of contact with outsiders who turned to the Lord? I believe there definitely is, especially during the era of David who was zealously dedicated to the Lord. God will use those who love Him to touch other needy souls when they see the Lord and His glory displayed in a Christian’s life. As Christians, we need to be faithful and trust Him to touch those with whom we are integrated in our daily lives.

Paul Message to the Athenian Philosophers

During the so-called “Second Missionary Journey of Paul,” he went to the Synagogue and marketplace of Athens and reasoned with whomever would listen. Previously, Paul was distressed because of all the idolatry in this city. It seems that the Athenians’ response to God giving them their very life’s breath did not bear any fruit:

So Paul stood before the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects. For as I went around and observed closely your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone. From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ So since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination. Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17. 22-31 NET)

The Athenians’ reaction to Paul’s speech was mixed. Some scoffed, while others wanted to hear about the Message further, and several believed. Therefore, it can be observed that natural revelation, often termed “Common Grace” is not salvific in itself despite the normal expected response. Both in the Lystra incident and at Athens, people remained idolaters, despite God’s goodness toward them. This Common Grace really acted as a confirmation of sinfulness much as good works confirms the filial nature of Christians. It was only after Paul’s faithful preaching that the Spirit worked in some to receive the truth.

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