From Worship to Murder in Two Sentences

Are any other back-to-back verses in the Bible more shockingly different? In one verse, the crowd at Lystra wants to offer sacrifices to Paul, thinking he was a god. In the very next verse, the same crowd stones Paul and drags his bloody body out of the city:

Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.

Acts 14:18-19 takes us from worship to murder in two sentences.

The Fickleness of Man

In reflecting on this astonishing turn of events in Lystra, one might astutely observe that people are fickle. O, you think so? Still, it’s good to be aware of the human capacity to vacillate. Perspectives and emotions and commitments can shift as suddenly as your car tires catching the shoulder of the pavement: one second you’re on the road, the next you’re in the ditch. Your most enthusiastic admirers can quickly become your most enthusiastic adversaries.

It should be noted that, in some cases, an abrupt change can occur in the opposite direction too: fervent opposition becomes fervent devotion. This latter alteration is more pleasant than the former, but don’t imagine that it is necessarily less problematic. Regardless of which way the wind is blowing, it’s still wind. There’s not much substance to the wind.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, many people believed in him. Yet we’re told that Jesus didn’t entrust himself to them, because he “knew all people” and he “knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25). We would do well to learn from Jesus. Don’t get wrapped up in being liked, being approved of, being praised. In other words, don’t believe the hype about yourself. The people who would offer sacrifices to you are the very ones who would stone you. Keep on loving people, but entrust yourself only to God.

The Power of Persuasion

The violent change in the crowd at Lystra can be accounted for. “Let’s worship this guy!” doesn’t become, “Let’s kill this guy!” for no reason. What explains the change? Persuasion explains it. In this case, poisonous persuasion. Unbelieving Jews arrived on the scene and turned the crowd against Paul. They spoke against Paul; they recast him in a negative light; they changed the narrative. “The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood” (Prov. 12:6). That bloody afternoon in Lystra is a dramatic and deadly case study in the power of persuasion.

I’ve seen this power at work in the church. People who were supportive become suspicious. What was once a warm friendship becomes frosty. Many pastors have experienced such a grievous change in their people. Poisonous persuasion often lies behind the change. Someone has taken it upon himself or herself to help others see the pastor in a “truer light” or to get “the whole story” about what happened. The pastor’s beliefs are misrepresented, or his actions are misinterpreted, or his character is maligned—and what was once a good relationship is damaged. Even if you aren’t a pastor, I bet you know what this kind of change feels like, having experienced it in some of your own relationships.

We must use our words wisely. Our words are always at work. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). We may not be out to get someone, like the Jews were Paul. But let us not think that our “sharing a concern” or “straight talk” or “venting” is innocuous. It’s never innocuous. Rather, we are always healing or wounding, unifying or fracturing, securing love or eroding it. We are always persuading.

Our Conversation and Confidence

So wield your power well. Aim to edify in all your conversation. Use your words to persuade people in the truth of the gospel and in love for God and others.

And place your confidence not in man but in Christ, knowing that the same person who supports you in the morning is capable of sabotaging you in the afternoon. That doesn’t mean you have to become guarded or cynical in your relationships. In Christ, you can love others freely and fully. But you must entrust yourself to the Lord alone.

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