At Iconium, the conflict between the Jews and Paul and Barnabas polarized the people. The anti-Christian party prevailed and, with the permission of the "authorities," a number of Jews and Gentiles plotted to stone the two men. But the apostles got word of the threat against them and decided that it was time to take their message elsewhere, and they moved on, following the Via Sebaste to Lystra.
Lystra was located on the eastern part of the high plains of
Lycaonia, about 19 miles southwest of Iconium. The name Lystra
presumably goes back to prehistoric times and can be attributed to
the Lycaonian language, one of the many surviving Bronze Age tongues
spoken in the area. In fact, Lycaonian was still spoken in the area
until the 6th century AD.
The plain around Lystra was fertile and well-watered, with one stream skirting the west side of the mound on which the town was built. However, the site had little strategic value. In 6 BC, emperor Augustus decided to make use of the old but inconspicuous settlement to found a military outpost, and conferred on it the title Julia Felix Gemina Lustra, as attested by an inscriptions which later helped archaeologists to identify the lost townsite.
Below, inscription with "Lustra" discovered in 1885 at the mound of ancient Lystra that aided identification of the site.
In the footsteps of Paul — Lystra
Today Lystra is an unoccupied and unexcavated mound (below) north of the village of Hatunsaray and 9.3 miles north of a small town called Akoren.
A search of the tell reveals church with a cross marked on a wall, a winery, house-like buildings and other ruins of a city located over the top of a hill which is locally called "Alusumas," though most everything is buried under 2000 years of dirt. In the 1800's, a statue dedicated to Zeus and Hermes was found at the site, reminiscent of the city's identification by the townspeople of Paul and Barnabas with the two gods.
Below, view from Lystra mound
Below, Lystra mound and spring of St. Paul
As a Roman colony, Latin was the official language of Lystra, but the people still spoke the native Lycaonian language which was unintelligible to Paul and Barnabas. A branch of the Roman highway, Via Sebaste, ran through Iconium to Lystra and Derbe, then continued to the Cilician Gates, the famed pass through the Taurus Mountains leading to Paul's hometown of Tarsus. It was this road that Paul followed on this missionary journey, also on the early stages of his second and third. The population of Lystra was mostly uneducated and Gentile, and in the history of Paul's missionary work, it stands out as the first town he visited with no established Jewish community or synagogue. Thus the people were completely ignorant of the Jewish scriptures and unable to grasp the idea of worshiping one God.
Paul preaches the Gospel in Lystra
While Paul was preaching at Lystra, probably in the agora or marketplace, a man who had been unable to walk from birth caught his attention. Paul saw that he had the requisite faith to be healed, so he told him to "stand up." Immediately, "the man jumped up and began to walk."
The effect on the onlookers was dramatic. Shouting in their native Lycaonian dialect, they declared that Paul and Barnabas must be gods. The local priest then arrived at the city gates with several bulls and wreaths prepared to take the two "gods" outside the city to the temple of Zeus to offer a ritual sacrifice to them.
Shocked at being hailed as pagan gods, Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes as a show of disgust and rushed into the crowd, shouting, "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you." Their purpose in coming to Lystra, they said, was to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ, to turn the people from their worthless idols to the "the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them" (Acts 14:15).
Despite their impassioned plea, they barely managed to keep the crowd from sacrificing to them.
At some point, hostile Jews from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium arrived and poisoned the Lystrans against the two men. The tactic worked. They stoned Paul and, believing he was dead, dragged him outside the city walls. As some of the Lystran converts gathered around his body, Paul came to his senses (evidently he was only knocked unconscious), stood up and walked back into the city.
At this point Acts does not tell us how the people reacted. Perhaps they wondered if he really was a god. The next day, Paul and Barnabas left for Derbe, but their effort were not completely in vain as indicated by two phrases in Acts: "the disciples had gathered round him" and "they returned to Lystra." The only reason they would risk returning to Lystra on their way back to Antioch was that a community of faith had been formed and it needed strengthening and encouragement.
By recounting this incident, Acts provides us with a valuable insight into Paul's approach to those who worshiped a pantheon of gods and who were without any Jewish background to which he could appeal. With such people he started from nature to get to the God who was behind it all and who "has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." Years later, on his second missionary journey, he used a similar approach at Athens.
Another view from on top the Lystra mound, with architectural fragment