This final instalment tracing St. Paul's journeys in Acts brings us full circle. The missionary trip which started in Antioch of Syria with the Holy Spirit commissioning Barnabas and Paul, culminates with the duo returning to Antioch, a little worn, a little wiser and much richer in faith.
Two other major missionary journeys, a high-seas adventure and several dramatic proclamations of the Gospel before kings and governors await, yet Luke offers a sense of accomplishment with these words at the end of this first trip:
"Finally, they returned by ship to Antioch of Syria, where their journey had begun and where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. And they stayed there with the believers in Antioch for a long time" (Acts 14:26, 28).
Undoubtedly the two evangelists had much to tell – from the conversion of the governor of Cyprus to the appointment of elders (presbyteros) in newly founded churches of Iconium and Lystra. It was in this last city as well that Paul first shed blood for the faith. Indeed, the brutal mob that stoned him only relented because they took him for dead.
A recounting of Paul's first journey can pick up where our last segment finished, with the missionaries setting sail from Cyprus for Antioch of Pisidia located in modern day Turkey. As the company switched boats to travel up river, a dispute of some sort breaks out resulting in John Mark, Barnabas' cousin and Paul's assistant, turning back for Jerusalem.
Perhaps he was hesitant about moving into foreign or hostile territory, uneasy about preaching to the Gentiles, or ill from the travel. The motive is unstated. But the loss clearly upset Paul, and Mark would be a later source of tension (see Acts 15:36-41).
Notably, the two would reconcile and end up spending time in jail together for the faith (Philemon 24).
Despite Mark's departure, the mission trip continues. In typical fashion, Paul and Barnabas visit a synagogue in Antioch Pisidia on the Sabbath. Invited to give a word of encouragement, Paul doesn't miss a beat. He surveys the panorama of the Old Testament from Moses and the Exodus, to Samuel and David, down to the promised Messiah, Christ Jesus.
The connections made between the ancient Scriptures and Christ persuade several listeners. They join company and the following week an even larger crowd gathers to hear Paul.
With new interest comes new opposition, though Paul and Barnabas leave town without incident. A similar pattern is repeated in Iconium, their next stop, with one exception: a plot is hatched to stone the Apostles. Paul and Barnabas leave Iconium to save their lives.
During the 40-km trek further inland to the Roman colony Lystra, one can only imagine what Barnabas said to Paul. "Maybe it's time we change strategies?" Whatever was spoken, we do notice a change in approach. Paul and Barnabas preach to a strictly Gentile audience – with wildly unpredictable results.
That unforgettable day began with Paul speaking not in words but by his actions. Coming upon a man crippled from birth, and sensing his openness to faith, Paul performs a dramatic healing in the sight of a crowd.
So impressed are the people with the visitors that they declare them, in their local dialect, to be gods. Accordingly they prepare a celebratory animal sacrifice in honour of Zeus (Barnabas) and Hermes (Paul).
Once the preachers gather what is going on, they again use dramatic gestures by tearing their shirts. In whatever broken Greek the locals communicated with, the point is clear. "We are no gods, so no barbecue, please."
Unfortunately, at this point Jewish opponents from Antioch and Iconium arrive, and are more than happy to interpret the actions of the missionaries for the Lystraians. Soon the crowds turn on Paul and the stoning begins. Paul survives, but he later fearlessly returns to Lystra as well as Antioch and Iconium, to strengthen and encourage the believers.
Though they had a limited time to instruct these new disciples in the faith, the grace that Paul received to remain steadfast surely left a lasting impression.
As one reads through Acts, the Spirit's faithfulness to the Gospel and movement in the lives of people continues to impress. Readers will notice the overall story of Acts comes full circle not in the arrest of St. Paul, but in the ongoing mission of the Church and God's work in the world. The story continues today.