In this chapter Luke records for us the rest of this first missionary journey of Paul, which we saw begin in chapter 13 and for which Barnabas was his ministry partner and John Mark was their assistant, at least for part of this journey (see 13:13-14).
(See a map of the journey.)
Having been in Antioch (in Pisidia, which is not the same one that was in Syria), and having been driven out of there because of persecution (13:50-52), Paul and Barnabas arrive at Iconium. Once again they enter the synagogue and preach Christ. The same thing happens here as happened in Antioch (of Pisidia): many respond positively, hearing and believing the Word and receiving Christ, but others persecute them and drive them out.
14:6-20 Lystra and Derbe
We get an extended look at an account from Lystra, where, through Paul, God miraculously healed a man who wasn’t able to walk. This results in the people of Lystra thinking that the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes were among them in person.
There’s no small amount of irony here. Zeus was the greatest Greek god, and Hermes his spokesman. The people of Lystra recognize the wrong god, but Paul and Barnabas are spokesmen; not for the false Greek god Zeus but for Yahweh. The people of Lystra think that Paul and Barnabas are gods incarnate; again, wrong gods, but Jesus in fact is God incarnate. So the people of Lystra “miss the mark” in terms of which god to worship, even though they are perceiving some truths about what the true God has done. Paul and Barnabas then take that opportunity to redirect the people to Yahweh.
Notice the completely opposite response of Paul and Barnabas to those who wrongly offered them worship as divine figures to that of Herod (recall 12:20-23). Herod accepted this false worship but Paul and Barnabas vehemently reject it. They tore their clothes (14:14), a sign of repentance, and turned the praise to where it belongs: the living God (14:15).
And then we see it again: persecutors from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium catch up and stone Paul. But he makes a miraculous recovery (14:20) and continues on his journey with Barnabas.
14:21-23 Returning (!)
We hear that they then go back to those very places where they had been persecuted; back through Lystra, Iconium, and Pidisian Antioch. Wow! We easily think that this was the last route they should take, but for the sake of those who had become Christians, they return.
And during those return visits, significant things are happening. These (presumably quite small) congregations that God had planted previously through His Word now receive encouragement and strengthening by the visit, as well as an acknowledgment that the kingdom of God exists, and even grows, in the midst of great difficulty.
Also during these visits, Paul and Barnabas assist the congregations by helping them put pastors into place. The word appointed here comes from the Greek word meaning “stretching out the hand”, which can be what we think of as “laying on of hands” or “show of hands”. In the New Testament Church (and the Old Testament too, e.g. Exodus 29:9-10), some are chosen to have their hands filled with the work of the priestly (OT) or pastoral (NT) office. It’s a bit unclear whether appointing or electing is meant here, but the primary thing is that the apostles and the congregations worked together to choose and confirm (ordain) “elders”, which is synonymous in the New Testament with “pastor/teacher/shepherd/bishop (overseer)” to describe ones commissioned by God through the Church for this task.
This is reminiscent of even the beginning of this missionary journey, where the prophets and teachers (i.e. pastors) of the church in Syrian Antioch commissioned Barnabas and Saul after God’s call to them (13:1-3). The two men didn’t decide on their own to do what they did, but God called them and the Church enacted their commissioning.
(This example, along with the other examples such as in Titus and 1 Timothy, is why we in our church today normally follow the custom of electing men to serve as pastors. It is God’s call through the congregation that brings men into the pastoral office. We’re not opposed to appointments by other pastors, but recognize that this is done only by human right and should be rightly done together with a congregation. Any “higher” or “lower” station within the pastoral office is only by human arrangement. All pastors/elders/bishops are in the same divine office with the same divine authority.)
14:24-28 Perga and return
Barnabas and Paul continue their journeys in the region of Perga, south of Pisidia, and then return to their “home base” at Syrian Antioch. It’s notable (and instructive for us!) that they report on all that God had been doing. God was the one opening the doors to the Gentiles, bringing people to faith, establishing congregations, strengthening them, and commissioning leaders for them. The apostles are God’s instruments of doing this, but it is God doing the work.
14:26 We note again this idea of commissioning/commending/electing/appointing. The Church in Antioch had literally “handed over” (ESV: commended) to God’s grace for the specific task. This is the regular pattern of all church work in the New Testament, and therefore for us today: men don’t set themselves up as people of authority in the Church; it is given to them by God through the people of the Church.