A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 3)

This the present day site of Lystra, located in modern Turkey. Although it has barely been excavated, the ruins of a Temple to Zeus have been discovered on the site.

Today, we’re going to pick up our discussion about the calling of Timothy and the nature of youth ministry.  But before I do that, I want to suggest that you take a few moments to read through the first two posts in this series.  Because if you haven’t read these posts yet, you might find yourself feeling like you’re on the outside, looking in on a conversation you only partly understand.  So why don’t you take a look at the links below and than come right back to join us.

A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 1)

A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 2)

All right, everyone caught up?  Good.  Now let’s take a look at where we are, right now, in terms of our discussion.  We know that Timothy was ostracized for his mixed, racial heritage.  We know that people would have shunned his mother as a “prostitute.”  We know that he was considered to be a fatherless “bastard.”  We know that he wasn’t circumcised on the eighth day of his life, and we know that he couldn’t go to either the local Tabernacle or to the Temple in Jerusalem.  We know that he was considered to be an “outsider” amongst the community of God; and we know that he was only 10 to 12 years old when all of this was going down.

The question is: why does a kid like Timothy agree to follow Paul?  You see, Paul is going to ask Timothy to do a really difficult thing, and I imagine that it would have been much easier for Timothy to simply blow him off, dismissing him as another hateful figure in society.  But Timothy doesn’t do that.  Instead, he chooses to do this really hard thing; and today, we’re going to explore the question, why?

In order to answer this question, we need to back up for a moment and look to a short story found in fourteenth chapter of Acts.  Near the end of his first missionary journey, Paul has traveled through Cyprus and Antioch, where both the Gentiles and the Jews have been riled up by the idea that Jesus is the Messiah.  The tension is mounting, so both Paul and Barnabas bolt from Iconium and take to the hills in and around Lystra and Derbe.

Now, here’s where the story starts to get really interesting.  You see, in that region of the world, there is a very unique tree called the Linden Tree.  It’s the only place that this tree naturally grows, and interestingly enough, it is also at the center of an ancient Greek myth that forms the background of our story.

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The Ancient Myth of Baucis and Philemon

As the herald of the Greek gods, Hermes often accompanied Zeus on his visits to earth.  On one such occasion, the two gods disguised themselves as mortals and traveled across Phrygia.  Sadly, they were offered no hospitality in any of the homes they visited until they came across upon the humble house of Baucis and her husband, Philemon.  The elderly peasants welcomed the two strangers, offering them what little refreshments they had on hand.

As Hermes and Zeus ate their meals, the hosts noticed that instead of the wine flask becoming empty, it was magically refilling itself so that it never ran out.  Realizing that they were in the presence of the divine, the old man and woman trembled and began to pray.  At this, the two gods revealed themselves to the couple and thanked them for all their kindness.

Linden Tree from the region of Lystra

“For bestowing honor upon strangers, you will be rewarded,” spoke Zeus, “but I cannot say the same for the inhospitable country you reside in.”  The two gods then lead Baucis and Philemon to the top of a nearby hill.  When the couple looked down upon the countryside, they saw that their town had disappeared under a massive lake that had magically sprung up to swallow the land whole.

To add to their surprise, they saw that their simple hut had been transformed into a glorious temple.  To extend his thanks even further, Zeus promised to grant them any favor they desired.  Philemon told the god that he and his wife wished to spend the rest of their lives acting as priests in the new temple.  And because of their great love for one another, Philemon also asked that when it came time for the couple to die, one should not live a day longer than the other.  For just as they were together each day during life, they desired to remain together in death as well.  Zeus granted the old man’s wish, and the two tended the temple for many years until one day, in their very old age, each saw the other start to sprout leaves.  With only enough time to say farewell, the husband and wife were transformed into a Linden Tree, both growing from the same trunk.  Here they remained together, intertwined for all eternity, just as Zeus had promised.  And from the time of their transformation to the time of Paul’s coming to Lystra, people traveled for miles to come and pay homage to the faithful couple by hanging wreaths of flowers on the branches of the Linden Trees that covered the land.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now, let’s get back to our story in Acts 14.

“There was a man sitting in Lystra who was unable to use his feet.  He had been lame from his mother’s womb, and had never walked.  He heard Paul speaking.  When Paul looked hard at him, and saw that he had faith to be made well, he said with a loud voice, ‘Stand up straight on your feet!’

Up he jumped, and walked about.

When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted loudly in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”

They called Barnabas ‘Zeus,’ and Paul, because he was the main speaker, ‘Hermes.’  The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and wreaths to the city gates.  There was a crowd with him, and he was all ready to offer a sacrifice.

But when the apostles, Paul and Barnabas, heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd.

‘Men, men,’ they shouted, ‘what on earth are you doing?  We are just ordinary humans, with the same nature as you, and we are bringing you the wonderful message that you should turn away from these foolish things to the living God, the one who made heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them …’

Even by saying this, they only just restrained the crowds from offering them sacrifice.”  (Acts 14:8-15, 18)

Do you see what’s happening here?  The people of Lystra believe that Zeus and Hermes have returned to the region, much as they came in the time of Baucis and Philemon.  But what is clearly a critical situation actually becomes much worse as the story continues to unfold.

            “But some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium, and persuaded the crowds to stone Paul.”  (Acts 14:19a)

Now let’s stop for a moment because you need to understand two things to really comprehend what is happening at this moment.  First, I want you to take a look the map to your right.  Do you see the city of Antioch and the city of Lystra?  These cities are separated by about 90 miles of rough, mountainous terrain.  So when the author of Acts tells you that “some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over,” this is not some casual, flippant statement.  The average human being can walk 3 miles per hour on flat, easy terrain.  So on a good day, the average person could potentially walk 30 miles.  But remember, this is tough, untamed wilderness that they are walking through.  So when we say that some Jews came from Antioch, which is 90 miles away, we’re talking about a group of people so enraged by the work of Paul and Barnabas, that they are willing to travel four to five days – one way! – just to try to kill them.  This is why the crowd turns. This is mob mentality where the confusion of the Lystrans is fueled by the hatred of Antiochian Jews, which in turn gives way to violence.

“[Having just stoned Paul], they dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.”  (Acts 14:19b)

Now you see, most of us in the 21st century think that stoning is just a bunch angry guys whipping rocks at some poor, helpless chap.  But in reality, stoning is much more controlled and nuanced than that; and it is in the nuances of the act that we discover the truly extraordinary power of this story.

In the ancient Jewish world, if a man was believed to be guilty of a certain crime, he was stoned.  This process would begin with two witnesses taking the allegedly guilty party to the top of a cliff that was at least 10 cubits (18 feet) high.  Two paces from the edge of the cliff, the “guilty” party was asked if he wanted to repent.   If he did repent, he was believed to be forgiven by YHWH.  If he didn’t repent, he wasn’t forgiven by YHWH.  It was as simple as that.  But in either case, the people proceeded with the act of stoning as a form of punishment.  In other words, you were stoned if you did, and stoned if you didn’t.  The only real difference at that point in time had to do with your standing before God.

Now, at this point, the witnesses brought you to the edge of the cliff and stripped all of your clothes from your body.[1]  Next, your hands were tied behind your back by the first witness who testified against you.  After that, the second witness would step forward and push you over the edge.  Needless to say, many people died from the initial impact with the ground.  But, in the cases were the “guilty” party survived, everyone in the community who believed the individual to be guilty was given the opportunity to select one rock – any size – and hurl it down upon the “guilty” man.

But here’s the turning point of the whole story.  If the “guilty” party died, the Jews believed that the justice of God had been carried out in the proper fashion.  On the other hand, if the “guilty” party survived, the Jews believed that the angels of YHWH had protected the individual and that he was not guilty after all.  At that point, the “guilty” party became a free man and was allowed to go on with his life.  Now read the account again:

” … Even by saying this, they only just restrained the crowds from offering them sacrifice.  But some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium, and persuaded the crowds to stone Paul.  They dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.  The disciples gathered around him, however, and he got up and went into the city.  The next day, he and Barnabas went off to Derbe.  They preached in Derbe, and made many disciples.  Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.”   (Acts 14:18-21)

After being stoned by the Jews … Paul survived.  And in his freedom, he elected not to run from the hatred, not to flee from those that persecuted him, but elected to return to Lystra, to Iconium and to Antioch.  And it was at Lystra that Paul finds Timothy in Acts 16.  And what was the message Timothy heard?

Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the hearts of the disciples, and urging them to remain in the faith.  They warned them that getting into God’s Kingdom would mean going through considerable suffering …  (Acts 14:21b-22)

Can you see it?  At the outset of this post, I asked a very simple question:  why would Timothy do the hard thing that Paul was about to ask him to do?  Why would Timothy follow Paul?

Could it be, that in Paul, Timothy saw someone who was hated just as he himself was hated?  Could it be that when Timothy saw Paul return, not once, but twice, he finally saw a different way of living – a way of living that truly embraced the loving of one’s enemies? And what does this mean for us?  Could it be that if we are to reach this next generation, we are going to have to live in a way that truly demonstrates a costly, counter-cultural discipleship?

[1] Think back to the stoning of the first martyr, Steven.  Who is holding his clothes?  And what does this tell us about his involvement with Steven’s martyrdom?

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2 Responses to A “Bastard” in a Fatherless Age … (part 3)

  1. Rich Bennema says:

    “why would Timothy do the hard thing that Paul was about to ask him to do?”

    I have seen this several places since, but the first place it stood out to me was in The Purpose Driven Church (p.345): “Sometimes it’s easier to elicit a big commitment than a small one. Some pastors are afraid to ask for a big commitment, fearing that they will drive people away. But people do not resent being asked for a great commitment if there is a great purpose behind it. An important distinction to remember is that people respond to passionate vision, not need.”

    How often are we in the rut of asking someone to do something because the last person stepped down and no one has volunteered yet? The challenge to leaders is to craft a vision that compels someone with enough passion and guts to step forward.

  2. That’s a great quote, Rich; and from an unexpected source to boot! Thanks for posting that.

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