There is a strange scene recorded in Acts 14. Paul and Barnabas are on their first missionary journey, in a city known as Lystra. Lystra is in modern day Turkey and was in close proximity to Phrygia.
In Lystra the Holy Spirit allowed Paul to heal a man who was crippled. When the town’s people saw the miracle they cried out, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men (v.11)!” They called the missionary duo Zeus and Hermes (some translations say Mercury and Jupiter, which were their Roman counterparts), and began to worship them by offering sacrifices. Paul and Barnabas rushed to stop them, pleading, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God…”
While this is a humorous scene, a little history can shine some light here.
In 8 AD, approximately 40 years prior to this event, Ovid published The Metamorphoses, which is considered to be one of the greatest classics in Greek mythology. So prevalent was Ovid that Shakespeare alluded to him in every one of his plays.
In Book VIII of Metamorphoses Ovid shares a story about the time Zeus and Hermes came to earth in the likeness of men and visited Phrygia. “To a thousand homes they came, seeking a place for rest; a thousand homes were barred against them.”
As the story goes, the gods finally came to the last house in the city, the home of Philemon and Baucis. This elderly couple was poor, but they not only welcomed in their guests, they gave them the best of what they had.
Baucis soon noticed that no matter how many times she topped off their glasses, the wine was not running out. “The two old people saw this strange sight with amaze and fear, and, with upturned hands they both uttered a prayer.” The gods revealed themselves to the couple and told them to leave the city because it was going to be destroyed due to the lack of hospitality that was shown.
After running to the top of a hill, the couple saw their city destroyed. The only surviving house was theirs, and it was turned into an ornate temple to the gods. The couple became its guardians, and upon their death, were turned into a pair of intertwining trees to forever stand guard over the temple.
With this piece of literature in mind, we can better understand the reaction of the people in Lystra. Not wanting to repeat the mistake of those in Phrygia, they rushed out to offer their best to “Zeus and Hermes.” Understanding this, Paul used the occasion to teach about the one true and living God who “created the heaven and earth and the seas and all that is in them (Acts 14:15).”
We need to be ready at all times to turn people to the gospel.