The cultural and spiritual divide facing the early Christians was profound. As seen in ACTS chapter 14, there was confusion and even violence. Given human nature, this is actually not altogether surprising. ◊
I heard George Barna, the renowned cultural researcher, speak last week about his recent major research report on Millennials in America.1 This research was commissioned by Foundations for Freedom.2
Here are few highlights from the report:
- Only 1/3 of Millennials claimed to believe in God.
- A majority of Millennials held a positive opinion of Jesus Christ, the United States of America, and the Bible.
- They were more likely to have a negative than positive impression of atheism.
- A record-breaking 40 percent of young adults fit the “Don’ts” category: people who don’t know if God exists, don’t care if God exists, or don’t believe that He exists.
- Close to one-half of young adults say they prefer socialism to capitalism.
- 39% of 18-24 year olds identify as LGBTQ.
- Three out of four Millennials believe that all religious faiths are of equal value.
- A majority admit to often feeling anxious, depressed or fearful.
- 3 out of 4 Millennials said that they are still searching for their purpose in life.
- Roughly 2/3 of the young adults align themselves with the Christian faith. Just over 1/4 of them said they do not associate with any religious faith.
- Most Millennials reject the existence of absolute moral truth and identify feelings, experiences, and advice from family and friends as their most trusted sources of moral guidance.
- The most highly trusted influencers were their parents and friends.
In his own personal afterword, Barna points out that Millennials are largely the product of the unaddressed dysfunctions of the generations that came before them – the generations that raised the Millennials.3 I agree with him that we do best to not cast stones and further the divide and confusion of a fragile and disillusioned generation.
I draw parallels to the cultural and spiritual divide that was so prevalent in the early years of Christianity after Jesus Christ transformed the world with what happened in Jerusalem and then surrounding areas, as we’ve been outlining in the Book of ACTS.
ACTS, chapter 14 seems to epitomize the confusion that was occurring amongst Jews and Gentiles in the various towns and cities that were visited by the tenacious Apostle Paul and Barnabas, the very first Christian missionaries.
We should not be surprised by the reaction to what these people were seeing, hearing, and experiencing. I’m not sure I would have been less confused and/or angry.
Signs and Wonders and Violence
After stirring and confounding the crowds in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13), Paul and Barnabas move on, about 100 miles eastward, to the city of Iconium (Asia Minor or modern day south central Turkey):
At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. – Acts 14:1-2
…The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the gospel. – Acts 14:4-7
It was in Lystra, 20 miles further east, that Paul heals a man crippled from birth. As might be expected, this amazing miracle stirs up the crowd even further:
In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. – Acts 14:8-13
Unlike King Herod’s prideful reaction to the crowd’s idolatry of him (see Acts 12), Barnabas and Paul strongly deny they are anything but men with a message:
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them….” Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. – Acts 14:14-15, 18
Even so, the Jews came down from Antioch and Iconium and turned the people against the two missionaries:
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. – Acts 14:19.
Truth Always Survives
Jesus was ushered into this world as an immaculate infant after an Old Testament silence of 400 years. Heralded by the prophets of old and then by John the Baptist in the New Testament (see the opening chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in and around Jerusalem were confused and befuddled. Some people reacted in anger, even after seeing wondrous miracles and life transformations right before their eyes.
The accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection (see the ending chapters of the 4 Gospels) and the subsequent rollout of the Christian faith after the miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), cause many staunch Jews and truth-seeking Gentiles to continue to be confused about who and what to believe.
Much like Millennials today, and actually like any past generation from Boomers back to 1st century communities, the aspirations of personal peace, identity, life purpose, and spiritual understanding seem elusive and confounding. But as we read and assess these difficult early years of Christianity, real Truth has always prevailed, even in the face of fierce opposition.
And it still holds up today, providing peace, hope, and real personal transformation.
Would you have been a 1st century skeptic or Christian believer?
They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. – Acts 14:21-22
1 New Insights into the Generation of Growing Influence: Millennials In America, a Research Report by George Barna, Barna, the founder of The Barna Group, is now professor at Arizona Christian University and leads the Cultural Research Center based at the university.
2 Foundations for Freedom, Foundations of Freedom is a peer-to-peer platform where believers in traditional American Values unite to maximize collective influence and impact on society.
3 Barna, Ibid., p. 34.