Anyone who has fought the fear of man knows that the fight is rarely simple. The war is usually less like lining up head-on in an open field, and more like fending off guerillas in the jungle at night. Temptation comes from every side — through approval, praise, recognition, influence and through rejection, criticism, bitterness, hatred. The fear of man wields many weapons, and wears many disguises — sometimes luring and other times frightening, sometimes comforting and other times intimidating, sometimes flattering and other times shaming.
Perhaps no one has experienced the two extremes of temptation to people-pleasing — fatal applause and devastating enmity — like the apostle Paul. And perhaps never did he experience the two in such close proximity as he did in the city of Lystra.
When Men Become Gods
When Paul first came to Lystra with Barnabas, he encountered a lame man who couldn’t use his feet. “He was crippled from birth and had never walked” (Acts 14:8). The apostle, seeing the man’s faith, said to him, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the lame man “sprang up and began walking” (Acts 14:10). Surely the wonder of his healing was made all the more beautiful by the awkwardness of those first steps.
The crowds were entranced. They had watched the lame man lay there for years, likely decades, unable to stand or walk or run. So they didn’t question the validity of the miracle, or try to come up with some other more rational explanation; they knew this was the hand of a god.
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. (Acts 14:11–13)
This went far beyond celebrity. They wanted to bow down and slaughter an animal.
The Appealing Approval of Men
As we read about what happened in Lystra, we immediately know how misplaced their vain worship was, but we might miss the temptation Paul surely must have experienced to indulge their adoration, to soak — even for a moment — in the appealing praises of men. We are each born wanting to be God (Genesis 3:5; Psalm 51:5), and the approval and celebration of men is often the closest we come.
“It is relatively easy today to be hated by many, which means we need to be all the more vigilant against the fear of man.”
The scene in Lystra might seem utterly bizarre if our own culture wasn’t so enthralled with celebrity — with the unusually gifted, charismatic, and successful. We may not sacrifice animals, but how much time and attention do we lay on the altar to monitor what some people say or do? As sinful people, we have this strange and twisted impulse to deify one another — to worship someone for the ways God has made, gifted, or prospered him. Perhaps we do this because we want to believe we might be worthy of such exaltation — if never by adoring crowds, then at least by a few dozen people online.
From Gods to Gallows
The tidal wave of praise that fell on Paul, however, ebbed as quickly and violently as it had come — and with a mighty undertow of a very different temptation. After Paul and Barnabas “scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:18), the very next verse says,
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. (Acts 14:19)
These crowds were — as crowds so often are — extremely fickle. The people are scarcely restrained from making sacrifices to him, and then he scarcely survives their attempts to murder him. They unduly celebrate him, then abruptly turn on him. That’s what makes this scene unusually relevant for anyone prone to people-pleasing.
We don’t know how much overlap there was between those who wanted to sacrifice to Paul and those who wanted to sacrifice Paul, but it seems the Jews had persuaded at least some of them to lay down their praises and pick up stones instead. Excessive praise and reckless animosity rise from the same spiritual madness.
The Unpleasant Disapproval of Men
These stones, too, would seem bizarre if so many in our own culture weren’t ready to cancel, humiliate, and socially destroy those who disagree with them — about politics and presidents, about abortion, about homosexuality, about immigration, about schooling, about soft-cloth face coverings. It is relatively easy today to be hated by many, which means we need to be all the more vigilant against the fear of man. The pressure is building to keep our love for Jesus to ourselves — to camouflage our convictions and tolerate what God clearly hates. Before long stones, of various kinds, may fly.
For his part, however, just as Paul did not relish the fickle and idolatrous praise of men, he did not crumble under their sudden and violent criticism — even while they literally hurled rocks at him. With God’s help, he escaped the fear of man on both fronts, and in doing so taught us how to fight similar temptations.
Lessons in Receiving Praise
How do we combat both the temptation to live for the approval of others and the temptation to cave under their disapproval? How the apostle responds, both to their misplaced praise and their misplaced fury, provides several valuable lessons.
Look, first, at how he responds to the seduction of human praise. As they fall down before him and even prepare to make sacrifices, he rebukes them,
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, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. (Acts 14:15)
First, he reacts with startling humility. “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you.” How many men could heal a man crippled from birth, with just five short words — “Stand upright on your feet” — and in the next breath say, “I am just like any other man”? Unusual success in ministry did not unseat his sense of utter dependency. “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). No greatness in me is great because of me, but only because God has sovereignly and mercifully decided to display his greatness through me. I am just a man — oh, for more pastors, and leaders, and Christians who believe that to the core.
Second, he reminds them that people-worship is futile. “We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God.” They had worshiped false gods for generations, but now they were making weak and sinful men into gods. And expecting what only God can be and do from people will leave us more hungry and hopeless than before.
People-pleasing, and striving to be pleased by people, are both vanity. We may see the vanity more quickly in the crowds of Lystra, but the fear of man is as alive and vain as ever today. Whenever we let what others think or feel dictate what we say or do, instead of what God says and wants, we are trading away purpose, contentment, and security for futility.
Third, he lifts their eyes to the living God. Yes, he was confronting their belief in many gods (Zeus, Hermes, Poseidon, Hades, and the rest), but more than that, he was calling them out of the graveyards of idolatry into the flourishing gardens of faith. Fear of man, or any other false worship, eventually wilts before a big, glorious, and living God — a God who builds mountains and carves out seas (Acts 14:15), who governs all governments on earth (Acts 14:16), who waters every field and fills every table (Acts 14:17) — even the fields and tables of those who ignore or despise him.
So do you feel the allure of people-pleasing, of capitulating to what you think will make others happy? Seek humility — a healthy, sober awareness of how small, weak, and undeserving we all are under God. Expose the futility of the fear of man and pursue meaning and satisfaction from God. And look for a clearer and clearer sight of him in his grandeur, allowing his glory, which is displayed everywhere in his creation, to eclipse the people whose approval or rejection seem so large to you.
Lessons in Receiving Rejection
As surprisingly humble as he was before the adoring crowd, though, Paul’s response to hostility was every bit as unusual and filled with grace.
“Fear of man, or any other false worship, eventually wilts before a big, glorious, and living God.”
Remember, the crowds assaulted him with stones until they thought he was dead, and then dragged his seemingly lifeless body out of town. And when he had the strength to stand again, where did he go? “He rose up and entered the city” (Acts 14:20). Lystra had left him for dead, literally, but he refused to leave the souls in Lystra for dead. Seeing those who had hurled rocks at him, he did not run and hide, but limped back in, hoping to rescue more from sin.
And even after he and Barnabas had preached the gospel in the next city, and won many more disciples there, “they returned to Lystra” again (Acts 14:21). Can you imagine? Having been delivered from the furnace not once but twice, love compelled him to walk back in again. And as he returned, he strengthened “the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And they believed him, because they could see the cuts, bruises, and scars he bore.
What might his perseverance mean for us? That we should resist the ever-present impulse to give up on people who despise us for obeying Jesus, to immediately walk away from those who hurt or discourage us, to spend all our time and energy on people who make us feel loved. As the cross reminds us, again and again, Love did not avoid hostility to protect himself; he embraced hostility for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2).
So whose idle praise are you tempted to pursue and encourage? And whose irrational disapproval are you tempted to try and appease? Flee, with Paul, from the seductive and dreadful fear of man.