The Lystra Event
Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. And 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. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “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. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.
When I sat down to reread a few passages from the book of Acts for a personal study I’m doing, I was distracted by a little phrase in Acts 14:8-18. The phrase is “in the likeness of men” (ὁμοιωθέντες ἀνθρώποις), and in this context it means that the gods, who otherwise dwell in the heavens, have come down in the form of men. The gods, that is to say, have become like men, and they have visited the people of Lystra. In Acts 28:1-6, we see the same kind of behavior from the pagans to which Paul ministers. They see his working of a miracle by the power of God and mistakenly believe he is a god. In the case of Acts 28:1-6, the apostle may or may not be aware of what the people have said about him (i.e. that he is a “god”), we don’t know for sure. However, given his response in Acts 14:8-18, I think it is safe to say that Paul would have explicitly denied that he is a god who has come down from heaven in the likeness of men.
This is what makes Acts 14:8-18 so striking. You see, what Paul denies of himself — i.e. that he has come down from heaven in the likeness of men — he openly affirms of Christ. He writes in Philippians 2:1-11 —
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In this short passage, Paul teaches that Christ was in the form of God, but took on the form of a servant, being born in the “likeness of men” (ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων). Christ was then found in human form, after he had taken on the form of a servant, the ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων.
We see similar language in another significant passage of Scripture as well. In Romans 8:3-4, Paul tells the Romans that
…God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
In these texts, Paul affirms of Christ what he denies of himself, namely:
1. Christ came down from heaven.
2. Christ is worthy of divine honors.
3. Christ has taken on the likeness of men.
Bluntly put: Paul explicitly identifies Christ as God when he states that Christ was found in the “likeness of men.” Why? Let’s look at that passage in Acts 14:-8-18 again, this time focusing in on vv.14-15. There we read that
…when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “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.
Paul states in no uncertain terms that he is of like nature with the people of Lystra, he shares with them the same human affections/feelings/passions, etc. Paul is not a divine person who has taken on a human nature foreign to himself; Paul is merely a man.
Of Christ, however, Paul says no such thing. Rather, he asserts that Christ took on human nature. Christ was found in the likeness of men, in the likeness of sinful flesh. The Son of God was originally in the form of God, but he came down, was made in the our human likeness, in order not to suffer the bite of a viper and survive, but to die from the sting of God’s wrath, being crushed by the hand of the Father while crushing the serpent’s head underfoot.
Paul clearly understood that saying an individual came down from heaven and took on the likeness of men was equivalent to saying that a divine being had come down from heaven in the likeness of men. So he denied it of himself. Yet when he speaks of Christ, he affirms it more than once: Christ came down from heaven, took on the likeness of men, and purchased our salvation with his divine blood (Acts 20:28).
This is a problem for the proponents of unitarian theologies, for Paul is clearly not a polytheist. Paul is a thoroughgoing monotheist, yet he affirms that a divine person has come down from heaven and taken on human flesh. In other words, while he denies that there are many gods, and he denies that those gods have come down to men, and he denies that he is one of those incarnated gods, he openly affirms that the one God of Israel has come down to men in the likeness of men, in the likeness of sinful flesh.
What Paul denies of himself, he affirms only of Christ —
Jesus Christ is the One Yahweh of Israel, the only God come down to men in the likeness of men. And he has done so for us and our salvation.
Soli Deo Gloria!