During Paul’s third missionary journey, while writing to the church at Corinth, Paul mused about multiple mistreatments. “Five times I received the forty lashes minus one from the Jews. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning” (2 Corinthians 11:24–25).
On five occasions, he was stripped, tied to a whipping post, and an expert executioner beat him with a scourge, a cat-of-nine-tails, an instrument of torture and death. The scourge had a rigid handle, eighteen to twenty-four inches long, attached to nine leather thongs, each about the same length as the handle and having a sharp piece of rock or bone embedded at the tip. The executioner could lay the nine whips onto a condemned man’s back, sinking the barbs into the flesh, and with the flip of wrist, he could rip away the man’s hide. Thirty-nine times. Nine barbs. It’s a wonder that any man could live through this kind of torture. The spiderweb of scars on his back showed that Paul had endured scourging too many times.
On three other occasions, he was beaten with rods, and on another, he was stoned. The stoning occurred on the second missionary journey, after leaving Cyprus and while the team was evangelizing south-central modern-day Turkey.
In Pisidian Antioch, “when the Gentiles heard (the Gospel), they rejoiced and honored the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jews … stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their district” (Acts 13:48–50).
“In Iconium they entered the Jewish synagogue, as usual, and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they stayed there a long time and spoke boldly for the Lord, who testified to the message of his grace by enabling them to do signs and wonders. But the people of the city were divided, some siding with the Jews and others with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat and stone them, they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian towns of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding countryside. There they continued preaching the gospel” (Acts 14:1–7).
In Lystra, as the Gospel was courageously proclaimed, “some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and when they won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. After the disciples gathered around him, he got up and went into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe” (Acts 14:19–20).
Long before the second missionary journey, Paul had been present when Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 8), but on this occasion, the angry mob was casting the rocks at him. Stones the size of baseballs, softballs, or soccer balls found their target. Projectiles bounced off his arms and legs, his torso, his shoulders and his head. It is unlikely and unimaginable that a man could survive such horrifying mistreatment.
“Thinking he was dead,” the crowd walked away. Believing that he was alive, or maybe that he could live again, “the disciples gathered around him.” Did they lock hands and pray? Imagine their fervent and faithful pleas poured out at the Great Physician’s throne.
Was he dead? No one knows for sure. But dead, or very near, Paul “got up and went into the town” to continue proclaiming the ever-living Jesus!