It was at Lystra that Paul performed one of the most astounding miracles recorded in Acts – healing a beggar, crippled since birth.
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… (Acts 14:8-12)
The miracle convinced the locals in Lystra that the two missionaries were the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, who, according to legend, had visited this area as men before. To prevent the people from honoring them with sacrifices, Paul and Barnabas cried out in protest.
“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.” (Acts 14:15)
This account from Acts ties into the historical context of the area, which was known for polytheistic worship practices typical of Roman and Hellenistic settlements. The locals revered Zeus, a manifestation of the chief god, and a temple had been dedicated to him outside the city walls. Hermes, often regarded as the messenger of Zeus, was another god familiar to the region. Important discoveries near Lystra include this dedication of a statue of Hermes to Zeus.
Around 8 AD, the Roman author Ovid wrote a story from the area in which the gods Zeus and Hermes appeared in human form and went to 1,000 homes seeking hospitality. However, only one elderly couple welcomed the disguised gods into their home. For this, only that couple was spared the wrath of a flood that destroyed Lystra.
This was the historical context about 40 years later when Paul and Barnabas showed up. When Paul miraculously healed a lame man to demonstrate that God sent he and Barnabas, it made sense that the locals mistook them for their gods of Greek mythology. Since Zeus was often depicted as a large bearded man, and Hermes appeared as his younger, smaller assistant, the identifications of Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes may reveal something about their appearances. In addition, since Paul was the main speaker, it makes sense that the locals viewed him as Hermes — the messenger of Zeus.