Acts 13:13–52: Paul and Barnabas at Antioch in Pisidia
In this passage Paul and some companions1 travel to Antioch. On the Sabbath they go to the synagogue and sit (which I assume to be the normal custom). And then the visitors are invited to speak:
After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: (verses 15–16a)
And I believe both of these points are custom, as well:
- I think I’ve heard it said that it was common to invite visitors to the synagogue to stand up to speak. And even if it wasn’t common to do so for all visitors, they might have known that Paul was a Pharisee, or otherwise known that he was a public speaker, and specifically invited him to speak for that reason
- I believe I’ve also heard that Paul “motioning with his hand” was something orators often did, as a prologue to a speech.
The heart of this passage is devoted to Paul’s speech to the Jews in that synagogue, which I’ll just go through bit by bit (instead of putting the usual Passage and Thoughts sections).
“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’” (verses 16b–22)
Up to this point, I think all of Paul’s fellow Jews would be nodding their head at everything he’s saying. It’s just a straightforward recap of some of the history of the nation of Israel up to the point of David’s kingship. (I kind of enjoyed the phrase that God “put up with” the Israelites in the wilderness. I also cringe at how much He has to “put up with” myself…)
“Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’” (verses 23–25)
It kind of surprises me that Paul just comes out with this! “Remember the Messiah we’ve been waiting for?” he asks. “He’s come—it’s Jesus!” And I can see why he takes this approach (though it’s not always the approach he takes); he’s speaking to fellow Jews, who understand that a Messiah is coming, and Paul simply lets the know that He has come, so the wait is over.
Also, as a side note, at the time Paul was speaking the Jewish religious leaders had come up with rules around how you could and couldn’t treat servants or slaves2, and it was expressly forbidden to make a slave untie your sandals. It was seen as so lowly that it would have been considered inhumane (though I doubt they used that word) to make someone do that for you. But John the Baptist is saying he’s not even worthy of doing that for Jesus. This is one of those sayings where we get the point, but not the full thrust of it without knowing a bit of context.
“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” (verses 26–29)
This is another part that, to me, feels very bold: he knows that Jesus was unjustly executed by the Jews, but not by all of the Jews, just by some particular people who were in Jerusalem at a particular moment in time. Plus, even in doing so those people were fulfilling the very Scriptures they didn’t understand. Paul is inviting his listeners to pay attention to the Scriptures, to not miss the things that were missed by the Jews living in Jerusalem, and see how those Scriptures point to Jesus.
But of course the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ execution:
“But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,
“‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you.’
“And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’
“Therefore he says also in another psalm,
“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’
“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption…”
Jesus was unjustly executed (to fulfil the Scriptures), but then He rose from the dead (to fulfil the Scriptures). Even King David himself, great as he was, died and saw “corruption” (i.e. his body decomposed). And so will we all, as have billions before us3. But Jesus has been raised from the dead, “no more to return to corruption.”
But why did all of this happen?
“Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (verses 38–39)
Those of us in the 21st Century might not understand how bold this statement is: after thousands of years of history as God’s unique and chosen people, revering and upholding the law of Moses as the only way to have a relationship with God—or, at the very least, avoid His wrath!—Paul just assumes that his listeners will agree with him that that law couldn’t free them from their sin. But now this Messiah, Jesus, has accomplished that very thing! What all of the sacrifices were never able to accomplish, He has!
But, as the Jews living in Jerusalem misunderstood Jesus, Paul understands the danger that these people might as well:
“Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:
“‘Look, you scoffers,
be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”
As they’re leaving the synagogue it’s evident that Paul’s sermon has had an impact because the people beg him to come back and speak to them again on the next Sabbath, and we’re told in verse 43 that “many Jews and devout converts to Judaism” follow Paul and Barnabas. (I added that emphasis, and we’ll see why in a bit.)
However, when the next Sabbath arrives “almost the whole city” (verse 44) shows up, and when the Jewish religious leaders see this they get jealous, contradicting and reviling Paul. He is not thrown off by this, however:
And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
At this point we see why I bolded “devout converts to Judaism” above, because the Jewish Gentiles rejoice at these words from Paul! I get the impression that the converts to Judaism might have been getting treated like second-class citizens, below those who were born Jews, whereas Paul is now saying that this is no longer a concern; Christianity (which isn’t yet being called that) is for everyone, not for a specific group of people.
As a side note, it’s not even just for Jews—whether by birth or by conversion, Judaism doesn’t need to be a stepping stone to Christianity—though Paul isn’t making that specific point here since he’s speaking to Jews. In previous posts I’ve made a big point that Christianity grows out of Judaism, the two can’t be separated—Christianity didn’t come from nowhere—but that doesn’t mean that it’s a sequence of becoming a Jew and then becoming a Christian; Jesus is “a light for the Gentiles,” regardless of their religious background (or lack thereof). I’d guess that the vast majority of people who become Christians, even those who are raised in Christian households, learn about the New Testament and Jesus’ teachings before they get too deep into the Old Testament – and probably even get confused by some things they read in the Old Testament! Or maybe that’s just me…
But back to the Jewish converts who hear Paul’s words, not only are they rejoicing but we’re told in verse 48 that “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Which is an interesting level of specificity from Luke: Who was it who believed? All of the ones who were appointed to eternal life did!
The Word spreads through the entire region, and the Jewish religious leaders4 are still trying to tamp things down:
But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (verses 50–52)
I think we’re seeing a very interesting historical side note in that passage, because who do the religious leaders incite? “devout women of high standing, and the leading men of the city.” There are obviously a number of powerful women in that place and time who the religious leaders need to get on their side. If Luke hadn’t been this specific, and if I’d thought about it at all, I’d have assumed that it was the men of the city who were involved, but the religious leaders knew that that wouldn’t work here, so they brought in the people who could actually get things done.
We know that women didn’t typically have a lot of political power and weren’t even allowed to testify in trials because their testimony wasn’t considered reliable, but to get rid of Paul and Barnabas the religious leaders had to turn to them. There’s the “rules” and the “customs,” and then there’s the practical reality on the ground. This isn’t a theological point, just an interesting side note about the event Luke is recounting.
Along the way they lose John—I think this is “John whose other name was Mark,” since he’s been traveling with them so far—but I’m not sure if it’s significant that he doesn’t accompany them or not. ↩︎
Remember that in biblical times—both Old Testament and New—“slave” meant something very different from how we think of that word. It was closer to what we’d think of as a “servant” than what was done to Black slaves in the 16th through 19th Centuries. Nobody’s claiming slavery was ever a good thing, but for most of the history of the world it wasn’t nearly as cruel or barbaric as what whites did in the Atlantic slave trade. ↩︎
Depending on various estimates and factors, there could have been as many as 117 billion people who have been born on this planet with “only” about 9 billion or so alive right now, so the other ~108 billion people have therefore died and saw “corruption.” Well… 108 billion minus one, since Jesus didn’t see corruption. ↩︎
The text just says “the Jews” in verses 45 and 50, but the ESV footnotes indicate that the “Greek Ioudaioi probably refers here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, in that time” ↩︎