Acts 14:1–7: Paul and Barnabas at Iconium
In the last chapter Paul and Barnabas had a lot of success preaching to the Jews at Antioch, so now they go to Iconium where they get a similar result: a number of Jews believe, including those who are Jewish both by birth and by conversion.
There is also the a similar backlash to what they encountered in Antioch, with the Jewish religious authorities stirring up opposition to Paul and Barnabas. Verse 2 says that they stir up “the Gentiles,” which doesn’t read to me like it’s talking about Gentile converts to Judaism, I think it means the non-Jews in the city. It’s something we see elsewhere in Acts as well: rather than trying to get Roman law to accept finer points of Jewish religious disagreements (as some might see it), they just decide to paint Paul and Barnabas as troublemakers and let the Roman law punish them for that.
Regardless of their political thinking, the result is that Paul and Barnabas stay there for a long time:
So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. (verse 3)
However, in this case the message doesn’t penetrate the city quite as deeply as it seemed to in the last passage; the city becomes divided with some siding with “the Jews” and some siding with “the apostles” (verse 4).
It comes to a head with plans to stone Paul and Barnabas, but they hear of it and flee to Lystra and Derbe where they continue to spread the Gospel.
A pattern occurs here which we see a lot in the book of Acts: someone (typically an Apostle like Luke or Paul) preaches the Gospel in a new area, a lot of people believe and a lot of other people don’t, the Christians who are spreading the Word get in some kind of trouble (arrested or stoned or otherwise threatened), and they move on, leaving a number of Christians and a nascent local church in their wake.
I was tempted to just lump this passage in with all of Chapter 14 together, except for this one snippet:
But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. (verses 2–3, emphasis added)
Paul and Barnabas are preaching the Gospel but they face opposition, so they kept going. Luke doesn’t say, “they faced opposition but they stayed anyway,” he says that they stayed there for a long time because of the opposition. That little word “so” in verse 3 is striking!
There are times in Acts when Christians leave a place because of opposition and other times when they stay because of opposition; in this case they do both, staying for a while because of opposition and eventually moving on before getting stoned. There seems to be a very intimate relationship between the early Christians of the book of Acts with the Holy Spirit; I read this as Him telling them what to do in each case.
Are they leaving Iconium at the end of this passage because the Holy Spirit wants to prevent Paul from being stoned? If so it’s not the whole story, because Paul will be stoned in the next passage!
All I can say with a firm mind is that God knows when opposition means a fertile field for sowing the Word and when it means hard, unyielding ground that’s not worth the missionaries’ time. In Acts, I’m positing that the Holy Spirit is being much more direct in guiding the Apostles than He does in today’s world, so it’s not always going to be clear to us when opposition or persecution is something we should “endure” and when it’s something we should avoid.
That being said, we can never see persecution and just immediately assume, “therefore God wants me to give up.” Acts doesn’t let us see opposition as a closed door. At least, not necessarily. Sometimes missionaries or preachers spread the Word faithfully for years and years without seeing fruit, and Jesus himself says that that can become throwing pearls before swine—there are times when we should “give up.” Knowing the difference between a “pearls before swine” situation and an “I want you to be patient and keep serving Me” situation takes wisdom and the Holy Spirit, but it’s not as simple as saying “there was opposition and therefore God is saying no.”
“Barnabas and Saul” or “Paul and Barnabas”
One other point that I forgot to mention this when going through the last passage: when talking about these two men Luke had been using the phrase “Barnabas and Saul” up to Chapter 13, but at that point he changed and started using the phrase “Paul and Barnabas” instead.
For the Saul vs. Paul thing it’s nothing deep: he went by two different names, the Hebrew Saul and the Roman Paul. For the most part he goes by Saul for the first part of Acts and then switches to Paul from Chapter 13 on. I haven’t seen any commentaries saying this is a religious or theological thing—there was no scene in which Jesus said to him, “You were formerly known as Saul but I now name you Paul,” as there are for some other people in the Bible (e.g. God renaming “Abram” to “Abraham”)—it’s just more practical. We’re going to see Paul getting persecuted by the Jewish religious leaders over and over again through the rest of the book of Acts, and it’s easier to deal with Roman authorities if you are a Roman citizen – including having a Roman name!
So while change of the use of “Saul” to “Paul” is just a practical thing, there is also Luke’s switch of always calling out Barnabas first until Chapter 13 at which point he switches to calling out Paul first. I think this is a reflection as to who is the “leading” member in the duo: in the beginning, brilliant as Saul may be, Barnabas is a more seasoned Christian who has learned more through the Holy Spirit than Saul has, and is therefore likely a guiding influence on Saul. However, Saul/Paul grows in his knowledge and understanding so that by the time we get to the period of time covered in Chapter 13 I think Luke is recognizing that Paul is now the one who is the more dominant voice between the two.
Based on a quick search of the timeline of the Bible I don’t think Paul has yet written any of the letters that end up becoming books of the New Testament (though 1 and 2 Thessalonians will be getting written in a few years), but it seems that those around him are recognizing his Spirit-granted knowledge of Christianity nonetheless.