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Acts 13

Scripture: Acts 13:1-52

Highlights:

  • From Antioch, Barnabas and Saul set out on their first missionary journey
  • They go to Cyprus where they run into a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus
  • The head guy in the region (the proconsul) wants to hear what Barney and Saul have to say, but ol’ Bar-Jesus isn’t having any of it
  • Saul (now officially Paul) lays the smack-down on the sorcerer and blinds him via a miracle
  • The proconsul is wowed and believes
  • From Cyprus they go to Perga then Pisidian Antioch and get invited to speak at the local synagogue
  • Paul starts off his speech with a partial review of Old Testament history beginning with the Exodus and breezing on through to the establishment of David as king
  • Paul then points out that Jesus is from the line of David and that even John the Baptist thought Jesus was the Messiah
  • Paul goes on to show that all those who attempted to stop Jesus were actually just helping him fulfill scripture
  • Paul also emphasizes that Jesus was raised from the dead, which uniquely qualifies him to be the promised Messiah, and that he is able to offer people a level of forgiveness that even the law of Moses can’t attain
  • Paul wraps it up with a warning that if you don’t believe what is being preached then you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of God’s anger
  • The people like Paul’s sermon, but the Jewish establishment feels threatened by Paul and Barn-o’s popularity so they kick the missionaries out of town
  • Paul and Barn say to the Jews, “You had your chance, now we’ll go to the Gentiles”
  • The disciples shake the dust from their feet and move on to the next town

Historical Context:

Synagogues:

Synagogue is a transliteration of the Greek word synagogē, meaning “assembly”. When broken down, the word could also mean “learning together” (from the Greek συν syn, “together”, and αγωγή agogé, “learning” or “training”). Synagogues in the first century served as a meeting place, schoolhouse, library and court.  Synagogues existed for a long time prior to the Babylonian Captivity (586–537 BC), but they became a staple of Jewish culture afterwards. The idea of creating individual houses of worship in whatever locale Jews found themselves  contributed to the continuity of the Jewish people and their faith by providing a way of maintaining a unique identity and a portable place of worship despite the absence of the Temple. (Wikipedia)

The first century Jewish worship service stated with the Shema, summarized in the phrase: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Prayers followed the Shema. Then came two readings, one from the Law and a second from the Prophets.  The readings were done in Hebrew then interpreted into the Aramaic or the Greek Koin for the people. A sermon of explanation and exhortation would then be drawn from the second reading. It was the duty of the rulers of the synagogue to select the readers and the speakers for the service. After the instruction period was over, the synagogue service closed with a blessing. (GCI & Robertson)

Paul’s Sermon:

Paul starts his sermon much like Stephen did in Acts 7, with a survey of the history of the Jewish people. This is a way of establishing common ground with his audience, as well as ensuring that he’s “recognizing God’s mighty and merciful hand in the nation’s history.” (GCI) Unlike Stephen, Paul starts with the exodus (rather than Abraham), and never mentions Moses (whereas Stephen emphasized that Jesus was Moses’ true successor). Instead, Paul focuses on King David and the promises God made to David regarding his kingdom. Both speakers position Jesus as the culmination of God’s saving history.

There are some interesting differences and similarities between the sermons recorded in Acts by Peter, Stephen and Paul. Peter emphasized Jesus’s actions and ministry, and how Jesus was exalted (via resurrection) despite all his detractors’ efforts to shame him (namely by crucifixion); with Stephen, Jesus was the one greater than Moses who had come to establish a true way to connect with God, and all those who tried to stay connected through the old ways (i.e. those who worshipped in the temple, under the law of Moses) were essentially idolators; Paul sought to show that Jesus was the promised Savior/Deliverer from David’s line, and that his kingdom (a spiritual one) was now eternally established, and any who didn’t follow him would be overtaken by disaster. Similar to all of them was that Jesus’ death was necessary, that his resurrection was triumphant and that as a result the forgiveness of sins was now available to all.

Paul’s speech in Acts 13 uses several Old Testament texts to prove his point:

Psalm 89:20 and 1 Samuel 13:14

Paul quotes God’s testimony of King David: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (13:22). This seems to be a composite quote from at least two Old Testament Scriptures: 1) “I have found David” (Psalm 89:20) and, 2) “A man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). (GCI)

King David is used as a contrast to the first king of Israel, Saul. Saul was asked for by the people to be their leader, whereas David was eager to do God’s will. David “is the model for all those who would receive God’s covenant blessings of salvation.” (IVP)

Psalm 2:7

In Psalms 2:1-3, the psalmist records the combination of the rulers of the earth against the Messiah, and their efforts to cast off his reign. In Psalms 2:4,5, the psalmist shows that their efforts should not be successful; that God would laugh at their designs; that is, that their plans should not succeed. InPsalms 2:6,7, he knows that the Messiah would be established as a King; that this was the fixed decree, that he had begotten him for this. (Barnes)

Both Paul and Peter use this text as proof that this sequence of events lines up with Jesus’ experiences and ultimate exaltation.

Isaiah 55:3

“I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David” is quoted by Paul as a set up for the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead and therefore he is the messiah. Paul is quoting from the 55th chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet is giving the people an assurance that God would keep his promises to David by making an everlasting covenant with them through the Messiah. Paul’s argument is that if God had promised David that he should have a successor who should sit forever on his throne, and that Jesus was that successor (i.e. the Messiah), then Jesus’ resurrection was proof that he had conquered death and fulfilled the promise because the promised successor of David, the perpetual occupier of his throne, could not remain under the power of death.

Psalm 16:10

Paul quotes Psalm 16:10: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (13:35). Paul understands this to be a prophecy about someone other than David. After all, David died an ordinary death and his body decayed. But Jesus’ body does not suffer corruption. His tomb is empty and his body has not been found. This is the argument Peter used at Pentecost, even citing the same scripture (2:24-32). (GCI)

Habakkuk 1:5

The original reference in Habakkuk is to the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians–a thing which the Jews would not suppose could happen. The temple was so splendid; it had been built by the direction of God; it had been so long under his protection, that they would suppose that it could not be given into the hands of their enemies to be demolished. And even though it were predicted by a prophet of God, still they would not believe it. The same feelings the Jews would have respecting the temple and city in the time of Paul. Though it was foretold by the Messiah, yet they were so confident that it was protected by God, that they would not believe that it could possibly be destroyed. The same infatuation seems to have possessed them during the siege of the city by the Romans. (Barnes)

The warning issued by Habakkuk and Paul are essentially the same: “Take heed lest you miss what God is doing,” (IVP) and that if the audience “held in contempt the doings of God, they would perish.”  (Barnes)

Isaiah 49:6

Lastly, Paul and Barnabas quote Isaiah 49:6 in support of their efforts to preach the good news to the Gentiles. Isaiah says that the Servant of Yahweh will be made “a light for the Gentiles” that he “may bring salvation to the ends of the earth”.  In his gospel, Luke speaks of how Simeon pronounced Jesus to be the fulfillment of this promise at his birth (Luke 2:32). “Now Paul applies [this same scripture] to the missionaries who are bringing the good news of Jesus, the Servant. Thus, Paul is saying that the mission of Jesus (the Servant) is also the mission of the followers of Jesus. It is the task of the new Israel (the church) as the servant of God to bring the light of the gospel to all peoples.” (GCI)

Observations:

  • Up to now, Jerusalem and Judea have been the center of the story with Peter being the most prominent leader. Now, Luke shifts his interest to the church at Antioch and to Paul.
  • Interesting that Paul started his ministry as an outcast (Acts 9), then in Antioch he’s the last one listed among the prophets and teachers, and within a few months on the road Paul is recognized as the group’s leader, and by the end of his career he’d be called an apostle.
  • Simeon has the Latin nickname Niger, or “the Black.” His name is Jewish, so it is unlikely that he is African, though he may have had dark skin. The nickname may distinguish him from other Simons in the church, such as Simon Peter. (GCI)
  • Manaen is the Greek form of the Hebrew Menahem, which means “comforter.” Saying he was “brought up with Herod the tetrarch”  means that  that as a child he was taken to the royal court to be a companion of the prince; such boys were then called “foster brothers.” The Herod mentioned here is the one who was responsible for the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist. “What a commentary on the mystery and sovereignty of divine grace that, of these two boys who were brought up together, one should attain honor as a Christian leader, while the other should best be remembered for his inglorious behavior in the killing of John the Baptist and in the trial of Jesus! “(Bruce)
  • Cyprus is most likely chosen as their first location because it is Barnabas’ native land.
  • John Mark (as in the Mark who wrote the gospel, and who’s mother, Mary, owned the house Peter went to after being freed from prison in Acts 12) accompanies Barnabas and Paul on the journey as their assistant. He has a family connection with Barnabas which is why he may have been taken along. “Luke describes him as the ‘helper’ of Barnabas and Paul. ‘Helper’ translates the Greek word hyperetes, which is used of a synagogue attendant.” (GCI) It is not known why Mark left them later in the trip, but his leaving would eventually cause a rift between Barnabas and Paul.
  • This first missionary journey establishes Paul’s pattern of beginning his missionary work in a city by starting within the synagogue, then reaching outward to the Gentiles.
  • Luke often shows that Roman officials were sympathetic to the gospel message. Sergius Paulis “wanted to hear the word of God.”  Though this may have been more of “an official inquiry into the nature of what the missionaries were proclaiming in the synagogues so that the proconsul might know how to deal with the charges already laid against these wandering Jewish evangelists and head off any further disruptions within the Jewish communities. Like a ‘command performance,’ the invitation could not have been refused.” (Longenecker)
  • Bar-Jesus means “Son of Jesus” (most likely because his father’s name was Jesus or Joshua). However, Paul does a play on words with his name and calls him the Son of the Devil (Bar Satan). Elymas (the man’s other name) means “wise” in Arabic, but Luke infers that it really mean’s he’s a man using his wisdom and skills to be a deceiver.
  • This chapter is where Saul starts officially going by the name Paul.
  • During the trip to Perga Luke no longer speaks of “Barnabas and Saul.” From now on, Paul is usually in first place, ahead of Barnabas. Luke speaks of “Paul and his companions,” which literally means “those around Paul.” This expression indicates that Paul is the leader of the group. Luke appears to be signaling to his readers that Paul has become the dominant partner in the missionary team. (GCI)
  • To reach Antioch of Pisidia the missionaries have to cross the Taurus mountains — a difficult and dangerous journey. The Pisidian highlands are subject to sudden flooding. Another danger is from brigands, as the Romans have not yet fully suppressed the robber clans that lived in these mountains. Why make such a hard trip? Some commentators speculate that Paul or someone in the party became ill while in Perga, perhaps a victim of malaria that plagues the marshy coastal strip of Asia Minor. In Paul’s later letter to the churches in Galatia he says that he came to them because he was ill. Another view is that Paul has a practical reason for going to Pisidian Antioch: The town sits astride the Via Sebaste, the Roman road from Ephesus going to the Euphrates. (GCI) Some commentators speculate that they went to Pisidian Antioch because Sergius Paulis had relatives there and sponsored the next leg of their journey. (Witherington)
  • Why did Paul and Barnabas have a chance to speak at the synagogue?  First, this was not necessarily their first Sabbath at the synagogue. Paul and Barnabas may have known to the synagogue rulers or officials. Secondly, Paul’s dress may have identified him as a rabbi and Pharisee, thereby giving him some authority.
  • Paul’s declaration that Jesus provided better “justification” than the Law meant that through Jesus a person is finally and permanently declared to be righteous (made right with God). Forgiveness of sins through the Law needed to be perpetually sought.
  • “God-fearing women of high standing” meant Roman women who are attracted to Judaism. These women were leveraged to influence their husbands, the leading men or magistrates of the city, to help drive Paul and Barnabas out of town. (IVP)
  • It was customary for Jews to shake off the dust of a pagan town from their feet when they returned to their own land, as a symbol of cleansing themselves from the impurity of sinners who did not worship God.  (Marshall) It was also something Jesus had told his disciples to do in the face of rejection.

Discussion:

  • What do you think Paul and Barnabas’ view of their own success was? They met with a high official, bested a sorcerer, won converts, yet were driven out of town. How would you feel if your missionary trip began with such promise and ended in such turmoil?
  • What do you make of Paul’s emphasis on using Old Testament scriptures to show Jesus as the heir to the throne of David? Why did he emphasis these particular points with his audience? Why threaten them with the prophecies of Habakkuk at the end? Is this still a legitimate line of reasoning when discussing the gospel with 21st century Americans? What establishes Jesus’ legitimacy as Lord and Savior in today’s context? What warning can be given to someone for not listening to the gospel?

References:

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • How do we hear the Holy Spirit?  How many days/weeks/years did the Christians at Antioch fast before they heard something?
  • Paul took a text that didn’t appear to be about Jesus and showed his audience how Jesus was part of that narrative. The Jews didn’t necessarily see their history or their scriptures pointing to Jesus (or the type of Messiah he was). Jesus could only be seen in those things by applying a new perspective. What truths/texts/histories can we point to today to show Jesus to our own culture? For the last century or show Christians have shied away from science, psychology, philosophy and other religions as sources of truth in our culture that Jesus can be found within. If there’s a truth somewhere, isn’t it God’s?
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