Acts chapter 13 begins with the sanctioning of Paul and Barnabas to their first missionary trip. After an eye-opening (all puns intended) description of the belief of a wise man after the blinding of a magician, Paul and Barnabas find themselves at a synagogue in Pisidia Antioch (v 14). After the reading of the OT, the leaders of the synagogue asked Paul to deliver a message, and herein lies the subject of today’s post, where we will see 3 contrasts – of audience, of message, and of response. I pray that it would be a great reminder of where we, the gentile church, stand in the dispensations of God’s grace.
Paul addresses his first audience as consisting of two people in the second half of verse 16: “men of Israel”, and “you who fear God”. The latter phrase is repeated in verse 26 and is clarified in verse 43 as proselytes, or gentile converts to Judaism (those who “arrived” at Judaism, and feared God). These were the two groups of people you might expect to see in a 1st century synagogue, sons of Abraham, and those outside the heritage of Abraham who converted to the form of Judaism present at the time.
Paul’s second address is to a wider group of the city of Antioch in Pisidia on the following sabbath. Verse 44 tells us that “nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord”. This second audience was decidedly gentile. For if there was a Jew or Proselyte on the sabbath, they were in the synagogue. However, the synagogue must have been adjacent to a large city assembly area, for verse 45 tells us the Jews observed the crowds gathering for Paul’s second message. Because they were contradicting the things Paul preached (v 45), it seems to me that the gathering caused the synagogue to release early and join the gathering to interact; so far as to not only interfere with the message, but also become the subject of it. But more on that in a minute.
Back to the first sabbath, God inspires the author of the Acts to record the longer of the two messages of Acts 13. Instead of diving deep here, I offer the following 3 sections for the reader to glean from Paul’s message to the synagogue.
- Christ is the fulfillment of Israel’s desires and anticipations of the millennial kingdom (v 17-25). In this first section, Paul highlights and recounts moments in Jewish history that point to their desire for the Messiah, and specifically, the kingdom promised to their forefathers. The desire for the promised land (v 17-19) and the desire for the rule of the righteous mediator (v 20-22) are highlights of the yearnings of Israel for the promised kingdom. This was the very kingdom the apostles anxiously expected from the resurrected Jesus in Acts 1:6, the very kingdom earnestly offered the Jews when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the very Kingdom rejected by His people demanding His crucifixion, exclaiming they have no king but Caeser. Jesus was to be the King if the Jews would have accepted the offer. He was the One begotten of God who was sent to sit on the throne forever as promised by God to David in 2 Samuel 7. And He was sent to Israel [first] according to v 23, which is an important point I hope to show.
- Next, in verses 26 through 37, we see Paul recount Christ’s rejection, death, burial, and resurrection. For my own purposes here, I draw attention to verses 32 and following, where Paul says that the good news about what happened in Jerusalem was a fulfillment of the promises, specifically, to the fathers (v 32), the ancestors of the Jews he was speaking to. The fulfillment of these promises specifically that God would a) raise up His Begotten and b) resurrect Him from the dead. Specifically, note the explanation of the Psalm that can’t apply to David, for David died, and his flesh suffered decay. The Holy One, then, is a prophecy of the resurrection of Christ, whose flesh certainly did not decay. These acts God accomplished as fulfillment to promises He made to the nation of Israel.
- Lastly, the application of the message in verses 38 through 41, that “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you”, and that through Christ, freedom from all things, including those not accomplishable through the Mosaic Law. In short, Paul’s argument to the synagogue was to have faith in Christ because He is the fulfillment of the promises they heard about every Sunday reading the OT.
The second message was much briefer, though likely contained much of the same gospel content as the prior message, but it wasn’t recorded here. The second message was simply recorded as a fulfillment of Isaiah 49:6 that salvation had come to the Gentiles through the nation of Israel. Which was certainly true in the context of the gospel, that the very sin-bearer who bore the wrath of God in the gentile’s stead was a Jew. However, Paul meant it differently in this context, as a result of the response of the Jews to the gospel message.
In verse 42, the scripture says that the first audience begged to hear more of Paul’s preaching. After the synagogue let out, verse 43 says that many of the Jews and the Jewish converts followed Paul. As to whether this was true Christian conversion, I lean towards the fact that Paul and Barnabas encourage them to “continue in the grace of God”, which means they had to have begun in the grace of God. I am confident, however, that this group that followed Paul and Barnabas are not the same group of Jews who dissented in the second message. There may have been overlap of individuals, however I see no authorial intent to draw such a conclusion. So, some believed and followed Paul, however there were some who did not receive the gospel, and detested the fact that Paul and Barnabas preached it to the Gentiles.
As to the nature of the response of the rest of these Jews, first, it’s interesting to note that Paul vehemently preached that under the new covenant, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (see last post on Galatians 2-3). It seems to me that a Jew who grows jealous of the preaching of Christ to the Gentiles understands not the true gospel, for there is indeed no distinction; we are all justified by faith. Second, Paul explicitly says that the Jews present in Antioch repudiated the message, and thus judged themselves unworthy of it. And because of that, Paul says, it was necessary to turn and preach to the Gentiles, in so doing, fulfilling Isaiah 49:6. It is Israel’s unbelief that allowed for the direct preaching of the Messianic gospel to the Gentiles.
And in verse 48, we see the response of the Gentile crowds to this Messianic gospel. The scripture says they rejoiced and glorified the word of the Lord. And many believed (as many as the Father had appointed). What’s more is that the word was spread throughout the whole region, which tells me that true Christian converts came from Paul’s second message in Acts 13, for they went and preached the same gospel they heard from Paul. And lastly, it is sad to note, that the Jews, after witnessing this message and conversion of Gentiles, sought to persecute Paul, a capstone proclamation of their hardened hearts to the message of Christ.
There are two conclusions I desire to draw from this passage and hope the reader find application thereof. First, think rightly of the age of the church. Many would have you believe that the Gentile Christian church and the promises of the new covenant supersede Israel and the promises of the various OT covenants. However, as Paul preached to the Gentiles here in Acts 13, it is because of the unbelief of Israel that Gentiles received access to the gospel. It is this parenthesis in the overarching plot of Israel and her Messiah in which we, the Gentile believers, find ourselves at presebt. At a future time appointed by God, He will call His church to Him, and thereafter, call Israel back to Himself, fulfilling His promises to them to establish a never ending Kingdom (2 Samuel 7).
However, (and secondly) this is not to mean that we as Christians adopt some self-loathing or pity out of inferiority to the Jews. This was the same false attitude of inferiority the Jews responded with in Acts 13. Rather, it is right thinking about the promises of God that lead to our rejoicing and giving Glory to Him. If God’s promises to Israel were eliminated in their rejection of Christ (as some would say) and replaced by a better covenant, then we serve an unfaithful God. Instead, the right reaction is to glorify His name for sovereignly electing us to be sons. As verse 48 says, only those who were elected by God believed the gospel. Which is still true today, if you are a believer in Christ, you are only so because He sovereignly called you and elected you, and providential lyrics worked out history to provide the gospel message to you, a Gentile.