Great Men of God

Acts 13:1

With the death of Herod, the church was again free to preach the gospel. The last great advance in winning souls had been the addition of many gentiles to the church in Antioch. Now Antioch became the springboard for the next great advance.

At this time, the church in Antioch was blessed with several outstanding leaders. The reader of the earlier chapters of Acts already knows Barnabas and Saul. Simeon called Niger (or "black") may have been the Simon who carried Jesus’ cross (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). Lucius of Cyrene was probably one of the men from Cyprus and Cyrene who first took the gospel to the gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19–21). Manaen had ties to the royal family descended from Herod the Great, ruler of the Jews when Jesus was born. In the Greek, the expression "brought up with Herod" could mean that as a result of being adopted by the royal family, Manaen was Herod’s foster brother. But it more likely means that as a result of being schoolmates, Manaen and Herod were childhood friends. The reference is to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who executed John the Baptist.

Delving Deeper

An ancient tradition concerning Simon Niger

To merge the identities of Simeon Niger and Simon the crossbearer is a very ancient tradition winning the endorsement of many conservative scholars. The evidence that they were the same man is circumstantial but compelling.

  1. If the name Simeon is, as it appears, a variant of the name Simon, the two men have the same name.
  2. Simeon Niger presumably means Simeon the black man. It is probable that when scanning the crowd of onlookers for a man to carry Jesus’ cross, the Roman soldiers would have picked a black man if they saw one, for in the Roman world as in more recent societies, the common lot of a black man was to serve as a slave.
  3. The Gospels say that the man who carried the cross came from Cyrene. In Acts, we learn that preachers from Cyprus and Cyrene founded the church in Antioch. We learn also that a few years later, the prominent leaders of that church included a certain Lucius, said to be a Cyrenian. Thus, he was probably one of the founders. Since another may have been his associate Simeon, we infer that Simeon may also have been a Cyrenian.
  4. Mark names Rufus and Alexander as two sons of Simon the crossbearer. For what reason does he name them? They must have been well-known figures in the early church. Thus, we may presume that their father was a convert to Christ.
  5. Some scholars, surmising that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome for the Romans, have identified the Rufus mentioned by Mark with the Rufus mentioned by Paul in his greetings to the Roman church (Rom. 16:13). If they are the same man, Paul’s recognition of Rufus as a church leader in Rome demonstrates that Simon the crossbearer’s family indeed had a prominent role in the early Christian community. It is possible that Rufus went to Rome as a missionary sent out by Antioch.
  6. Rufus was apparently accompanied by his mother, also mentioned in Paul’s greeting. Paul identifies her as both "his [Rufus’s] mother and mine." The wording is a bit peculiar if she was Paul’s own mother in the flesh. Then he would not have thought it necessary to identify her by first speaking of her relationship to Rufus. He would have said, "Greet Rufus and my mother." If our case so far has followed the right track, she was actually Simon the crossbearer’s wife. Why would Paul think of her as motherlike? When Barnabas brought Saul back to Antioch, he was a young bachelor with no family nearby. Simeon Niger’s wife may have taken a motherly interest in him, making sure he was well provided with food and fellowship.

Consider the ramifications if Simeon Niger was Simon the crossbearer. We understand better why he was such a fruitful evangelist. Imagine hearing the man preach who not only witnessed the Crucifixion, but also walked with Jesus along the road to Calvary! When coming from his lips, the gospel must have had an especially powerful impact.

Scripture records the names of these leaders because at a critical moment in church history, each used his influence to move the church in the right direction. Each set an example of outstanding Christian leadership.

Getting Practical

Heroes for the young

Young people today idolize figures made famous by the media, even though few, if any, picture a godly Christian life. The men Luke lists in this verse are the right models for young people. Each was a true hero, a spiritual giant, who dedicated his life to the glory of God. By comparison, most entertainers and sports stars are not heroes at all, because they seek their own glory. Some are nothing but scoundrels flaunting every manner of wickedness.

The Spirit's Choice

Acts 13:2-3

As the believers in Antioch walked with God, the Holy Spirit showed them what to do next. The Spirit wanted the believers to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a new work. He did not reveal exactly what that work would be. Rather, they would find out as they followed His day-by-day direction. Yet, it was clear that He wanted them to leave Antioch and carry the gospel to new places. He implied that He had already given Barnabas and Saul their call to missionary service.

The church then spent much time in prayer and fasting.

Getting Practical

New Testament view of fasting

Many people imagine that fasting was an Old Testament practice which we may safely neglect today. They forget that Jesus Himself recommended it (Matt. 6:16–18; Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35). Likewise did Paul (1 Cor. 7:5). They forget also that both Jesus (Matt. 4:2; Luke 4:2) and Paul (Acts 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27) fasted, setting an example for us. Here in Acts 13 we learn that the church in Antioch used fasting as a tool for determining God’s will.

There is no merit in abstaining from food. The purpose in fasting is to withdraw from the world of physical sensations, so that we can concentrate better on communion with God.

No doubt they asked God to protect these men as they went through many dangers and to give them a great harvest of souls. What they prayed was probably very similar to what we pray for our missionaries today.

Getting Practical

God’s call to missionary service

The events leading to Saul's first missionary journey show the way God usually puts new missionaries on the field.

  1. God impressed on Barnabas and Saul His desire that they serve Him as missionaries.
  2. He confirmed to the church that these men were indeed called of God.
  3. The church prayed for God's blessing on the work.
  4. The church sent off the missionaries with the laying on of hands.

Pondering a Question

What did the laying on of hands signify?

In five ways the ceremony pictured the church as the sender and the apostles as those sent.

  1. The church bestowed on the apostles its approval and blessing.
  2. The church affirmed that they were going out as its representatives.
  3. The church acknowledged its responsibility to support them with prayer and perhaps with material resources.
  4. The church certified that as they went out to do the work of God, they would possess all the authority that Christ granted the church.
  5. The church testified by means of symbols that the same power of the Spirit which the church in Antioch was privileged to exercise would now be available to the apostles.

In summary, the ceremony was a reminder that the chief responsibility of any local church is to send out laborers who will build new churches, and a reminder too that a Christian worker receives the necessary support, authority, and power only because he is an instrument for accomplishing this task.

Pondering a Question

Does a missionary remain under the authority of the sending church?

Certainly not. He may conduct his ministry in any manner he feels is according to the leading of God. Nor is any church he establishes under the authority of the sending church. The new church is as independent and autonomous as any other local body of Christ. Yet if the missionary accepts support from churches and individuals, he is accountable to them for his use of it. He must verify that he has exercised good stewardship, both by avoiding waste and by pursuing objectives they would approve.

Preaching in Cyprus

Acts 13:4-5

Barnabas and Saul traveled to the port city of Seleucia on the Mediterranean. John Mark, Barnabas’s cousin, was a third member of the team. He was only a helper to the other men, yet in witnessing for Christ, he could make a contribution that was perhaps unique. Among the three, he may have been the only one who knew and followed Christ while He still walked the earth.

Their first stop after setting sail was Cyprus. Their choice of this island as a starting place for their work may have rested on two primary considerations.

  1. Some Jews there had already heard the gospel (Acts 11:19). Any who did not receive it initially were perhaps now, after a time of feeling the Spirit's wooing in their hearts, ripe to respond in faith.
  2. Barnabas once lived in Cyprus (Acts 4:36). He was familiar with the people and the customs. In circles where he was known, he no doubt enjoyed a good reputation that would create open doors.

The city they entered first was Salamis on the east coast. It was a good strategic choice because it was formerly the capital of the island and presently it was the island's largest city; also, it was home to a large Jewish colony.

The missionaries followed a strategy that Paul retained throughout his years of ministry. They focused on the Jews first, attending Sabbath-day services in the synagogues and offering themselves to preach. They only had to secure permission from the chief ruler of the synagogue, who would have looked favorably on men with their credentials. As a Levite (Acts 4:36), Barnabas belonged to the tribe traditionally entrusted with responsibility to instruct the people in the will of God (Deut. 31:9–13; 33:8–112 Chron. 30:22; Neh. 8:7–8). As for Saul, he was not only a highly trained rabbi; he was also a former pupil of Gamaliel and likely also a former member of the Sanhedrin.

Delving Deeper

The strategy in going to synagogues first

Not only in this first missionary journey, but also throughout his evangelistic travels, Paul, whenever he entered a new city, targeted the Jews first if possible. If the city held a synagogue, he went there on the Sabbath and proclaimed to the largely Jewish audience that their long-awaited Messiah was Jesus. The strategy of giving Jews priority had a threefold basis.

  1. Before His ascension, Jesus told the disciples that they should be witnesses to the whole world, starting in Judea (Acts 1:8). He implied that Jews should be the first to hear the gospel.
  2. Paul's goal in every city was to establish a church, and from its inception, every church needed leaders. If local converts included Jewish men, they were the best qualified to step into leadership roles, because they were already well-grounded in the Scriptures and, if they had been devout in their religious faith, they were already well-acquainted with godly living. A group of Jewish fathers and their families therefore provided the nucleus of a church that could survive and grow after Paul moved on to other places.
  3. In many synagogues, Paul found some God-fearers—gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel. Of all gentiles, these were by far the most receptive to the good news of salvation in Christ. Witnessing to them brought quick results, which were essential if Paul was to fulfill God's plan for his ministry. He was called by God to build new churches throughout whole regions and nations.

The Clash with Bar-Jesus

Acts 13:6-12

Barnabas and Saul eventually, after preaching in places along the road, made their way to Paphos, another principal city on the island. It was located on the southwest coast about ninety miles from Salamis. The privilege of serving as capital city had passed to Paphos some years before, in AD 15, when Salamis was devastated by an earthquake.

There they went to the residence of the governor, Sergius Paulus, described as a "prudent" man. That is, he was wise and discerning. Somehow he had heard about Barnabas and Saul, and he called for them to come and present themselves. Once they arrived, he asked them to preach the Word of God.

Yet he had come under the influence of another Jewish religious teacher, a false prophet and sorcerer named Bar-Jesus, which means "son of Joshua [or Jesus]." He was also called Elymas, which means "wise," but to predispose us against believing that the name suited him, Luke has already stated that the truly wise man in the chamber was the governor.

Delving Still Deeper

Interpretation of the man's name

Luke adds that Elymas’s name when rightly interpreted means "sorcerer." Why he fails to relay the actual, undebatable meaning of Elymas has given scholars much fuel for discourse. Perhaps the right explanation is that he is presenting "sorcerer" as the meaning of Bar-Jesus, not Elymas.

Defense of this explanation starts by noticing that nowhere else in the Book of Acts do we find someone called a false prophet. The term refers of course to someone who poses as a true prophet—a spokesman for the real God of heaven. As a Jew, Bar-Jesus no doubt advertised himself as a man capable of doing magic because he was a pious follower of the Jewish God, Creator and Master of all the forces in nature.

Yet it is possible that he adopted the specific name Bar-Jesus because he wanted to picture himself as a disciple of the famous miracle-worker, Jesus of Nazareth. He was then able to claim Jesus as the source of his own magical powers.

Perhaps Jesus was a name that not only he, but also other magicians, had decided to exploit for personal gain. Later, we will cite evidence that some Jewish exorcists viewed Jesus' name as a tool for commanding demons, as well as evidence that some magicians used His name in incantations and other occult practices. Perhaps some Jewish magicians had emphasized their connection with Jesus to the extent of calling themselves sons of Jesus. As a result, the name Bar-Jesus had come to signify a magician. Luke is telling us the word's meaning not according to derivation but according to usage.

For this reading of Luke's comment "so is his name by interpretation," we can offer varied support.

  1. In its previous use, "name" was affixed to Bar-Jesus.
  2. The phrase "Elymas the sorcerer" seems to be a replacement for his full name, Elymas Bar-Jesus. Luke alerts us to the gloss by saying, "For so is his name by interpretation."
  3. Luke did not need to interpret a name like Elymas, with a meaning generally understood. That is seldom his practice elsewhere.
  4. The one exception is when he introduces Barnabas (Acts 4:36). The name conferred on him by the apostles was appropriate, because its meaning according to derivation truly described him. He was a "son of consolation." But having affirmed that in one man's case we can trust his name as a window to his character, Luke could not name the sorcerer as Bar-Jesus without cautioning us that the meaning intended by the man himself is spurious.
  5. The two men with interpreted names come together in the same scene. Both the men and their names are clearly presented as contrastive parallels. They are both "sons." When they come into conflict, the victor is the man whose name tells the truth about his parentage. By informing us that Bar-Jesus means "sorcerer," Luke is therefore accomplishing a double purpose: not only giving us its meaning according to usage, but also assuring us that in adopting the name because of its meaning by derivation, the sorcerer was a liar.

Pondering a Question

Why had Sergius Paulus summoned the apostles?

Many expositors suppose that the governor called for the apostles because their preaching had caused a commotion in the Jewish community and he wished to evaluate whether he should view them as threats to civil disorder. His interest in the Word of God was not spiritual searching but, as it were, official investigation. Many of the same expositors accuse the apostles of misunderstanding the governor's reaction to their dramatic contest with Bar-Jesus. Sergius did not actually become a believer. He merely voiced toleration of their work on the island. But when we examine this sort of skepticism, we see several flaws.

  1. Luke has not mentioned any opposition in the Jewish community. Perhaps the apostles won a more sympathetic hearing in Cyprus than Paul later met in other regions. The Cypriot Jews had already been exposed to gospel preaching, Barnabas was a man they respected, and Saul bore impressive credentials.
  2. Sergius Paulus had already sought spiritual guidance from Elymas, a Jewish prophet, although a false prophet. Why else would Elymas have been present on this occasion? He must have belonged to the group of men who attended the governor and conversed with him about weighty matters of philosophy and religion or matters more practical. We infer that the governor had a strong interest in the religion of the Jews.
  3. Why would Elymas have striven so hard "to turn away the deputy from the faith" if the governor was not obviously listening with a seeker's heart and mind?
  4. Luke reports that the governor believed after being struck with astonishment at Paul's miracle. It is far-fetched to imagine that Luke fell victim to mistaken judgment on this scale. Elsewhere in his writings we find sober judgment.
  5. William Ramsay offered good evidence that "Sergius Paullus became a well-known name in Christian circles, and that Sergia Paulla, the daughter of our proconsul, was a Christian, together with her son C. Caristanius Fronto, member of a prominent family of Pisidian Antioch."

Pondering a Question

Historical confirmation of details

The account of the team's encounter with Sergius Paulus includes several details supported by historical records.

  1. The Romans used a multitude of administrative titles, but, as we will demonstrate repeatedly throughout this commentary, any title given by Luke can be relied on for accuracy. "Deputy" is a translation of anthupatos, Greek for the Roman title "proconsul," held by the ruler of a senatorial province as distinguished from an imperial province. The basic difference between them was that in the latter, troops were required to maintain order. As a province well-integrated into the empire, Cyprus was a senatorial province, where the ruler was, as Luke affirms, a proconsul.
  2. The name Paulus (also spelled "Paullus" appears in several ancient writings with reference to a prominent figure in mid-first century Roman affairs. One inscription found in Rome identifies a L(ucius) Sergius Paullus and several others as curators of the Tiber River during the reign of Claudius Caesar, who reigned from AD 41 to 54. It is, of course, impossible to be sure that he was the same man that we find in Acts 13. However, another inscriptions is harder to dismiss as referring to someone else, because it was found in Cyprus. Bearing the date AD 54, it places a recent event "during the time of the proconsul Paulus." A figure named Sergius Paulus also appears in the writings of Pliny the Elder, who credits him as one source of information.
  3. The same Pliny attests that on Cyprus, sorcery was prevalent. "There existed different groups of magicians from the time of Moses such as Jannes and Lotape, of whom the Jews had spoken of. And in fact many thousands yearly follow after Zoroastrian ways especially during recent times on the Island of Cyprus."

As Barnabas and Saul preached to the governor, Elymas stood by and tried to argue with them. Finally, Saul grew so annoyed that he sharply rebuked Elymas, describing him in terms that were a searing contradiction of his deceptive claims. The sorcerer called himself Elymas, implying that he was full of wisdom, but he was a man full instead of subtlety and mischief. He called himself Bar-Jesus, implying that he was Jesus' son, but he was a child of the devil. As a Jew, he presented himself as a teacher of the religion with a uniquely exalted code of moral law, but he was an enemy of righteousness.

With a boldness and confidence flowing from the Holy Spirit, Saul called upon the Lord to strike Elymas with blindness "for a season" (that is, temporarily). Immediately, the sorcerer lost his sight, as if a mist had settled upon his eyes. He was helpless to move unless someone guided him by the hand.

Pondering a Question

Of all the ways that Saul might have used to counter the sorcerer's opposition, why did he choose to strike the man with blindness?

The motive behind Saul's harsh treatment of Elymas was not anger or spite. Saul was controlled not by the flesh, but by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he was acting for the good of Elymas. He remembered from his own experience on the road to Damascus that blindness is very useful for humbling a proud man. He brought physical blindness on Elymas in the hope that it would open his spiritual eyes.

Moreover, Saul's way of dealing with Elymas was a quick and easy demonstration that any power the sorcerer claimed was no match for the power in Saul.

Whether Elymas ever repented of his sins, we do not know. But we do know that the miracle brought the governor to faith in Christ. He recognized that Saul had the power of God. The gospel that Barnabas and Saul were presenting was so different from anything he had heard before that he was astonished, yet he understood that it was different because it was true. It was not the sort of teaching that men devise, but the sort that would come from a perfect, holy God.

Delving Deeper

The true savior

Every human religion exalts man, making him his own savior through works, rituals, or occult practices. Only Christianity identifies God as the Savior.

Pondering a Question

Why does Saul's name suddenly change to Paul in verse 9?

The name by which Saul was known throughout the rest of his life—Paul—appears for the first time in verse 9. Until the moment of this incident, Saul took second place to Barnabas. But after Saul showed unusual faith and courage in opposing the sorcerer, he became the team leader. This is the point in the narrative where Luke chooses to rename him Paul, which means "little." To signify that he was nothing in himself, but solely a creature of grace, Paul preferred to be known as "the little one."

The change in leadership is indicated not only by Saul’s new name, but also by a new ordering when his name appears with others. Frequently before verse 9, Barnabas is put first (Acts 11:30; 12:25; 13:2, 7), but after verse 9, first place generally goes to Paul (Acts 13:43, 46, 50). In verse 13, for example, the traveling group is described as "Paul and his company."

Pondering a Question

Was Paul already one of Saul's names?

Saul was, of course, a Hebrew name, whereas Paul was a Roman name. Since the apostle inherited Roman citizenship, the name Paul was doubtless bestowed on him at birth. Probably it was his cognomen; that is, his third given name (often designating a particular branch of a family), preceded by a praenomen (personal name) and nomen (family name). His first two names have not been preserved.

In Jewish circles, he had always called himself Saul for perhaps two reasons: not only to bond more closely with other Jews, but also to encourage comparison with his namesake, the first king of Israel. The name had a royal flavor. But in the residence of Sergius Paulus, his life took a sharp turn away from Jewish culture, leading him into the culture of gentiles. There he likely introduced himself, perhaps for the first time in his life, as Paul the Roman citizen. His purpose would have been to gain more respect from the Roman governor and his train. The same advantage in naming himself Paul would await the apostle to the gentiles wherever he went in the future. So in Paphos, under the Spirit's leading, he changed his identity, becoming Paul rather than Saul.

Delving Deeper

Overlapping names

It is hard to imagine that Paul would have shunned the opportunity to inform the governor that they shared the same cognomen. Might they have been related? Since Paul was a Jew, it seems very unlikely. But given the governor's interest in things Jewish, we cannot dogmatically rule out a common ancestry. Perhaps Paul went to Paphos because he knew another Paul was in command of the province.

Delving Deeper

Names serving as personal banners

The meaningful names of the antagonists standing before Sergius Paulus add another dimension to the story. The reader is evidently expected to understand that the two men whose names spoke of simple virtue easily bested the man whose name spoke of proud deceit.

Pondering a Question

How did the change in leadership come about?

Barnabas, the proper leader beforehand, must have initiated the change. Throughout his years of ministry, Barnabas devoted himself to building up others as servants of the Lord. He is especially remembered for assisting Saul in making the transition from church enemy to church leader. When Saul came to Jerusalem after his conversion, Barnabas was the one who lowered the barriers to his acceptance by the apostles and the community of believers (Acts 9:26–28). He was also the one who brought Saul out of obscurity in Tarsus to prominence in Antioch (Acts 11:25–26). He then shepherded Saul in his new responsibilities until he was ready to join Barnabas in a groundbreaking missionary journey. Later, he let Saul be the principal decision-maker in their work together.

Why would a mature saint surrender leadership to a protégé? Barnabas must have known that when the Lord met Saul on the road to Damascus, He assigned him the task of evangelizing the gentiles (Acts 26:16–18), and the Spirit must have instructed Barnabas that the task leader should be Saul. Therefore in due time, as soon as Barnabas felt that Saul was ready, he put Saul in first place. The move showed that he was selfless enough to set the good of others above personal glory.

Just as Barnabas was an encourager to Paul, so he was also to Mark. He took Mark on the first missionary journey, obviously hoping to make him fruitful in the Lord’s work. We will see that at a later point in Mark’s life, Barnabas again sought to engage him in ministry (Acts 15:36–39).

The story of Barnabas teaches us the essence of godly leadership. Instead of always striving for power, it is always seeking to help.

Mark's Departure

Acts 13:13

Paul and Barnabas now sailed from Paphos, intending to take the gospel to the vast unreached areas of Asia Minor. After a voyage of about a hundred miles to the northwest, they landed on the southern coast near Perga in Pamphylia. To reach the city, they had to walk inland about ten miles.

For some reason not given, John Mark decided against going on. Perhaps the reason is that he resented Paul supplanting Barnabas as team leader. Instead of giving more help to the work, he went back to Jerusalem. Years later, Paul still viewed him as a quitter (Acts 15:36–39), but eventually Mark regained Paul’s respect (2 Tim. 4:11).

Getting Practical

Virtue in perseverance

In any hard task for God, it is easy to find very convincing reasons to give up and go home. Perseverance regardless of the difficulties is a mark of great spiritual maturity.

One reason an increasing percentage of missionaries are not remaining on the field is that many who are going out are too immature. They are not ready to man the front lines in God's war against the powers of darkness. Mark was likewise unready for the work. His departure from Paul damaged his reputation for years to come.

Delving Deeper

Mark’s later remorse

In his Gospel, Mark speaks of a young man who deserted Christ on the night of His arrest (Mark 14:50–52). It has always been generally believed that the young man was the author himself. So far as we can tell, he brings himself into the narrative at no other place. His single appearance, showing that the same man who forsook Paul and Barnabas had also forsaken Jesus, suggests that being a quitter was a long-lasting burden on Mark’s conscience.

Preaching in Pisidia

Acts 13:14-22

Paul and Barnabas did not stay in Perga, but commenced a taxing journey to Antioch in Pisidia. They had to walk northward a hundred miles along a slope ascending from sea level to an altitude of 3600 feet.

Pondering a Question

Why did they not seek to evangelize Perga?

Many readers are puzzled why Paul and Barnabas apparently made no attempt to start a church in Perga. The easy, and most likely, explanation is that it contained no synagogue to serve as springboard for reaching both Jews and gentiles.

Delving Deeper

Location of Antioch

The Antioch they reached after their climb was one of seventeen Antiochs in the ancient world. Its common name therefore added its location. The name Antioch in Pisidia was slightly inaccurate, however. Although this city overlooked the region known as Pisidia, it was an outpost of Phrygia, another region to the west. Its common name served to distinguish it from a Phrygian Antioch more distant from Pisidia. Both Phrygia and Pisidia were subdivisions of Galatia, a Roman province.

The city targeted by the apostles promised a good harvest of souls. First, it was a military center affording opportunities to reach soldiers, who were always an audience receptive to the gospel. Second, it had a very large Jewish population. Josephus speaks of two thousand Jewish families in the area. Third, it was a Roman colony, therefore more open to the ministry of a Roman citizen like Paul.

On the Sabbath, Paul and Barnabas found the local synagogue and sat down with the congregation. The service went according to custom. First there were prayers followed by readings from both the Law and the prophets. Then one or more teachers arose and gave instruction, often focused on explaining and applying the readings.

After the preliminaries during the service attended by Paul and Barnabas, the rulers of the synagogue invited them to speak. It has been suggested that the apostles were recognized as teachers because they wore the dress of Pharisees. But the more likely reason is that the apostles introduced themselves to the rulers before the service began. Paul, accepting the invitation, stood up and began to preach. In his opening words he addressed two kinds of people in the audience. There were Jews and there were God-fearers. As we explained before, "God-fearers" was the usual name for gentiles who regularly attended a synagogue and worshiped the God of Israel.

Like Stephen’s sermon before the Sanhedrin, Paul’s began with a review of the nation’s history. The lesson Stephen drew from it was that Israel had always been rebellious, but Paul intended a very different lesson. He wanted to show how gracious God had always been to Israel. In days long ago, He chose the nation’s fathers to receive His special favor. After the twelve tribes fell into bondage in Egypt, He delivered them and exalted them above their enemies. He tolerated their disobedience in the wilderness. He secured a home for them in Canaan by destroying other nations. For their protection and guidance, He provided judges to rule them four hundred years. Then, for the same purpose, He gave them a king, Saul, and afterward He replaced Saul with a better king, David, who was a man after God’s own heart.

Declaring Christ

Acts 13:23-41

Continuing, Paul revealed why God had always treated the Israelites as His chosen people. He preserved them and bestowed upon them His special care so that someday they could produce the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Paul reminded his audience of God’s disclosure to David and the prophets that the Messiah would come from David’s line.

Pondering a Question

Where does the Old Testament prophesy the Davidic lineage of Christ?

The first great king of Israel was David, who reigned about 1000 B.C. When David asked the Lord for permission to build Him a temple, the Lord refused, but rewarded his devotion by making an everlasting covenant with him and his descendants. "And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever" (2 Sam. 7:16). The psalmist’s elaboration of this covenant is more explicit. "His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before me" (Ps. 89: 36). "His seed [singular]" who would possess an eternal kingdom is Christ.

Many prophecies of the Old Testament concur that the future king of the world—that is, the Messiah—will be David’s descendant (1 Chron. 17:11-14; Ps. 89; 132; Isa. 9:6-7). Jeremiah called the Messiah a branch of David (Jer. 23:5). Similarly, Isaiah spoke of the Messiah as a branch from the root of Jesse, David’s father (Isa. 11:1). Later prophets simplified the image and called Him just the Branch (Jer. 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:12; Ps. 132:17, where "bud" is the same word as "Branch" in Jer. 23:5).

Paul now made the sensational announcement that he had been preparing his audience to accept. He said that the Messiah had recently come. He was Jesus. Paul said no more to identify Him because Jews everywhere had no doubt heard something about Jesus’ life and ministry.

In just a few words, Paul presented a strong case that Jesus was the Christ.

1. He was David’s seed—that is, a descendant of David. The apostles could declare this fact without fear of contradiction because the truth was well known. During Jesus’ lifetime, many outside the group of His close followers hailed Him as the son of David (Matt. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30). The crowds greeted Him as a king rightfully entitled "the son of David" when He rode a donkey into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His death (Matt. 21:9, 15). When Jesus was on trial, Pilate, the Roman governor, asked Him whether He was the king of the Jews (John 18:33). Later, Pilate ordered a sign declaring "King of the Jews" to be hung over Jesus’ cross (John 19:19–22). It is obvious that even the Romans knew about Jesus’ royal pedigree.

Delving Deeper

General knowledge of Jesus’ descent

Jews today still revere the Babylonian Talmud, a vast collection of rabbinical teachings and traditions reduced to writing in about AD 600. This ancient document preserves several traditions concerning Jesus.

One of the oldest of these, originating between AD 70 and 200,98 declares, "On the eve of Passover, Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover. Ulla said: 'Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him? He was a deceiver, and the All-merciful says: "You shall not spare him, neither shall you conceal him." It was different with Jesus, for he was near to the kingship."

The claim that the Sanhedrin gave Jesus special treatment because He was "near to the kingship" is not true. It is merely an effort to sidestep the accusation that the Sanhedrin treated Jesus unjustly. But it is significant as proof that the Davidic descent of Jesus was widely known, and never disputed even by His enemies.

2. John the Baptist, a man all Jews accepted as a prophet of God, testified that Jesus was the Christ. John said that he was not worthy even to untie Jesus’ shoelaces (John 1:26–27). Untying shoelaces was the first step when a servant washed the feet of a visitor to his master’s home. Thus, what John meant was that he was not worthy even to begin washing Jesus’ feet.

3. In rejecting Jesus and sending Him to die as a common criminal, the Jewish leaders brought to pass exactly what Scripture prophesied of the Messiah’s treatment by His own people.

Delving Deeper

Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s death

Many Old Testament texts foresee that the Jews would heap abuse upon their Messiah, but the most famous and the one most likely on Paul’s mind when he preached in Antioch is Isaiah 53, which we discussed at some length in our commentary on Acts 8. It gives a vivid picture of the Messiah’s self-sacrifice for our sake.

  1. He would bear our sins. "The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (v. 6).
  2. He would take the punishment for our sins upon Himself. "He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (v. 5).
  3. He would be condemned by a court of law. He was "numbered with the transgressors" (v. 12).
  4. The verdict of death by execution would fall upon Him despite His complete innocence. He had "done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth" (v. 9).
  5. At the end of His suffering He would die. He "made his grave with the wicked" (v. 9).

4. God raised up Jesus from the dead. He then appeared to His own followers so that they could declare to all that He was alive.

Delving Deeper

Strong proof of Jesus’ resurrection

The Resurrection is the best-attested event in antiquity. We have affirmations of it in the writings of no less than five eyewitnesses: Matthew (Matt. 28), Mark (Mark 16:9–19), John (John 20–21), Peter (1 Pet. 1:3), and Paul (1 Cor. 15:8). James and Jude, two more eyewitnesses (both were in the Upper Room at Pentecost, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:7 specifically names James as an eyewitness), do not in their epistles refer to the Resurrection, yet in speaking of Jesus as the living Lord (Jas. 2:1; 5:7–9; Jude 4, 21), they are surely expressing certainty that He rose from the dead. So, the number of eyewitnesses that can be called upon to validate the Resurrection as a historical fact is seven, the perfect number.

By comparison, any ancient event ignored by Scripture has meager confirmation in surviving records. These are not altogether void of eyewitness testimony. Josephus, who served as Roman spokesman during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, furnishes a lengthy story of the holocaust in his Wars of the Jews. Julius Caesar gives a detailed account of his ruthless bloodletting in Gaul in his Gallic War. But what we know otherwise about the Greek and Roman world generally depends on secondhand information relayed to us by one of the major historians, such as Tacitus, Josephus, Suetonius, or Plutarch. Occasionally, they agree with each other or with some surviving inscription or official document. But rarely in our study of antiquity, if we exclude Scripture as a source, do we find an event attested by two eyewitnesses. To find an event attested by three would be a challenge. I myself know of none. But an event attested by five—actually seven—eyewitnesses? We can say with confidence that none exists. The strong evidential foundation underlying our belief in the Resurrection has no parallel in extrabiblical records of man’s history in the era of Christ, or indeed in all the millennia before modern times.

5. His resurrection fulfilled several prophecies in the Old Testament. Paul emphasized David's prophecy in Psalm 16 that the Holy One would die, but not see corruption—the same prophecy that Peter had used so effectively in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:24–31). The Jews thought that David was speaking about himself, so Paul pointed out that David did see corruption after he died. His body decayed like any other dead body. The Holy One who would rise from the grave was not David, but Christ.

Paul then explained why it is important to believe in Jesus. By believing in Him, we gain two great benefits. First, we obtain forgiveness of sins and avoid the penalty we deserve. Second, we are justified before God. That is, God credits us with the moral perfection of Jesus. We need to be perfect ourselves in order to live forever with a God who is perfect. The Jews thought they could be justified just by keeping the law of Moses, but Paul said they were badly mistaken. He did not show the fallacy in their thinking, because he expected them to see the obvious. To keep the whole law is impossible—every man continually slips into sin of one kind or another.

Paul's closing words were a stern warning. He quoted Habakkuk 1:5, which he applied to the future day when Christ would die for the sins of mankind. When the world heard what Christ had done, many would not believe. Whoever despised Him and despised the message of salvation would perish in his sins.

Getting Practical

A complete message

Paul's final warning to unbelievers is an example for us. If we encounter resistance when witnessing for Christ, we should, with gentleness and evident compassion, warn of the consequences in rejecting Him.

Great Interest

Acts 13:42-43

Paul's sermon had an electrifying effect on the synagogue. After the service, the Jews left first, as was the custom. But Paul and Barnabas stayed behind and greeted the gentiles, who begged them to preach again on the following Sabbath. These God-fearers were eager to hear more, because they wanted to make the right decision. They did not want to suffer the awful fate that, according to Paul's sermon, awaited anyone who despised God's work of salvation.

When Paul and Barnabas walked outside, a large number of Jews and Jewish proselytes were waiting for them. They fell in behind the apostles as they walked along and listened as they exhorted the group of followers "to continue in the grace of God." This advice applied equally to those who already believed and those who were inclined to believe. By welcoming the gospel, they had allowed God's grace to work in their hearts. Now they needed to remain open to whatever else God would teach them.

Turning to the Gentiles

Acts 13:44-49

As the gentiles requested, Paul and Barnabas returned to the synagogue on the following Sabbath. The news of their appearance a week earlier had caused such a stir that nearly every Jew and gentile in the city came to hear them preach again. The synagogue was packed. Probably never before had the Jews seen such a multitude gather to hear the Word of God.

Some of the regular attendees were glad. But some, especially among the Jewish leaders, were very upset. One reason was jealousy. They resented the apostles’ ability to draw far more people than came to hear them. Probably another reason was fear—fear that if the new teaching was widely accepted, they would lose control of the synagogue. Leadership would pass to others.

Delving Deeper

Reasons for resistance

Other factors may have been involved as well. Perhaps the Jewish leaders were simply distrustful of anything new. That is, they jumped to conclusions without investigating all the facts.

Perhaps also their reaction revealed prejudice against the gentiles. They were content to have the gentiles sit in the back and listen to Jewish teachers. But Paul brought a leveling message, proposing to create a new body of believers that would bring gentiles into equality with the Jews, whereas the Jews liked to be superior.

For whatever reasons, at least some Jewish leaders took the floor and began to denounce Paul and Barnabas. They contradicted what Paul taught and blasphemed the name of Jesus. But Paul and Barnabas did not shrink into silence. They took the floor too and boldly rebuked their opponents. They stated that it was their duty to preach the gospel to the Jews first. But now that the Jewish leaders had scorned their opportunity for eternal life, the apostles would turn to the gentiles and offer them the gospel. Paul quoted Isaiah 49:6, which prophesied that Christ would provide salvation not for the Jews only, but for the whole world.

The gentiles were delighted at this turn of events. The gentiles "glorified the word of the Lord"—the word that promised salvation to all. They were glad that above the gate of heaven there was no sign reading "Jews only." The message that Paul and Barnabas preached in Antioch of Pisidia apparently won few converts among the Jews, but many among the gentiles.

The ones who believed were "ordained to eternal life." That is, throughout eternity beyond time, God had always known and loved those He would fashion into the likeness of Christ. Their coming to Christ was the outworking of an eternal plan.

The new believers were so excited about the gospel that they quickly spread it to the whole surrounding region.

Apostles Expelled

Acts 13:50-52

Meanwhile in Antioch, the Jews hostile to the apostles were busy trying to stop them. They enlisted on their side a number of important people, both women and men. The women were devout Jews, very attached to their religious traditions. Probably they were among the older, wealthier members of the community. The men were gentile leaders of the city. These two factions when combined had enough power to make Paul and Barnabas leave town.

Here is where Paul may have first heard the accusation that the new sect known as the Way was not a legal religion. The religion of the Jews was a religio licita—that is, the Romans had granted it official toleration and conceded to it certain rights. Jewish enemies of the gospel were quick to argue that this toleration should not extend to any religious body so distinct from traditional Judaism as the church.

Paul and Barnabas were not defeated. They merely shook the dust of Antioch off their shoes and marched on to another town.

Pondering a Question

What was the meaning in shaking the dust off their shoes?

Shaking off the dust was a gesture that Jesus told His disciples to perform whenever they left a city resistant to the truth (Matt. 10:14). It signified that they were departing clean from all the dirt of unbelief found in that city. It therefore served both as a reminder to the disciples to shake off the city’s influence and as a public testimony to all the watching unbelievers that they had not deterred the disciples from their mission.

The new disciples left behind in Antioch were still filled with joy about their salvation. The source of their joy was the Holy Spirit, whose presence in their hearts would have multiplied not only their joy, but also many other wonderful virtues, including love and peace (Gal. 5:22).

Getting Practical

Signs of the Spirit

Many people today are interested in religion if it relieves their boredom and adds excitement to their lives. Especially attractive is the false religion we might call emotionalism, which replaces true worship with dramatic experiences falsely attributed to the Holy Spirit. These include laughing or sobbing uncontrollably, jumping with hysterical joy or falling down as if slain, speaking gibberish or becoming dead silent, as well as many other childish and disreputable forms of behavior. But the first and primary evidence of the real Spirit is the quiet virtues listed in Galatians 5:22.

Getting Practical

Normal Christianity

In the conversions recorded in Acts, the result was a dramatic change from living for self to living for God. We should view the Christianity of the early church as normal Christianity, not as exceptional Christianity. In our churches today, we do not see many dramatic turnarounds after decisions for Christ. Why? One reason is that many people who come forward for salvation in postmodern America view religion not as truth, but as something to try. They have a consumer mentality. To counter this trend, the church should always keep truth claims in the forefront. It should always clearly recommend Christianity on the grounds that it is true, not on the grounds that it works. It does work as a solution to problems and as a source of purpose in life, but it works because it is true.