Great Men of God
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 same Simeon who carried Jesus' cross. Lucius of Cyrene was probably one of the men from Cyrene who first took the gospel to the gentiles in Antioch. 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" signifies that they were childhood friends. It is referring to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who executed John the Baptist.
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.
The Spirit's Choice
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 Saul and Barnabas 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 Saul and Barnabas their call to missionary service.
The church then spent much time in prayer and fasting. 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.
Preaching in Cyprus
Saul and Barnabas traveled to the port city of Seleucia on the Mediterranean. As we learn later, John Mark, Barnabas's nephew, was a third member of the team. The first place they went was Cyprus, where the Jews had already heard the gospel. In Salamis, one of the principal cities, they followed a strategy that Saul retained throughout his years of ministry. They focused on the Jews first, going into all the synagogues and standing up to preach on the Sabbath. With his credentials as a highly trained rabbi, a former pupil of Gamaliel, Saul had no trouble finding an opportunity to speak. He only had to secure permission from the chief ruler of the synagogue.
Saul and Barnabas eventually made their way to Paphos, another principal city on the island. In Paphos, Saul and Barnabas went to the residence of the governor, Sergius Paulus, described as a "prudent" man. That is, he was wise and discerning, and he took a keen interest in the message of Saul and Barnabas. Yet he had come under the influence of another Jewish religious teacher, a false prophet and sorcerer named Bar-jesus, also called Elymas.
As Saul and Barnabas preached to the governor, Elymas stood by and tried to argue with them. Finally, Saul grew so annoyed that he sharply rebuked Elymas, calling him a subtle child of the devil and 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.
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 Saul and Barnabas 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.
Paul and Barnabas now sailed from Paphos, intending to take the gospel to the vast unreached areas of Asia Minor. They landed on the southern coast at Perga in Pamphylia. For some reason not given, John Mark decided against going on. Some have suggested that he resented Paul taking over first place on the team. Instead of giving more help to the work, he went back to Jerusalem. Years later, Paul still viewed him as a quitter, but eventually Mark regained Paul's respect.
Preaching in Pisidia
Paul and Barnabas did not stay in Perga, but traveled inland a short way to Antioch in Pisidia. On the Sabbath, they found the local synagogue and sat down with the congregation. The service went according to custom. First there was a reading from Old Testament Scripture. Then there was a sermon explaining and applying it.
When the rulers of the synagogue saw Paul and Barnabas, they recognized them as teachers and invited them to speak. Paul accepted the invitation and stood up. In his opening words he addressed two kinds of people in the audience. There were Jews and there were "God-fearers." The latter was a common way of describing the many 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 this history was that the nation had always been rebellious. Paul wanted to extract a very different lesson. He wanted to show God's purpose in always being gracious to Israel. God had shepherded and preserved the nation so that someday it could produce the Messiah, the Savior of the world. This was God's ultimate goal
- when He chose the nation originally, in the days of the patriarchs;
- when He delivered the nation from bondage in Egypt;
- when He tolerated their disobedience in the wilderness and gave them a home in Canaan;
- when He provided judges to rule them four hundred years;
- when He gave them a king, Saul;
- when He replaced Saul with a better king, David, who was a man after God's own heart.
Paul reminded the Jews of God's disclosure to David and the prophets that the Messiah would come from David's line.
Paul now made the sensational announcement that he had been preparing his audience to accept. He said that the Christ (Greek for "Messiah") had recently come. He was Jesus. Paul said no more to identify Him because Jews everywhere had no doubt heard 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, the crowds hailed Him as the son of David. When Jesus went for trial before Pilate, Pilate asked Him whether He was the king of the Jews. It is obvious that even the Roman governor knew about Jesus' royal pedigree.
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. 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 His death, the Jewish leaders brought to pass exactly what Scripture prophesied. It said that He would die a criminal's death though He had done nothing wrong.
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.
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 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 His perfection in order to live forever with a perfect God. The Jews thought they could be justified just by keeping the law of Moses, but Paul declared they were badly mistaken. He did not say why, 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 the world. 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.
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 anxious to hear more, because they wanted to come to 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 (gentiles who had gone through all the rituals necessary to be considered full Jews) were waiting for them. They fell in behind the apostles as they walked along and listened as the apostles exhorted them "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
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. 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 among the Jews, especially certain leaders, were very upset. Their reaction was a mixture of jealousy and fear. They resented the apostles' ability to draw far more people than ever came to hear them, and they feared that if the new teaching was widely accepted, they would lose control of the synagogue. Leadership would pass to others.
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.
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 had enough power to make Paul and Barnabas leave town.
Paul and Barnabas were not defeated. They merely shook the dust of Antioch off their shoes and marched on to another town where they could preach the gospel.
The new disciples left behind in Antioch were still filled with joy about their salvation. The Holy Spirit multiplied their joy as well as all the other wonderful virtues that are the fruit of His presence in a man's heart (Gal. 5:22).
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.