Paul and Barnabas continue the first missionary journey. They leave Cyprus after the confrontation with Bar-Jesus and the supernatural conversion of the proconsul, and sail for Lycia and Galatia. It is here that Paul establishes churches and relationships which will form the basis of his epistle to the Galatians. It is also here that resistance from the Jews causes him to formally focus his ministry on the Gentiles.
Paul and Barnabas leave Paphos – the capital city of Cyprus – and sail to Perga, a city in the province of Lycia (all the travel after Cyprus takes place in modern-day Turkey). At this point – for reasons unknown – John (aka Mark, Barnabas’ cousin) leaves them and goes back to his home (or his mother’s home – 12:12) in Jerusalem. The text does not explain what happens to cause him to turn back. Luke simply says he leaves them. It is instructive that he does not go back to Antioch but to Jerusalem. He apparently decides to return all the way home instead of facing the believers who sent them out.
This will later become a problem between Barnabas and Paul. When the two of them decide to go on a second journey they will argue about whether or not to take John. Paul will not want to give him a second chance while Barnabas will. It will become so heated that they will split up and go on separate trips (15:36-41). Paul’s vehement opposition to taking him again points to John turning back for less than justifiable reasons.
Paul and Barnabas apparently do not minister in Perga and instead travel to Antioch in Galatia. Nothing is said in the text as to why but it is instructive to read Paul’s words about his ministry in Galatia which he recounts in Gal 4. There he says that he came to them when he was sick and his sickness was so bad that it apparently disfigured him and perhaps made it so he could not see (Gal 4:13-15). Paul’s health could explain why the group does not stay in Perga – located in a marshy area – but heads out immediately to Pisidian Antioch. Perhaps the cooler climate in the mountains as opposed to the coast is better for Paul’s health.
After arriving in Antioch they enter the synagogue on the Sabbath. The traditional order of service in synagogues calls for the recitation of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 & 11:13-21, Num 15:37-41), a reading from the Law (first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets, followed by a sermon. It is after the reading of the Law and Prophets that the synagogue officials ask Paul and Barnabas to preach a word of exhortation to the people.
It may seem odd that the officials turn to strange men who are in the synagogue for the first time and ask them to preach the main sermon for the Sabbath. However, it is likely that Paul has introduced himself to the Jewish community and the officials realize he is a Pharisee trained by the famous Gamaliel. Thus His credentials make him a natural choice to deliver the day’s message.
Paul stands and begins to speak. He addresses his message to the men of Israel and you who fear God. The synagogue audience is apparently made up of Jews and gentile proselytes as well as gentiles who fear God but are not circumcised. Paul refers to this group again in verse 26.
The first part of his message is a quick history of Israel. It is likely that his audience already knows all the facts and events he recounts. The history of the nation is well known to any Jew – even those who live outside of Judea. They certainly know about the exodus from Egypt and about Saul and David. Paul’s intent therefore is not to teach them history. He wants to show that the history they know has actually culminated in the coming of the Messiah. The people may know the facts of the nation’s past, but they do not know the promised Messiah has come.
Paul explains that Jesus is the promised descendant of David who will rule on the throne of David forever. Jesus is the Savior John the Baptist proclaimed when he preached his baptism of repentance. He is also the One the prophets foretold. Even with all of this being true, however, the Jews still put Him to death. They did not recognize Him for what He was and though they did not find any ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. Ironically, the people fulfilled the very prophecies they did not recognize – even after reading them every Sabbath – by putting the Savior to death.
Paul transitions to the gospel by explaining that Jesus did not stay dead. God raised Him and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people. Jesus appeared to and spent time with the apostles who are now spreading the good news of His resurrection. [Notice how Paul transitions from “…those who came up with Him…who are now His witnesses” in verse 31 to “And we preach to you the good news…” in verse 32. He implicitly states that he and Barnabas are apostles (see also 14:14).]
Paul now explains that Jesus’ death and resurrection provide salvation to those who believe. Jesus is the One David prophesied about in the Psalms as the Son of God who did not suffer decay in the grave. And because He did not stay in the grave it is through Him that forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Paul gives them the straight gospel message. It is through Jesus that believers are justified (freed from all things). They are not only forgiven but declared wholly righteous before God. Those who believe in the risen Christ come into God’s presence with their own sins forgiven – because of Christ’s death – and with Christ’s righteousness as their own such that they are legally righteous before the holy and just God.
Paul ends his sermon with a warning. He quotes Habakkuk 1:5 and tells his listeners to take heed so that what God said to Habakkuk does not happen to them. The context of the Habakkuk warning is coming judgment. The Israelites were about to be punished by the wicked and ruthless Babylonians. That God could bring such a wicked nation to punish Israel was beyond the comprehension of His people. Yet it was true. And Paul’s point is that just like then the gospel is almost too incredible to believe. But the one who does not believe it will face judgment just like Israel did in Habakkuk’s day and will perish the same way. The gospel is true and judgment is coming on those who do not believe it.
The listeners in the synagogue cannot get enough of Paul’s message. As he and Barnabas leave, they beg them to come back the next Sabbath and speak again. Many of them – both Jews and gentile proselytes – also follow Paul and Barnabas. Some who follow apparently already believe the gospel as Paul and Barnabas urge them to continue in the grace of God.
The next Sabbath a huge crowd turns out to hear Paul at the synagogue. Luke perhaps uses hyperbole to say that nearly the whole city assembles to hear the word of God. It is a great crowd and likely unprecedented for any other Sabbath. The Jewish leaders see this response and become filled with jealousy. The crowds have never gathered like this to hear them speak. Paul is from out of town and speaks one time and the city reacts to him in a way it never reacted to them. Their self-interest immediately kicks in and they no longer care about the listeners or about lives changing or whether the Messiah has in fact come. They just know they must do something to keep Paul from surpassing them in the people’s estimation.
This text shows a truth that is repeated all through the gospels and Acts. God’s word – when it is proclaimed faithfully – always has an effect. Those who hear it either love it and believe it and are dramatically changed, or they hate it and fight against it and want those who speak it to go away or die. The word of God is not benign. In this case it affects an entire city and turns the Jewish religious leaders into violent persecutors.
The Jews decide to fight against Paul’s popularity by contradicting his message. They speak against the gospel and against Paul personally. By doing so they show they are more concerned with their standing than they are with the truth of what’s being preached. They did not seem to have a problem with Paul’s message last week but decide to contradict it now that it has made him popular with the people. Their motives and identity are exposed by their opposition (God oftentimes brings events into people’s lives to expose the hypocrisy of those who only claim to serve Him). They do not oppose the message as much as the results of it being proclaimed.
This is yet another example of the blinding effects of sin. The religious leaders do not stop and consider what it means if what Paul proclaims is true. They do not remember his warning quote from Habakkuk. They only see that their respect before the people is at risk. They see nothing other than how the gospel threatens their popularity and standing. This is similar to how the Sanhedrin reacted to Peter and John’s healing of the lame man (4:16-17). The wonder of the healing was not even considered – just the threat it was to the authority of the council. The most dangerous part of sin this side of eternity is its ability to blind us to anything other than our self-interest. Think about how foolish the Jews in this passage are – they reject eternal life because it threatens their popularity in Antioch. [Perhaps what made Paul – before his conversion – such a dangerous opponent to the gospel was his sincerity. He passionately believed it was wrong and that he was serving God in trying to destroy it. This separated him from the other religious leaders whose motives were much more selfish.]
Paul and Barnabas react strongly to the opposition. They announce very publicly that they will stop ministering to the Jews and instead take the gospel to the Gentiles. They tell the Jews ominously that by repudiating the gospel they judge themselves unworthy of eternal life. They have turned their backs on the gospel and done exactly what the Habakkuk prophecy Paul quoted last week warned against. They are scoffers who will perish. [This is always the choice of the one who rejects the gospel – he judges himself unworthy of eternal life. Can there be a more frightening phrase than that? And can there be a better way of stating how foolish the decision to reject the gospel is? When you say ‘no’ to God’s offer of salvation you are not just rejecting God; you are stating that in your estimation you are not worthy of eternal life.]
Paul and Barnabas quote a passage out of Isaiah to justify their decision to go to the Gentiles. Interestingly the prophecy is actually about Jesus (it was quoted by Simeon in the temple when Joseph and Mary brought baby Jesus there to present Him to the Lord – Lk 2:32) but as apostles Paul and Barnabas apply it to themselves.
When the Gentiles hear this they rejoice (it was apparently a very public proclamation made before the Jews and the crowd). They also believe. They glorify the word of the Lord and it spreads through the whole region.
The Jews, however, are not bowed by Paul’s strong words. They stir up the prominent men and women of the city and instigate a persecution against Paul and Barnabas that eventually drives them away. As they leave the apostles shake the dust off their feet – as Jesus instructed His disciples to do (Matt 10:14) – to protest what has happened. They proceed to Iconium, another city in Galatia.
Even with the persecution, however, the ones in Antioch who believed continue on in the faith. They are continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. They are truly converted, and the indwelling Spirit of God fills them with joy even in the midst of persecution.
A Further Note about Freedom in the Gospel
Paul gets to the heart of the gospel in verses 38 and 39. He says as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection that forgiveness of sins is available and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses. The word freed in these verses can also be translated “justified.” The one who believes in Jesus is forgiven and justified – declared righteous – in a way that is not possible under the Law. The Law cannot justify anyone because no one can keep it. Thus the Law shows people their sin but does not justify – it does not set anyone free.
And freedom is very important to Paul’s gospel presentation. Remember that he speaks to a primarily Jewish audience. By telling them they are freed from all things in Christ he lets them know that not only are they free from sin but they are free from the Law. The Law cannot justify them – thus they are no longer beholden to it. “Freed” and “justified” are interchangeable because justification through faith in Jesus means man is no longer involved in his own salvation. No one earns anything and thus no one is a slave to either sin or the Law. The believer in Jesus is free.
This is the principle the Galatians – the people he speaks to – will be misled about after Paul leaves. He will stress again and again in his letter to them that they are free from the Law – they do not need to abide by it to gain salvation. Freedom becomes one of the main threads of the epistle. It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1 – see also 3:10-14, 4:21-31).
Freedom is a concept believers may not think about as much as they should. Christianity promises freedom in two ways – we are free from earning our salvation and we are free from enslavement to sin. We do not stand before God in our own righteousness and even as believers we do not earn His favor with our daily acts. And once we are His we no longer are under the power of sin. We are not perfect but we are also not powerless before temptation. We stand before God justified in the perfect righteousness of Christ, and because He is perfect and resisted all temptation we stand in the world with the power to resist sin.
Freedom is really what makes Christianity unique. No other belief system promises freedom from living up to an arbitrary standard in order to please God. And no other promises freedom from besetting sins through the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus died so we can live and He took our sin so we can be free. We are FREE. We are free from wondering if we are righteous enough. We are free from worrying about how we compare to others. We are free from trying to earn our way into God’s presence. And though we continue to live imperfectly in a sin-cursed world, we are free from the enslaving power of sin.