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21. Putting the Past In Perspective (Acts 13:13-52)


During the Second World War one of my college professors had been stationed on a small island in the Pacific, along with a handful of men, when 4,000 Japanese troops landed and took them captive. He spent the rest of the war (and more) in a P.O.W. camp in Japan. With a great deal of free time, they organized a number of classes, one of which was “American History.” The class was taught by a British professor who, naturally, taught from a British point of view. Imagine learning American history from a British point of view!

Our background and resulting perspective does shape our view of things. For example, consider the different views a Jew could have had of the Lord’s story of the “prodigal son” in Luke 15. From Acts 6 we know that there were two major groups of Jews in Jerusalem who tended to see matters differently: (1) the “native Hebrews,” those who were born and raised in Israel, and (2) those Jews born elsewhere, who came to Israel and spoke other languages as their native tongue. The “native Hebrews” could more easily identify with the older brother of the prodigal, for they had not left their native land of Israel. The “Hellenistic Jews,” on the other hand, would have been more sympathetic to the son who lived in the far away place but who returned home to his father. One’s past shapes one’s perspective.

We should not find it difficult to imagine then that the Jews who attended the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, as elsewhere, had a perspective of the past colored by their own experiences. In the days of Paul, synagogues were a kind of “Jewish island” in the midst of a sea of Gentiles. For those Jews scattered abroad living in some heathen Gentile city, the synagogue gave them the opportunity to retain their identity by gathering together with other like-minded Jews to study the Old Testament law and, to some degree, to worship. The synagogue was a kind of substitute for the temple and the temple worship of Jerusalem. It was not all that a Jew might wish for, but it was a lot better than nothing.

For such a Jew living abroad, who had “left his heart in Jerusalem,” the synagogue was very important. But beyond this, the past was even more important. For one living in a heathen land, the hope of Israel must have seemed distant and remote. Would the Messiah make His appearance at Jerusalem someday and restore the kingdom to Israel? Perhaps so, but those for whom the future did not seem so bright appear to have turned their hearts back to the “good old days.” So it was I suspect for many Israelites, especially those who lived abroad who found it necessary to congregate at a synagogue.

Somehow Israel’s past became much more glorious than history could justify. The reading and study of the “Law and the Prophets” must have involved a great deal of the “gilding of the lily.” The kingdom of God would be a return to the glories of the past. And the assurance of the Israelites that this kingdom was bound to come was probably based upon their conviction that they did have a glorious past. But this was simply not true. Before these Jews could come to salvation, they had to recognize the past for what it really was, a closet full of skeletons, a long history of Israel’s sin and rebellion and of God’s faithfulness to His promises. They would have to renounce their law-keeping as hopeless and turn to God’s provision of salvation by faith alone, apart from works. This is what Paul’s message to the people at this synagogue in Pisidian Antioch would call upon his audience to do, and the reactions to it were mixed. But the real opposition to Paul’s ministry was not to his message at all. We shall see what prompted the Jews to bitterly oppose Paul and Barnabas as we study this text.

There is something very special about our text and about the message which Luke has recorded here. This is the first recorded sermon which Paul preached. It is also the only full sermon recorded by Luke of a message delivered by Paul in a synagogue on this first missionary campaign. In the Book of Acts, the other recorded sermon of Paul’s with any detail is his sermon in the marketplace at Athens.275 The question might be raised, “Why was this sermon saved for posterity while many others were not?” This whole campaign at Pisidian is typical. Paul used his typical method of speaking in the synagogue.276 His sermon was typical as well. Elsewhere, the same message is referred to and briefly summarized but not in Paul’s own words as we find here. Typical also is the response to Paul’s preaching. This passage gives us a sense of the method and the message which Paul and Barnabas normally employed as well as the response which they frequently received.

The Structure of the Text

  • Introduction—the setting (verses 13-15)
  • Paul’s message (verses 16-41)
  • Immediate response (verses 42-43)
  • Delayed response (verses 44-45)
  • Apostolic response (verses 46-51)
  • Believers’ response (verse 52)

The Setting of Paul’s Sermon

13 Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga277 in Pamphylia;278 and John left them and returned to Jerusalem. 14 But going on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch,279 and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, “Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.”

Barnabas and Paul do not seem to have stayed long at Cyprus, though we are not told why they left nor why they were directed to take the course they did. They had, however, covered the island of Cyprus (13:6) with the gospel and had thus fulfilled their mission. My impression is that these two, not unlike the “two’s” our Lord sent out in Luke 9 and 10, were attempting to cover as large a territory as possible with the gospel and as quickly as possible. Certainly Paul was not letting any grass grow under his feet here.

It was here at Perga that John Mark left Barnabas and Paul and returned home to Jerusalem. We will see later in chapter 15 that Paul regarded this as Mark’s “desertion,” and thus it indicates a failure on his part (cf. Acts 15:38). Luke is very “tight-lipped” (should I say “tight-penned”?), not giving us any details of why Mark left Paul and Barnabas here. In this day of “tell-all” books and interviews, how refreshing Luke’s silence is. How helpful the silence of Luke on Mark’s failure would have been to his restoration and his future role in ministry. We can learn a great deal from Luke’s silence.

And so Paul and Barnabas pressed on, crossing over the mountains to Pisidian Antioch where they attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. Here they were invited to share a “word of exhortation” with those who had come. It was an excellent opportunity, one which they seemed to anticipate as they went from one synagogue to another in their travels.

The New Testament provides us with two texts which describe in some detail the practice of the synagogue in the days of our Lord and His apostles.280 Both come from the pen of Luke. The first is in Luke 4 (vv. 16-30), which is the account of our Lord’s ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth at the outset of His public ministry. The second is found here, in Acts 13, in the account of Paul’s preaching at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Both accounts inform us that passages from the Old Testament were read, that a word of explanation was given, and that “guest speakers” were given the opportunity to speak. This provided a most excellent opportunity for both Jesus and the apostles to preach the gospel quickly and broadly by simply attending the synagogue when they met on the Sabbath.

Speaking in the synagogues was an opportunity for both Jewish and Gentile evangelism for both Jews and Gentiles were present as we see from Paul’s references to the Jews, the “men of Israel” or “sons of Abraham,” and the Gentiles, “those who fear God,” in verses 16 and 26. Those who attended the synagogue were usually Paul’s first and primary evangelistic prospects. From his contacts in the synagogues, others may have come to faith as well. It was in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch that Paul delivered this message Luke has recorded for the church, the only recorded “synagogue sermon” of Paul to the Jews. In Acts, the only other sermon of Paul’s is his sermon to the Gentiles at Athens, delivered in the marketplace (Acts 17:16-34). The two occasions on which Paul gave an account of his conversion (Acts 22 and 26) are not so much a proclamation of the gospel as they are a defense of Paul’s calling and ministry.

Paul’s Sermon at the Synagogue in Pisidian Antioch

16 And Paul stood up, and motioning with his 281hand, he said,282 “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen: 17 “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He led them out from it. 18 “And for a period of about forty years He put up with them in the wilderness. 19 “And when He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land as an inheritance—all of which took about four hundred and fifty years.283 20 “And after these things He gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 “And then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 “And after He had removed him, He raised up David to be their king, concerning whom He also testified and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My heart, who will do all My will.’

23 “From the offspring of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, 24 after John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 “And while John was completing his course, he kept saying, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not He. But behold, one is coming after me the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ 26 “Brethren, sons of Abraham’s family, and those among you who fear God, to us the word of this salvation is sent out. 27 “For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him. 28 “And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. 29 “And when they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. 30 “But God raised Him from the dead; 31 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. 32 “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, 33 that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘THOU ARE MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE.’ 34 “And as for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no more to return to decay, He has spoken in this way; ‘I WILL GIVE YOU THE HOLY and SURE blessings OF DAVID.’ 35 “Therefore He also says in another Psalm, ‘THOU WILT NOT ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY.’ 36 “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers, and underwent decay; 37 but He whom God raised did not undergo decay.

38 “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.

40 “Take heed, therefore, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you:


Characteristics of This Sermon

Before studying Paul’s sermon in detail, let us pause to consider some of its overall characteristics. Rather than explain each characteristic, I will simply enumerate them as a basis for further thought and study.

(1) This sermon was one which Paul spoke, by invitation.

(2) This sermon was appropriate, dealing with the “law and the prophets,” which had been read before Paul spoke.

(3) This sermon was a very brief capsule of the gospel and not a full-blown sermon or exposition. Some may feel that Luke merely summarized Paul’s message, abbreviating its length. I am inclined to think otherwise. I do not think Paul was given unlimited time to speak; he was asked to give a “word of exhortation” which seems to imply a briefer word and not a full-blown exposition. This message gave the gospel in a nutshell, and those interested could follow up with Paul and Barnabas personally.

(4) This sermon was addressed to those who were familiar with Judaism and with the Old Testament. This is a message for those who knew about the history and the faith of Israel. It is very different from Paul’s message to “raw pagans” in chapter 17.

(5) This sermon, not surprisingly, has many similarities to those sermons in Acts of Peter and Stephen.

(6) This sermon does not deal with all of Israel’s history but with a very selective part of her history. Only that period of Israel’s history from Abraham to David is covered. These were the years of Israel’s “greatest glory,” at least in the minds of many Jews. The later years of Israel’s monarchy, the divided kingdom, and the captivities of Israel and Judah, are not even mentioned.

(7) This sermon focuses on Christ, as the promised Messiah, the Son of David, who was rejected by men but raised from the dead by God and witnessed to by the Old Testament prophets.

(8) This sermon makes a great deal of use of the Old Testament Scriptures.

(9) This sermon focuses on Israel’s sins of the past and of the failure of the Old Testament Law to save or sanctify men.

(10) This sermon emphasizes the sovereignty of God in salvation.

The Argument of Paul’s Sermon

Verses 16-22

Paul lays a foundation for his sermon by reviewing the history of the nation Israel from the time of its choosing by God—the days of Abraham—to the time of David’s enthronement. The thrust of Paul’s review of this segment of Israel’s history is to underscore God’s sovereignty and Israel’s sin, God’s faithfulness and Israel’s failures. It was God who chose Abraham, and it was God who made this people great while in Egyptian slavery. It was likewise God who led this people out of Egyptian bondage and who brought them into the land of promise. It was He who provided them with judges to rule over them.

Israel’s conduct could be described by but one word: “stiff-necked.” It is not used here, but it is clearly implied. Paul does summarize Israel’s conduct by looking over this period of time and saying that God “put up with” this people. This is surely no compliment. God was not impressed by their lives nor their obedience; rather, He patiently endured their constant grumbling and disobedience. Any aspect of Israel’s past which might be construed as “success” Paul credited to God and to His faithfulness to His purposes and promises.

And now Paul comes to the matter of Israel’s “kings.” The people of Israel were not content with the judges whom God provided. Instead, they asked for a king (like the other nations—1 Samuel 8:5). God gave them a king—Saul. I have always wondered why God gave the people of Israel a king like Saul, a king whom He would later remove. For forty years285 Saul reigned, finally to be removed by God for his disobedience. I believe God gave Israel Saul as their king because he was exactly the kind of king they wanted. God gave Israel what they wanted and what they asked for, to show them their own sin in asking for a king in the first place. Saul may have been “tall, dark and handsome” (well, tall and handsome, at least—cf. 1 Samuel 9:1-2), but he was not a man after God’s heart.

And so after forty years God removed Saul, replacing him with a very different king, a young man (at least at the time of his choosing), the youngest son of his father and a man who was not at all tall, like Saul, who was Israel’s Goliath. David was not the man the Israelites would have chosen, but he was God’s choice, for his heart was inclined toward God. He would do “all of God’s will.” And yet even this choice young man, we know, was a sinner.

Verses 23-31

Paul passes by centuries of Israel’s history, for his purpose is to show that Jesus is God’s promised King, the Messiah, the Son of David. Thus, he moves directly from David to his “son,” the Lord Jesus. Jesus was the promised King of Israel, the One for whom Israelites looked. He was preceded by John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, who like Samuel, introduced God’s King to the nation Israel. John himself denied that he was the Messiah, saying that he was only His forerunner. He spoke of himself as being unworthy to untie the sandals of Messiah’s feet.

The contrast between Saul and David mentioned just before this now comes into focus. Israel wanted a king, but the wrong kind of king—a Saul. God rejected him, installing His own king in his place. And now, when God gave Israel their King, the Lord Jesus, Israel rejected Him. They did not want Jesus to be their King even though He fulfilled all the messianic prophecies of His first coming. His coming fulfilled the very texts which those in Jerusalem read every Sabbath, not to mention those in Paul’s audience who read these same Scriptures in their synagogue every Sabbath.

The rejection of Jesus by the Jews in Jerusalem also fulfilled the prophecies concerning the first coming of Messiah. Having fulfilled them all in His crucifixion, they took His body down from the cross and placed it in a tomb. But God overturned and overruled their rejection of Jesus. He raised Jesus from the dead and installed Him as the King of Israel. For many days, Jesus appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and these apostles bore witness to the fact that He had been raised from the dead. The good news—the gospel—was that God had fulfilled His promise of a Savior and King in the person of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior and King.

Verses 32-37

The good news is that Jesus’ death, even though achieved by unbelieving and rebellious men, was God’s provision for the forgiveness of men’s sin. And this salvation fulfilled the promise which God made to the Old Testament “fathers” (v. 32). Paul turns to one sample of these promises as evidence that Jesus fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to Messiah’s first coming.

The promise Paul shows to be fulfilled is the promise of the resurrection of the Messiah from the dead. Paul first turns to the words of Psalm 2, “THOU ART MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE.”

One may very well wonder how this statement proves the resurrection of our Lord. This may well have been a part of Paul’s purpose in citing this passage. He does not explain how it proves his point. If they want to pursue this matter further, they will have to listen to Paul at another time and perhaps in another place. Paul is not so much trying to prove all of his points as he putting them out on the table for further discussion. This is just a beginning point.

But while Paul does not explain how this psalm proves his point, I think we can see how it could. The very first part of the psalm speaks of the futile efforts of those men who seek to throw off God’s rule by rebelling against Him and His anointed:

Why are the nations in an uproar, And the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand, And the rulers take counsel together Against the LORD and against His Anointed: “Let us tear their fetters apart, And cast away their cords from us!” (Psalm 2:1-3).

This is precisely what happened in Jerusalem. The leaders of the nation Israel conspired together to do away with Jesus who had been introduced to them as Israel’s King. They put Him to death thinking that by so doing they could throw off God’s rule. The rest of the psalm describes God as laughing at His enemies and installing His anointed as King.286 Now, in the light of the Lord’s crucifixion, if the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans thought they had rid themselves of this “King” by putting Him to death, how could God laugh at them, install His Anointed as King, and commence the overthrow and judgment of His enemies unless the rejected King were raised from the dead? The second Psalm, in the light of Christ’s first coming, would lead us to the conclusion that there must be a resurrection, in order for there to be a coronation and subsequent rule over His enemies. The Psalm does serve as a testimony of the resurrection of our Lord, then, at least by way of inference.

The second text to which Paul referred is found in Isaiah 55:3, and Paul cites it this way: “I WILL GIVE YOU THE HOLY and SURE blessings OF DAVID” (Acts 13:34b).

As I understand this text, God has promised to bless Israel in accordance with an everlasting covenant, a covenant which is in accordance with God’s covenant with David. The Davidic Covenant was the promise of an eternal kingdom, ruled by an eternal King. How, Paul seems to reason, can God raise up an eternal King unless this King is not subject to death. And, since Jesus was raised from the dead, death has no claim upon Him. Thus, He is the eternal King who will reign forever and ever, and thus the blessings of Israel will be eternal too.

In yet another Psalm, there is this clear promise that God’s King, the Messiah, will not be left to decay in a grave: “THOU WILT NOT ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY” (Acts 13:35, citing Psalm 16:10).

The hope of the Old Testament saint is that of life beyond the grave (cf. Daniel 12:1-2, 13; Hebrews 11:13-40). This psalm expresses that hope. The psalmist expresses the fact that his hope is based upon the certainty of resurrection. But this was a psalm of David. Perhaps David was speaking here of his own resurrection, rather than that of his “son,” the Lord Jesus. David’s hope was a hope based upon the resurrection of his Son. David’s tomb was not empty, but the tomb of Jesus was, Paul reminded his audience. Thus, this promise was especially spoken with regard to the Messiah, and only its implications and hope then extended to all whose trust was in Him.

Paul’s Conclusion (Verses 38-41)

It is now time for the “bottom line” which Paul sets out in a two-pronged conclusion. First, he calls upon his listeners to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and secondly he warns them from the Old Testament of the grave danger of unbelief and rejection. It is through this Jesus, rejected by the nation Israel, crucified on Calvary and raised from the dead to the right hand of God, that forgiveness of sins is offered.

Notice the complete reversal in Paul’s offer of salvation from that which the typical Israelite believed and in which he trusted for salvation. The Israelite looked at his racial origins as the basis of his salvation. After all, he was a Jew, so surely all Jews will enter into the promises God made to Abraham. And, in addition, if he was a law-abiding Jew, if he faithfully kept the Old Testament law, then surely God would fulfill His promises to such a righteous person. A Jew was assumed to be righteous and to be destined for the coming kingdom.

But Paul’s review of Israel’s history indicates otherwise. Indeed, his sermon points in the opposite direction. Israel’s past is a consistent and emphatic reminder of Israel’s sin and waywardness and of God’s longsuffering and faithfulness to His promises. Every blessing which Israel ever experienced was one of grace, not of deserved blessing. Every blessing was virtually in spite of this people, and not because of their obedience or faith.

Thus, when Paul spoke of the “good news,” of the fulfillment of the promise of God to the “fathers,” he spoke of the forgiveness of sins, not of the reward of the righteous. These Israelites dare not delude themselves that they can somehow rest on the laurels of their past, for there is nothing upon which to rest. Their past does not commend them before God; it condemns them. And the whole system of law keeping is shown by their history to be a failure. The salvation of which Paul spoke was one that could free them from all things, in contrast to the law which could not free them at all.

In order to be saved, these people, who had formerly taken pride in their past and had trusted in their law-keeping, must now face up to things as the Messiah had exposed them. They must renounce their past in terms of any supposed merit or righteousness, and they must renounce any thought of obtaining righteousness and God’s blessings by keeping the law. They needed to renounce any thought of self-righteousness and trust in God’s righteousness, in the person of Jesus. He died so that they might be forgiven of their sins.

Not only must these Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles renounce the past, they must also renounce the actions taken by the Jews in Jerusalem when they rejected Jesus as Messiah and hung Him on the cross. They must face up to the truth of the past, and then look to the Lord Jesus for salvation from their sins. This is not something which they will be predisposed to do, for the Old Testament prophets warned of the hardness of heart of the Israelites which would incline them to refuse to believe or to trust in the promises of God.

Here Paul cited the warning of the prophet Habakkuk who wrote:


Habakkuk was speaking of the coming invasion of the nation by the Chaldeans as God’s divine judgment on this rebellious, hard-hearted nation.287 Even if God had told them of the horrors to come (which He did, in part), they would not believe Him. This was precisely why God had ceased to speak to these people through the prophets and would begin to “speak” to them by the pagans in a way that they would more readily hear—by affliction.

Let these Jews and God-fearers, gathered together to study the Law and the Prophets, not fail to heed the warnings of the Law and the Prophets. Let them trust in the Messiah of whom the Law and the Prophets bore witness.

An Immediate Response

42 And as Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. 43 Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God.

Paul’s message had accomplished its purpose. It aroused the interest of some of those who had heard it. Many of those gathered that day at the synagogue wanted to hear more of what Paul was saying. They asked that these two return the next Sabbath, and that he continue with his teaching. Some went even further, it seems, receiving the grace (salvation) of God more readily. They followed after Paul and Barnabas, who were urging them to continue in the grace of God.288 I would not doubt that some of these folks followed Paul and Barnabas all week, perhaps getting together after work at night to be taught more of this new faith they had received.

A Delayed Reaction
and an Apostolic Response

44 And the next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of God. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.

47 “For thus the Lord has commanded us, ‘I HAVE PLACED YOU AS A LIGHT FOR THE GENTILES, THAT YOU SHOULD BRING SALVATION TO THE END OF THE EARTH.’” 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jews aroused the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook off the dust of their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium.

I like to think of what happened that next week in familiar terms to me. Imagine that mounted on the front wall of the synagogue was an “Attendance and Offering” display like we sometimes see in churches. Can you see it?

  • Attendance One Year Ago = 40
  • Attendance Last Sabbath = 39 (one died)
  • Attendance This Sabbath = 25,988

Word had definitely spread, and the crowds were lined up outside the synagogue. Old timers who had their own special seats had not bothered to come early. After all, they almost never had visitors, and they had their own seats where they had sat each Sabbath for the past 20 years. Can you imagine how upsetting it would be for such a “pillar” of the synagogue to come and find a Gentile sitting in “his seat”? It was one thing to have a few Gentiles present, those who converted to Judaism and thus who did not threaten the system. But now the place was flooded with raw pagans. This little “Jewish island” situated in the middle of a Gentile sea seemed to be sinking out of sight. These people were threatening the Jews very identity. Why did they come anyway?

They came, I believe, because Paul did not preach salvation by converting to Judaism. Indeed, he preached salvation by renouncing Judaism, in many senses. The Jews who came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah could, like Paul, continue to attend the synagogue and to observe the Jewish holy days if they so chose. But the Gentiles who came to faith were under no obligation to become Jewish or to put themselves under the Old Testament Law. Because Paul’s sermon swung the “door of salvation” wide, much wider than Judaism (indeed, excluding it, in its unbiblical and ungodly forms), the Gentiles flooded in on the next Sabbath eager to hear for themselves the good news of the gospel.

It was not the preaching of Paul, as such, that angered many of the Jews. They had patiently listened to Paul the last Sabbath. And they had not reacted, particularly, to his message. Although they may not have agreed with him, they were willing to sit back and watch. But not any longer. If they could endure Paul’s doctrine, they would not endure the practical outworking of it. When the Gentiles began to flood in, threatening their identity and their control, some of the Jewish members of the synagogue reacted almost violently to the preaching and the presence of Paul and Barnabas. Filled with jealousy (v. 45), they began to openly oppose and contradict Paul. They even blasphemed. I understand this to mean that they spoke disrespectfully of the Lord Jesus. If Paul “lifted Him up,” they degraded and mocked Him.

This triggered an apostolic response from both Paul and Barnabas. Convinced that the Word of God should first be proclaimed to the Jews, they now saw themselves as under no further obligation to speak to the Jews, but as free to go to the Gentiles with the good news of the gospel. The Jews had just shown themselves to be unworthy of the gospel. They found, in the words of Isaiah, a command to go to the Gentiles:


Israel had been set apart by God, not just to be saved and receive His blessings by grace, but to proclaim God’s grace to the Gentiles so that they too should be saved. If these Jews would reject the grace of God, then Paul and Barnabas must, as obedient Israelites, do that which God commanded Israel to do—to preach the good news of salvation to the Gentiles. And this they told their audience.

If some of the Jews were distressed with the results of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, the Gentiles were ecstatic with the news that the gospel was for them, as Gentiles. No more second-class citizenship in the kingdom, as proselytes. No more being under the law. No more working in a futile effort to earn God’s favor. If the Jews were angered by grace, which they were (like Jonah of old), the Gentiles were overjoyed by it. Those whom God had appointed to eternal life believed.289 And so it was that many believed, and the gospel was spread abroad throughout the region.

The Jews were not willing to let Paul and Barnabas continue to preach this kind of gospel. If Paul’s method of preaching the gospel to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles was typical, so was the method of the Jews in opposing it. They used politics and pressure to achieve their ends. They did not have the support of the masses who flocked to hear the preaching of Paul and Barnabas and who rejoiced at their message. If the Jews were to silence these men and be rid of them, they must gain the support of the political leaders of the city.290 And they must arouse the prominent Gentile women of the city,291 who seem to have “hen-pecked” their husbands into taking action against these preachers of the gospel. They instigated a persecution and drove Paul and Barnabas out of the city.

This did not dampen the spirits of Paul and Barnabas, who shook the dust off their feet signifying that these people, including the Jews who were behind this persecution, were acting like heathen and were thus unworthy of further preaching. They left the city of Pisidian Antioch and went on to Iconium.292

The new believers were not at all downhearted. They had lost these two preachers, and they were going to continue to suffer persecution. But their sins had been forgiven. They had the truth of God and the Spirit of God. They had the Old Testament Scriptures to guide them in their faith, knowing that their faith was rooted and grounded in the Old Testament promises and prophecies. And, in time, as inspired epistles were circulated about, they would have the Word of God.


In this selected sermon which Luke has chosen to record, we find what appears to be an example of the typical approach taken by Paul and those with him as he sought to evangelize in cities with synagogues. Their method was indeed efficient and effective. It enabled these men to be self-supporting (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:4-6; Philippians 4:15). They could work during the daytime, when everyone else was working, and they could teach at night and on the Sabbath. Going to the synagogue was efficient in that it reached a group of people already familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures. It also reached a group of people with a certain level of spiritual interest or commitment (which, in the form of opposition, could also be intense). And, because there were both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles present, it facilitated a two-pronged evangelistic effort: preaching Christ to Jews and to Gentiles.

The message of this sermon is totally consistent with the preaching of the apostles and others such as Peter and Stephen and Philip. The theology underlying Paul’s sermon is found outlined and explained in a more theological fashion in the epistles of Paul.293 Judaism and law keeping could not save any Israelite, nor were they so intended. The law was a standard of the righteousness which God required, thereby condemning all who fell short of it. This meant that salvation, as promised, must be a matter of grace and not of works. It meant that salvation must begin with and somehow solve the problem of man’s sin. The solution is, of course, faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Men are presented with the facts of the gospel and are called upon to make a decision. This cannot be left in the realm of the theoretical and the abstract. It is a life and death decision which each person must make.

The message has a great deal to say about the past. It puts the past in its proper perspective. The past is not something to be gloried in as though it commended one race, above all others, to God. Israel’s past showed the Jews to be a stiff-necked people, always resisting the Word of God and the Spirit of God. To be saved, Jews and Gentiles must acknowledge their past to be sinful and worthy only of divine wrath, and turn from anything but the shed blood of Jesus (and His resurrection and ascension) for forgiveness of sins.

What Paul has put to this group of people who sought salvation in Judaism is the same thing he himself experienced as he has described in Philippians 3. He formerly took pride in his race, in his tribe, in his zeal and devotion as a Pharisee, as a student of the Old Testament and a “defender” of Judaism. But there came a point when God stopped him short, revealing to him that while he was persecuting the church he was actually persecuting the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. In coming to Christ by faith, Paul counted his own past, his own merits, as “dung,” worthless and even offensive to God. His standing before God became a matter of grace, not law, and of faith, not works. Paul was calling upon his audience to experience salvation by faith just as he had. I pray that you have experienced this salvation as well.

In our society, “feeling good about yourself” has become the rule of the day, even in so-called Christian circles. We seem to be obsessed with our past. Paul’s gospel, as with the gospel throughout the Scriptures, calls upon men to see from the past that man is hopelessly sinful and that he falls under divine wrath. But God, in His mercy and grace, has provided a way of escape through the shed blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sin. Let us deal honestly with our past, and then put it behind us, striving, like Paul, to know Christ (Philippians 3:8ff.).

“I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”

275 The other recorded “messages” of Paul in Acts are recorded in chapters 22 (vv. 1-21), 24 (vv. 10-21), and 26 (vv. 1-23). In each of these cases, Paul’s “message” was his defense against charges leveled against him. His focus was on his personal conversion, his calling, and his ministry. These messages were not delivered to Jews and God-fearers in a synagogue but were spoken before rulers while under arrest or on trial. In chapter 22, Paul was speaking to his Jewish brethren, but by the permission of the commander in whose custody he was being kept.

276 Note Acts 17:2-3, where Luke informs the reader that this practice of Paul, described in detail in Acts 13, was Paul’s “custom,” so far as his practice of preaching in the synagogues. Because Luke has given the reader a full-blown sermon as an example in chapter 13, he need only briefly refer to the message and method of Paul later on, such as in chapter 17.

When we come to Acts 17:16-32, which describes Paul’s method and message at Athens, more detail is given as this is a different audience, a different forum, and thus his method changes. We might say that his message changes, in that it is not the same sermon as given to Jews and God-fearers in the synagogues, but the fundamental elements of the gospel are present, as always.

277 “Perga stood near the river Cestrus (modern Aksu); one could reach it from the sea, Strabo tells us, by sailing some seven miles up the river. The city (the impressive ruins of which are a tourist attraction today) stands on a flat-topped hill about three miles from the nearest point on the Cestrus, where it presumably had a landing stage and port facilities. Perga, as its name indicates, was a pre-Greek foundation, but it was colonized by Greeks from the late Mycenaean age on, and after the conquests of Alexander the Great it became thoroughly hellenized.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 250.

It interesting to note that Pamphylia seems to have been evangelized on the return trip of Paul and Barnabas (14:25) but not on this initial visit to the city. The only other thing we know is that it was here, in Perga, where John Mark left them. Are these two incidents somehow related? If so, Luke does not tell us how. There are other explanations for why this city and country were not evangelized on the first trip through, but these are highly speculative--too speculative for me to spend much time thinking about them.

278 “Pamphylia lay between the Taurus range and the Mediterranean; it was bordered on the west by Lycia and on the east by Cilicia. At this time (between A.D. 43 and 68) it formed part of the Roman province Pamphylia-Lycia.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 250.

279 “Pisidian Antioch, or Antioch of Pisidia, was so called because it was situated near Pisidia, or over against it, as Strabo points out. It actually lay in Phrygia, in that part which had belonged to the kingdom of Galatia and was incorporated in the province of Galatia, established by Augustus in 25 B.C. At that time Augustus made it a Roman colony (with the name Colonia Caesarea); it was the civil and military center of that part of Galatia.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 251.

“This city was the chief town of the Roman province of South Galatia.” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photolithoprinted}, 1966), p. 105.

“It may seem surprising that Paul and his companions then made their way to the somewhat out-of-the way towns in the centre of Asia Minor. In fact they lay on an important line of communication.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 220.

“. . . it is not difficult to imagine the perils of this climb over the rough mountain way from Perga to Pisidian Antioch to which Paul apparently refers in II Cor. 11:26.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 185.

280 There is other background information on the synagogue and its practices available as well. Bruce, for example, tells us,

“After the call to worship and the recitation of the appropriate prayers the scripture lessons were read--one from the Pentateuch and one from the Prophets. (The Pentateuch was read in sequence according to a triennial lectionary; the lesson from the Prophets was normally selected because of some relation to the Pentateuchal lesson.) Then an address was usually delivered by some suitable member of the congregation. It was part of the duties of the ruler or rulers of the synagogue to appoint someone to deliver the address. In the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch there was more than one such official. They sent an attendant to approach the two visitors and invite them to speak a ‘word of exhortation’ to the gathering.

“The standing posture seems to have been the normal one for synagogue preachers in the dispersion. Jesus, on the other hand, stood up to read the lesson but sat down to expound it. This may reflect a difference in practice between Palestinian synagogues and those of the dispersion; it has also been suggested that a word of exhortation was delivered by a standing preacher, whereas one sat to expound the scriptures.”

F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 253.

281 Why the mention of the beckoning of the hand? It is not new here, for Peter did so in the house of Mary (Acts 12:17). It may well be that Paul’s hand gestured first to the Jews (seated separately?), and then to the Gentile God-fearers.” But why does Luke, so efficient in his use of words, tell us this detail? It may imply or refer to Paul’s confidence and skill as a speaker. I am inclined to put this together with Paul’s words to the Corinthians about his coming to them with “fear and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). While Paul had a fair bit of competence and confidence as a public speaker, his spirit was not one of arrogant, self-sufficiency. As well as he might be able to speak, Paul knew it would not be enough to convince or to convert anyone. That required the sovereign working of God’s Spirit, which is testified to in Acts 13:48 as well as in 16:14.

282 Marshall compares this message of Paul’s to those of Stephen and Peter:

“To a certain extent the speech is complementary to that of Stephen; the earlier speech rehearses the history of Israel from the patriarchs to Solomon, with particular emphasis on the first part, while the present speech concentrates on the period of the monarchy and culminates in the presentation of Jesus which is missing from Stephen’s speech. This careful avoidance of repetition between the two speeches in their broad sweep of Old Testament history may be due to Luke’s literary skill, but it is also dictated by the entirely different purposes of the speeches given by two different speakers, the former dealing with Moses and Jesus in a warning manner, while the latter deals with David and Jesus in terms of promise.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 221.

283 “The 450 years seem to cover the period of sojourning in Egypt (four hundred years, according to Gen. 15:13; cf. Acts 7:6), together with the forty years of wandering in the wilderness and the interval that elapsed between the crossing of the Jordan and the distribution of the land recorded in Josh. 14:1-5.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 255.

284 Paragraph divisions are my own, based upon my understanding of the flow of Paul’s argument.

285 Forty years is a rather common period of time in the Old Testament, and it is often spoken of with a negative connotation. For example, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, until they all died off, due to their unbelief. Moses too spent forty years in the wilderness, due to his murder of an Egyptian. So too in our text, Saul’s reign of forty years is not spoken of favorably.

286 The expression, “Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee,” is a technical one, designating a man as king. It is the commencement of a special relationship with God (Father and son). This can be seen in the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7.

287 “The address ends on a note of warning. The prophet Habakkuk, on the eve of the Chaldean rise to world power, called on the nations, in the name of God, to look with astonishment on the impending invasion . . . . As these words of Habakkuk were reminiscent of warnings uttered earlier by Isaiah in the days of the Assyrian peril (Isa. 28:21-22; 29:14), so Paul now takes them up (in the Septuagint version, which makes the application more pointed) and applies them to the new situation in which God is offering deliverance through the greatest of all his mighty works.” Bruce, p. 263.

288 This sounds a great deal like Acts 11:23.

289 The sovereignty of God and the grace of God result in and require what is known as divine election, that doctrine which holds that men choose God because He has first chosen them. This same truth is reiterated by Luke in Acts 16:14 with reference to the salvation of Lydia. If the grace of God is truly grace, then men do not get it because they have earned it. If men cannot earn grace, then it must be a free gift. And if it is a free gift, then it must be God who chooses to give it to some, but not to others. This truth should not be a source of difficulty for us, but one of joy and rejoicing, and praise. With whom would we rather leave the destiny of a lost person’s soul? With man, blinded by his sin, unable to comprehend the gospel, and unwilling to receive it if he could (cf. verses 40-41), or with a sovereign God, who does not delight in the eternal torment of men, but delights in saving men? There is no more comforting truth than that of God’s sovereign election of men.

290 The evils of the holocaust are unthinkable and utterly wicked. Nevertheless, Germany’s treatment of the Jews is little different, in principle, than the Jews treatment of the Lord Jesus and the apostles. The Jews were masters at manipulating the political system to oppose and persecute their enemies.

291 This is one of the few times Luke writes something less than the commending of women. But these were the facts. Later on, however, we will see that such women of wealth and position did come to faith as well (cf. Acts 17:4).

292 “Iconium (modern Konya), lay about ninety miles east-southeast of Pisidian Antioch. It was the easternmost city of Phrygia. For two and a half centuries it had been ruled by Seleucit, Galatian, and Pontic kings. It passed into the Roman sphere of influence in 65 B.C., and became part of the empire in 25 B.C., when the former kingdom of Galatia was incorporated as the province of Galatia. From Claudius it received the honorific imperial prefix and became known for a time as Claudiconium.” Bruce, pp. 268-269.

A. T. Robertson adds: “It was at the meeting place of several Roman roads and on the highway from east to west. It is still a large town Konieh with 30,000 population.” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 203.

293 “The climax is at the close and gives us the heart of Paul’s teaching about Christ. ‘We have here the germ of all that is most characteristic in Paul’s later teaching. It is the argument of the Epistle to the Galatians and Romans in a sentence’ (Furneaus).” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 194.

Related Topics: Christology, Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Soteriology (Salvation)

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