Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 13

Chapter 13: Paul Takes the Gospel to
Cyprus and Asia Minor (Acts 12:25-14:28)

Barnabas and Saul take Mark (12:25)

The closing verse of Acts 12 picks up the story of the trip of Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem to deliver the relief fund, which is mentioned in 11:30. In neither place does Luke give any details about what happens in Jerusalem. In 12:25, Luke simply notes that Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch after the relief visit. Luke mentions that John Mark accompanies them from Jerusalem to Antioch. His presence will be important to a later disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.

As mentioned earlier, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem probably occurs after Herod dies. His death may be what makes Paul’s trip to Jerusalem safe and feasible. (If Herod imprisoned Peter to please the Jews, he surely would have put Paul in prison, too, because that would have pleased them even more.)

The church at Antioch (13:1-2)

We have reached a pivotal point in Luke’s account of the growth of the church and spread of the gospel. Up to now, Jerusalem and Judea have been the center of his story. Peter has been the most prominent person in the narrative. Now, Luke shifts his interest to the church at Antioch. Luke says that in the Antioch church there are both prophets and teachers — two important classes of individuals in the church community.

Paul says that prophesying and teaching are gifts of God, given by him for the proper functioning of the church (Romans 12:4-8). In the outline of church roles Paul describes to the Corinthians, prophets and teachers are mentioned just after apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28). In a later epistle, Paul inserts the role of evangelist between that of prophet and teacher (Ephesians 4:11).

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Luke names five prophets and teachers in Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been raised with Herod) and Saul. Their names show that they come from a wide variety of social and ethnic backgrounds.

Barnabas is mentioned first by Luke, as he is the apostolic delegate and a leading figure in the Jerusalem church (9:27; 11:22-30). We already know him as a Levite from Cyprus who lived in Jerusalem (4:36-37). More than this, we know him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (11:24).

Simeon has the Latin nickname Niger, or “the Black.” His name is Jewish, so it is unlikely that he is African, though he may have had dark skin. The nickname may distinguish him from other Simons in the church, such as Simon Peter.

Lucius has a Latin name. It’s possible though not certain that he is a Gentile, because he is from Cyrene in North Africa. Perhaps he was part of the Cyrenian group that first preached the gospel of salvation to the Gentiles of Antioch (11:20).

Manaen is the Greek form of the Hebrew Menahem, which means “comforter.” He was “brought up with Herod the tetrarch” (13:1). This is the Herod of the Gospels, whom Jesus once called “that fox” (Luke 13:32). This Herod was responsible for the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-28). If Manaean grew up with him, it is possible that he was taken to the royal court to be a companion of the prince; such boys were then called “foster brothers.”

What a commentary on the mystery and sovereignty of divine grace that, of these two boys who were brought up together, one should attain honor as a Christian leader, while the other should best be remembered for his inglorious behavior in the killing of John the Baptist and in the trial of Jesus! [Bruce, 245.]

Paul is mentioned last by Luke, and he continues to use the Jewish form of his name, Saul. He is last because he is a relative newcomer to Antioch (11:25). But he will soon take center stage in Luke’s account, while the others, with the exception of Barnabas, will no longer play a part in the story.

Holy Spirit sets apart (13:2-3)

After introducing us to the leaders of the Antioch church, Luke tells us that the church is “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (13:2). He doesn’t explain why the disciples are fasting, but some reason is probably behind it. Perhaps the church is thinking of moving its missionary venture beyond the confines of Antioch. Or they have already decided to do so and are wondering who should lead the endeavor. The church may be in a special meeting, asking God to make his will known in the matter. That is exactly what God does. The answer to the mission question comes from the Holy Spirit, who says: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2).

The importance of the present narrative is that it describes the first piece of planned “overseas mission” carried out by representatives of a particular church…and begun by a deliberate church decision, inspired by the Spirit, rather than somewhat more causally as a result of persecution. [I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), page 214.]

Luke doesn’t define what this “work” is, but from subsequent events, it’s clear that it has to do with a mission to the Gentiles. Neither does Luke explain how the Holy Spirit makes his will known. Perhaps what happens is that the Spirit moves one of the prophets to name the missionaries. Here we have echoes of the Old Testament prophets bringing God’s message through his prophets. We are reminded of the story of the Judean king Jehoshaphat and his people who were praying and fasting in Jerusalem. They were hoping for God’s intervention against a large army coming against the nation. Then, suddenly, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon” a prophet who gave God’s will. The nation would be saved without having to fight a battle with the enemy (2 Chronicles 20:14).

Now, at Antioch, God is showing his will about another, quite different concern. This new and monumental enterprise of spreading the gospel around the Roman Empire, particularly to Gentiles, will be no mere human initiative. God will guide it through the Holy Spirit. One of Luke’s continuing purposes is to show that the Holy Spirit initiates and guides the activities of the church. This theme — pointed up in 13:2 — is a regular occurrence in the first half of Acts. [Acts 4:31; 8:29, 39; 10:44; 16:6.]

Thus, it is through the Spirit that Barnabas and Paul are separated for the task of evangelizing. Then they are “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit” (13:4). While the church “sent them off,” they are really dispatched by the Spirit. Luke is showing that Paul’s work will occur in cooperation and continuity with the church and the other apostles. Paul is not a lone ranger, but a person who respects both the church and the congregation of Israel, even as he preaches a revolutionary message to Gentiles.

We do not find here…a renegade apostle who abandons Israel and delivers a suspect gospel to the Gentiles, but an apostle whose divine commission is confirmed by prophetic election and the charge of the church, whose activities are not only filled with the prophetic spirit but mirror those of Jesus and Peter before him, who remains in constant contact with Jerusalem, and who until the very end of the story tries to convert his fellow Jews. [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 225.]

Even after the prophet utters God’s will regarding Barnabas and Paul, the church continues to fast and pray, no doubt for God’s continuing guidance. The leaders then place “their hands on them and sent them off” (13:3). The imposition of hands used on this occasion shows that the church supports these men as doing God’s will. The Antioch church leaders, by the laying on of hands, agree that Barnabas and Paul have the authority to act on behalf of the Christian community at Antioch. The church leaders’ action of imposing hands is taken on behalf of the entire church community at Antioch.

In Acts, the leaders of the church make decisions and take actions that represent its thinking as a whole. [Acts 1:15, 6:2, 5; cf. 14:27; 15:22.] The idea is that the church as a whole, not just the leaders or a single prophet, is motivated by the Spirit. Both the leadership and the community together are working under the direction of the Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Paul for evangelistic work.

Work on Cyprus (13:4)

Luke now begins the story of Paul’s first missionary journey. The entire trip, perhaps about three years in length, is described in chapters 13 and 14. Barnabas and Paul leave from Seleucia, the port city about 16 miles (26 kilometers) west of Antioch and four or five miles northeast of the mouth of the Orontes River. Their destination is the island of Cyprus, in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. The journey by boat is about 130 miles (210 kilometers), and when the wind is favorable, takes only one day. Cyprus is about 140 miles (225 kilometers) long and 60 miles (96 kilometers) wide. Cyprus was once part of the imperial province of Cilicia. But in 22 B.C. it became a senatorial province, and in Paul’s day it is administered by a proconsul.

Cyprus is a sensible place to begin the church’s outreach program because it is Barnabas’ native land. He is acquainted with its idiosyncrasies, terrain and people. Christian communities probably exist on the island and can serve as bases of operation (11:19).

At Salamis and Paphos (13:5-6)

John Mark accompanies Barnabas and Paul on the journey as their assistant. The fact that he has a family connection with Barnabas and perhaps is familiar with Cyprus, are probably the reasons he is taken along. Luke describes him as the “helper” of Barnabas and Paul. “Helper” translates the Greek word hyperetes, which is used of a synagogue attendant (4:20).

The first of two Cypriot cities Luke mentions is Salamis, the administrative center of eastern Cyprus (13:5). Salamis is a few miles from the modern city of Famagusta. Barnabas and Paul “proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues” of the city (13:5). There is a substantial Jewish population in Salamis, as there are several synagogues for Barnabas and Paul to preach in. Paul continues this pattern of beginning his missionary work in a city by first working within the synagogue. [Acts 13:14, 46; 14:1, 16:13; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 28:17.] That is a logical starting point, for it is a gathering place for people likely to be interested in a message from Jewish preachers based on the Jewish Scriptures, about the Messiah.

Proconsul Sergius Paulus (13:7)

The other city Luke mentions is Paphos, the provincial capital, 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Salamis. At Paphos, the island’s proconsul, Sergius Paulus, requests a meeting with the two missionaries. Presumably, Barnabas and Paul preach in the city for some time before they come to the proconsul’s attention. Luke describes Sergius Paulus as “an intelligent man,” that is, a man of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness — a person of discernment. As we will see throughout Acts, Luke wants his readers to understand that Roman officials are sympathetic to the gospel message. Here he says of the proconsul that he “wanted to hear the word of God” (13:7). Luke doesn’t say why Sergius Paulus wants to hear the message of these traveling Jews. Perhaps it is more for the purposes of inquiry, than a desire to be converted.

At Paphos the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus asked them to present their message before him. This was probably meant to be an official inquiry into the nature of what the missionaries were proclaiming in the synagogues so that the proconsul might know how to deal with the charges already laid against these wandering Jewish evangelists and head off any further disruptions within the Jewish communities. Like a “command performance,” the invitation could not have been refused. [Longenecker, 419.]

Luke doesn’t say that Sergius Paulus becomes a Christian. However, he implies that a false prophet is unable to turn the proconsul “from the faith” (13:8). Later, when the proconsul sees that Paul causes a sorcerer to become blind, “he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12). However, it is not clear whether this means that he becomes a Christian. He may have believed in the miracle, but not necessarily the message about Christ.

Bar-Jesus, the sorcerer (13:8-12)

Whatever Sergius’ Paulus final relationship with the church may be, Luke seems not to be interested in documenting it. (Nor does he give us a single scrap of information as to what happens as a result of Barnabas and Paul preaching in synagogues all across Cyprus.) Luke’s main interest in the proconsul is only as the setting for Paul’s confrontation with a magician who is the proconsul’s court advisor, and who opposes the preaching of the gospel (13:7-8). Luke gives him two names — Bar-Jesus and Elymas the sorcerer. The meaning of “Elymas” is not clear.

Josephus mentions a Jewish magician from Cyprus by the name of Atomos. He is later employed by Felix, the procurator of Judea, to entice the married Drusilla to become his wife. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:7, 142.] Some commentators speculate that Bar-Jesus and Atomos may have been the same person. Bar-Jesus means “Son of Jesus.” But, ironically, he opposes the servants of God. He does this so vehemently and frequently that Paul finally confronts him, probably at the court of the proconsul.

Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, says to Bar-Jesus: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (13:10). The individual who calls himself “Son of Jesus” is now shown to be a “son of the devil.” Paul pronounces a curse on the magician, saying he will be temporarily blinded (3:11). Although Paul brings light to the Gentiles (13:47), he brings blindness to this obstinate man — an external indication of his spiritual condition.

The action so impresses Sergius Paulus that he believes. But this doesn’t necessarily mean he becomes a Christian. Simon the magician also “believed” upon seeing the miracles Stephen performed (8:13). Simon was baptized, but Luke says nothing of Sergius Paulus being baptized. It would be surprising if he became a Christian.

Luke is more interested in the story of Bar-Jesus being confronted and cursed by Paul. He is interested in telling the story not of a conversion, but of the superiority of God’s power over the magic of the pagan world. Luke wants to show how Paul uses his apostolic authority to neutralize the evil spirit influence of Bar-Jesus. Luke wants his readers to understand that the power behind the gospel is superior to that of pagan magic. In the same way, Moses’ miracles in the land of Egypt are more powerful than the magicians’ magic. Paul’s squaring off with Bar-Jesus is also reminiscent of Elijah confronting and defeating the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19-40).

Luke probably has another parallel in mind, this one with the gospel message preached earlier in Samaria. The first major missionary work in Samaria, this one from Jerusalem, was challenged by Simon the Sorcerer (8:9-24). In the same way, the first outreach from Antioch encounters the false prophet Bar-Jesus, who is also defeated.

Saul also called Paul (13:9)

Luke seems to be purposely juxtaposing names in this section. Bar-Jesus is paired with Elymas. The proconsul’s name “Paulus” reminds us of Paul, though the sharing of the name is probably only a coincidence. It is here that Luke tells us for the first time that Saul is “also called Paul” (13:9). He has referred to him as “Saul” since he introduced him (7:58). But from now on he will call him only “Paul.” Luke introduces Paul’s two names casually, as though he already has both names. “Saul” is more appropriate in the Jewish world. But now he is moving into the wider Gentile and Roman world, and “Paul” is more suitable.

Luke does not mention whether the preaching of Barnabas and Paul results in any converts on Cyprus. He says nothing about the work in general on Cyprus, nor how long the two missionaries remain on the island. Barnabas and Paul travel “through the whole island” of Cyprus (13:6). This takes some time. Presumably, they preach in a number of towns, and teach some converts.

Paul in Perga (13:13)

The missionary group now sails from Cyprus to Perga in Pamphylia, on the southcentral coast of Asia Minor (13:13). Perga is a river port on the Cestrus River about 12 miles (19 kilometers) inland from the seaport of Attalia (14:25). Luke gives no indication that Paul and Barnabas preach the gospel in Perga or the surrounding area — but they do preach there on their way back to Syrian Antioch (14:25).

It is during the trip to Perga that Luke no longer speaks of “Barnabas and Saul.” From now on, Paul is usually in first place, ahead of Barnabas. Before this, Barnabas was usually mentioned first (11:30; 12:25; 13:2). In the account here, Luke speaks of “Paul and his companions,” which literally means “those around Paul.” This expression indicates that Paul is the leader of the group. Luke appears to be signaling to his readers that Paul has become the dominant partner in the missionary team. Luke doesn’t explain why the change occurs. Perhaps it is obvious that the Holy Spirit is working through Paul, as in the case of his confrontation with the magician. Paul’s speaking may be getting results, indicating that God is using him in a special way.

John Mark leaves the evangelizing team at Perga and returns to Jerusalem. His departure will later lead to a disagreement between Barnabas and Paul, and their permanent split (15:2). Luke gives no reason for Mark’s departure. Perhaps John Mark does not like the fact that his uncle, Barnabas, is no longer the leader of the team. Or he may be in disagreement over some policy regarding preaching to the Gentiles, or admitting them into the fellowship. He may even be homesick or afraid of traveling into the hinterland. Whatever the reason for Mark’s departure, Paul doesn’t like it. He calls it desertion (15:38).

Pisidian Antioch (13:14)

Paul and Barnabas leave Perga and travel to Antioch in Pisidia. [In the ancient word, there were several cities named Antioch, just as there were several cities named Alexandria. Rulers who built cities often named those cities after themselves. The Seleucid empire had several rulers named Antiochus.] Luke devotes the rest of chapter 13 to the preaching of the gospel in the city, and much of his account centers around a single sermon in a synagogue.

Surprisingly, Antioch of Pisidia is not in Pisidia, but in Phrygia, near Pisidia. It may be called Pisidian Antioch because the city is adjacent to, or over against Pisidia. [Strabo, Geography 12.3.31; 12.6.4; 12.8.14.] It’s about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Perga, some 3,600 feet above sea level. To reach Antioch of Pisidia the missionaries have to cross the Taurus mountains — a difficult and dangerous journey. The Pisidian highlands are subject to sudden flooding. Another danger is from brigands, as the Romans have not yet fully suppressed the robber clans that lived in these mountains.

Thus, on first view it seems strange that Paul and Barnabas would struggle to make their way to such an out-of-the-way town in the center of Asia Minor. Luke doesn’t let us in on Paul’s thinking, except that it is his goal to preach the gospel in whatever town he can. Some commentators speculate that Paul or someone in the party became ill while in Perga, perhaps a victim of malaria that plagues the marshy coastal strip of Asia Minor. In Paul’s later letter to the churches in Galatia he says that he came to them because he was ill (Galatians 4:13).

Some commentators think that Paul contracted his “thorn in my flesh” at Perga, the illness for which he beseeches God’s healing on three occasions (2 Corinthians 12:7). However, one must wonder how a deathly ill Paul could survive the rigors of crossing the Taurus mountains. Another view is that Paul has a practical reason for going to Pisidian Antioch: The town sits astride the Via Sebaste, the Roman road from Ephesus going to the Euphrates.

In the synagogue (13:14-15)

Luke now turns to describe a sermon Paul delivers in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (13:14). Paul’s practice of presenting the Christian message in the synagogues of Roman cities becomes a regular feature of his itinerary. Because of this, Paul can put into practice the principle that the gospel should be given “first to the Jew” (Romans 1:16). The synagogue plays a major role in Jewish life in the Diaspora. It serves as a meeting place, schoolhouse, library and court. The synagogue houses the Scriptures and other important writings, so it is a center of religious education and learning. And it is the place where Jews came to worship.

For these reasons, the synagogue is a place in which the Christian missionaries can find a receptive audience, primed for the gospel message. This is true because Gentile proselytes and God-fearers attend the synagogue as well as Jews. The synagogue-attending Gentiles serve as a bridge to pagan relatives, acquaintances and business associates.

After the reading (13:15)

During the synagogue service, Paul listens to the reading from the Law and the Prophets. After this is completed, the synagogue “rulers” ask if Paul and Barnabas have any words of encouragement for the assembly. One might wonder why these strangers are allowed to speak. This is not necessarily their first Sabbath at the synagogue. Thus, they may be known to the synagogue rulers or officials. Paul’s dress or some other symbol may identify him as a rabbi and Pharisee.

The “ruler” or leader of the synagogue is usually an elder or leading layman. He takes charge of organizing and arranging the service and is responsible for maintaining the building. Luke mentions two individuals who hold the office of ruler, Crispus (18:8) and Sosthenes (18:17), both in Corinth.

Luke provides us with two vignettes in which he describes parts of a synagogue service. The first is a service in the Nazareth synagogue at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 4:16-17). The other is the one given here at Pisidian Antioch.

From the details Luke gives and our knowledge of later customs, we can reconstruct the following pattern of a Jewish synagogue service. It begins with the Shema, summarized in the phrase: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Prayers follow the Shema. Then comes two readings, one from the Law and a second from the Prophets. A sermon of explanation and exhortation is drawn from the second reading, as was done by Jesus at the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:17). The address is given by one or more persons judged to be competent by the synagogue rulers. Philo in his description of a Sabbath synagogue service writes, “Some of those who are very learned explain to them [the audience] what is of great importance and use, lessons by which the whole of their lives may be improved.” [Philo, Special Laws 2.62.] After the instruction period is over, the synagogue service closes with a blessing.

Paul’s sermon (13:16-41)

A large part of the rest of this chapter is devoted to Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. It is one of three sermons or speeches Luke records for Paul during his missionary tours (13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31). This sermon is the only one in a synagogue, and it is by far the longest of the three. Luke gives a rather complete summary so he won’t have to repeat himself every time Paul preaches in a synagogue. In later episodes, Luke simply tells us that Paul goes into the synagogue to preach, without giving any details (14:1; 17:2; 18:4).

At most, Luke offers only a sentence or two, tersely summarizing what Paul says. We can infer that Luke wants his readers to understand that Paul preaches a similar message in synagogue after synagogue. If we compare Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch with other speeches given in a Jewish setting, we find they contain the same message and similar elements.

It has often been remarked that this sermon bears a striking resemblance to the speeches of Peter in both outline and content and to a lesser extent to the speech of Stephen (both contain a resume of Israel’s history)….It is now widely accepted that all of the early preaching followed a common pattern that to some extent was based on rabbinic models. These models, no less than the form of preaching based on them, were familiar to Paul, and naturally he adopted this pattern himself. [David J. Williams, Acts, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), page 229.]

Paul’s exhortation here begins with a survey of Israel’s history. Like Stephen, Paul describes how God dealt with the Jews’ ancestors. However, he begins not with Abraham and the patriarchs, but with God’s saving grace in the Exodus. Paul then moves on to Israel’s history in the Promised Land, but he focuses on the life of King David. The reason for Paul’s emphasis has to do with his being able to proclaim Jesus as the promised Son of David, using proof-texts about the Messiah from the Hebrew Scriptures. He then moves the point of his speech: that through Jesus his listeners have forgiveness of sins. Paul’s speech ends with an appeal not to reject the Savior and a solemn warning about the consequences of unbelief.

Gentiles who worship God (13:16)

Paul begins by addressing not only the Jews, but also “you Gentiles who worship God” (13:16). Besides Jews, there are Gentile proselytes and God-fearers listening to him. Because of their presence, Paul can fulfill his commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by preaching in the synagogue!

The Gentiles worshiping in the synagogue are an informed audience, already familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and knowing the messianic hopes of the Jews — which have become their hope as well. Thus, Paul can present his speech as though he is talking to Jews. These Gentiles already recognize the one true God. There is no need to begin at the more elementary level of identifying God and contrasting him with the false gods of the pagans. Later, when Paul talks before purely pagan audiences, he is forced to take this extra step before moving on to explain that Jesus is Savior.

God chose our fathers (13:17-20)

Paul’s first point is that God chose Israel — “our ancestors” — to show his grace and mercy (13:17). He wants to emphasize God’s redemptive activity among the Jews, which would bring him in line with Jewish interests. Paul’s speech is characteristic of rabbinic models of exhortation. The recitation of Old Testament history is a kind of confessional recognizing God’s mighty and merciful hand in the nation’s history. We can see the same pattern in Stephen’s speech, Matthew’s Gospel and in the book of Hebrews. Paul is beginning on thoroughly familiar and acceptable ground.

But Paul doesn’t begin his sermon about God’s redemptive acts with Abraham and the patriarchs. Even Moses is not singled out for discussion. Paul moves quickly to events in the wilderness, and then talks about the entrance of Israel into the Promised Land. “All this took about 450 years,” Paul says (13:20). This would include the centuries of sojourning in Egypt (Genesis 15:13; Acts 7:6), the 40 years wandering in the desert and an additional 10 years conquering the Promised Land (Joshua 14:1-5).

David, king of Israel (13:21-23)

Paul then recounts events from the period of the judges until the time of Samuel. This enables him to describe Saul as the nation’s first king, who was anointed by Samuel. Saul isn’t often mentioned in surveys of Israel’s history, since he was not a very good example of faith or obedience to God. Perhaps Paul’s reference to him reflects his personal interest in a king who bore the same name as he did, and came from the same tribe (Philippians 3:5).

In any case, the reference to Saul’s reign is only an aside. Paul is much more interested in Israel’s next king, David. Here Paul lingers over the details, as David’s example is pivotal to his sermon. Paul quotes God’s testimony of David: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (13:22). This seems to be a composite quote from at least two Old Testament Scriptures: 1) “I have found David” (Psalm 89:20) and, 2) “A man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).

For Paul, David is pivotal as the servant in whom the purpose of God is centered. After picturing David as a man of faith, Paul says: “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised” (13:23). Paul’s comment about David’s “descendants” may be based on an interpretation of 2 Samuel 7:6-16, which describes a descendant of David in the following words: “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14). This passage may be considered messianic by first-century Jews. It is similar to Psalm 2:7 (“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”), which is usually considered messianic.

David is a type of the Messiah (“he will do everything I want him to do”) and also the Messiah’s forbearer (“from this man’s descendants”). The promise of 2 Samuel 7:12-16 refers to a continuing line of kings. But Paul, and Peter before him, interprets the verse messianicly, as referring to one king, the Messiah (Jesus). Paul here builds a bridge from the Jewish expectation of a Messiah — David’s Son — to Jesus as the one in whom the hope is fulfilled. Paul’s proclamation to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch is that God has brought forth the Savior-Deliverer from David’s line, and it is Jesus.

John the Baptist’s work (13:24-26)

Paul’s speech skips from David to the work of John the Baptist. John is highly regarded by the Jews. Some even thought he was the Messiah (John 1:19-20). Most consider him a prophet (Matthew 21:26). Paul uses John’s testimony as a further piece of evidence that the promised Messiah is Jesus. Paul quotes John’s statement that the Messiah is one who is “coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (13:25). John clearly pointed out that Jesus is the Messiah “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Paul has made his case about Jesus from ancient Jewish history and the recent testimony of John. Then he begins to show why all this is vitally important to his listeners. “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles,” Paul shouts, “it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent” (13:26).

Jesus the Savior (13:27-31)

Paul next preaches the gospel message, that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). He proceeds to explain that the people and rulers of Jerusalem condemned Jesus and thereby “fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath” (13:27).

Here is an irony. Jews (and worshiping Gentiles) are in the synagogue every Sabbath listening to the prophets speak of Jesus. Yet they are unable to recognize that the Scriptures are pointing to him. By rejecting Jesus, they are fulfilling the scriptures that foretell his rejection. The very things the Scriptures say should happen to Jesus, the Jews of Jerusalem carried out (13:29). The people who want to live in accordance with the Scriptures had fulfilled the prophecies by (ironically) rejecting God’s messenger!

The Jewish rulers took steps to ensure that Jesus’ body would not be displayed when the Sabbath began (John 19:31). They tried to make the tomb secure so the disciples couldn’t steal the body (Matthew 27:62-66). This is a further irony. The Jews thought they could prove Jesus to be a fake because they had his body. What they didn’t know was that “God raised him from the dead” (13:30). His disciples, however, knew he had been raised because they saw him after his resurrection (13:31). And the guards became unwitting supporting evidence that the disciples did not steal the body.

God raised up Jesus to be the Messiah even before his death, but God also raised him up after his death. And both “raisings” are predicted in the Scriptures that are read every Sabbath in the synagogues. But people do not have to rely on proof-texts from Scripture to prove that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The resurrection is a verifiable fact because Jesus appeared to his followers over a span of several weeks. “They are now his witnesses to our people” (13:31).

Interestingly, Paul speaks of others as witnesses and not himself. That’s because he is not among the original disciples who saw Jesus over an extended period of time after his resurrection.

Neither did Paul say anything of Jesus’ appearance to him, perhaps because the circumstances were different and he had not followed Jesus as the others had done or seen him die. So instead of including himself among the witnesses, he presented himself as an evangelist. [Ibid., 235.]

“You are my Son” (13:32-37)

Paul quotes three more texts and says that they also speak of “raising up Jesus” (13:33). This raising up is prefigured in Psalm 2:7: “You are my son; today I have become your father” (12:33). This is echoed when God spoke after Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus is then anointed by the Holy Spirit, “raised up” or assigned to be the Messiah.

With a Jewish audience it had first to be established that Jesus was the Messiah. The resurrection was the key to that, hence the emphasis not only of this sermon but of all the early preaching in Acts. Only with their acceptance of his messiahship could the Jews be expected to come to grips with the fact and manner of Jesus’ death. For most, however, his crucifixion remained an insuperable obstacle to accepting him as Messiah. [Ibid., 237.]

Acceptance of Jesus as Savior-Messiah is the critical difference between those who remain Jews and those who become Christian Jews. As Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews…but to those whom God has called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

Jesus is also “raised up” in another way. Paul later writes that Jesus “was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). He was already the Son of God; but after the resurrection, he is declared even more powerfully to be the Son. Thus, Jesus becomes Savior of the world by being “raised up” in resurrection. In his synagogue speech, Paul cites Isaiah 55:3 as his second proof-text: “I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David” (13:34). This, says Paul, refers to “the fact that God raised him [Jesus] from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay” (13:34). Paul is moving from discussing the “raising” of Jesus as a “sending,” to his “raising” in the resurrection of the dead. He does this by claiming that the resurrection itself is the fulfillment of the blessings promised to David.

In his third prooftext, Paul quotes Psalm 16:10: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (13:35). Paul understands this to be a prophecy about someone other than David. After all, David died an ordinary death and his body decayed. But Jesus’ body does not suffer corruption. His tomb is empty and his body has not been found. This is the argument Peter used at Pentecost, even citing the same scripture (2:24-32). Peter is a witness to the fact of the resurrection, something Paul mentioned earlier (13:31).

Of the three prooftexts, the last one from Psalm 16:10 is probably the most compelling. It is recognized as a messianic prophecy. But it contains a strange discussion about the Holy One, the Messiah, seeing decay — that is, dying. Those who accept the verse at face value are led to the conclusion that the Messiah had to die. But he would also be resurrected — not see decay. Jesus fits both qualifications.

Justified from sin (13:38-39)

Paul now comes to the conclusion of his argument. “Therefore, my friends,” he says, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (13:38). The need for this forgiveness is a common thread through Acts. [Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 10:43; 26:18.] Humans are sinners, and on their own, there is nothing they can do to change their condition. God must pronounce a person righteous, and he does so upon one’s acceptance of Jesus as Savior.

This brings us to the concept of “justification,” discussed in the next verse. Paul says: “Through him [Jesus] everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (13:39). [Justification is an important term in Paul’s writings, but Luke uses the word only once, in this synagogue speech of Paul.] To be justified is a legal way of expressing the same thing as forgiveness of sin. When a person is justified, he or she is made right with God, or declared to be righteous. But only through Jesus will God justify a person so that he or she is considered righteous.

Can the law of Moses justify people from some sins? If that were so, Jesus’ work would be needed only to make up the difference — to atone for those sins for which observance of the law could not provide forgiveness.

But this would contradict other verses in the New Testament, which demands the all-sufficient work of Christ. The idea that the law of Moses has power to forgive sins is incompatible with Paul’s teaching throughout Romans and Galatians. [Romans 3:21-28; 5:1, 9; Galatians 2:16; 3:11.] The book of Hebrews makes the point that the law of Moses provides no real justification for sin (10:1-4, 11).

Acts 13:39 does not say that the law can justify anyone. It might say that you did one certain thing right — you met the legal requirements in respect to a certain incident in your life — but that cannot justify you for everything you did wrong. In the final analysis, the law of Moses cannot provide justification for any sin, period. “Everything” — all sins — must be atoned for by Christ.

Heed the prophets (13:40-41)

At this point, Paul had said enough about the gospel. He has shown that Jesus is the expected Messiah, except he came in an unexpected way. Paul also pressed home the importance of putting one’s faith in Jesus. In conclusion, Paul warns his hearers about the danger of rejecting God’s offer of salvation. He concludes by quoting Habakkuk 1:5: “Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”

In its original context, the prophecy of Habakkuk 1:5 referred to the failure of the nation to recognize the Babylonian invasion as the judgment of God for sin. Paul here applies it to any failure on the part of God’s people to recognize Jesus as having been “raised up” to be Messiah and Savior. Paul is trying to pre-empt any challenge to his message. What he is doing is saying: If you are ridiculing and scoffing at what I’m telling you, here is one of your own prophets who predicts that you would scoff. So take the prophecy to heart and accept the good news.

The people invite Paul (13:42-45)

After giving his message in the synagogue, Paul and Barnabas prepare to leave. But many people are interested, and crowd around him. They invite him to talk further about this topic the next time they gather, that is, the following Sabbath (13:42). Paul’s speech arouses intense interest because it gives a unique explanation of the Scriptures, and the people want to hear more of this message. Of course, Luke wants us to remember that the unseen Holy Spirit is also at work in the minds of the listeners. Many Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism who hear Paul engage him and Barnabas in conversation after the synagogue service. They want to discuss the topic of salvation further (13:43). Paul and Barnabas give the crowd further words of exhortation. Luke tells us they encourage the crowd around them “to continue in the grace of God” (13:43).

Word gets around during the week about Paul’s message. Luke says “the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (13:44). Luke’s expression “the whole city” does not mean that every person from Pisidian Antioch is gathering in front of the synagogue. He uses exaggeration to make the point that a large crowd gathers to hear this new doctrine. And strange it must have been: a traveling Jewish rabbi describing to Gentiles a Jewish Messiah, who died, but was now resurrected, and is forgiving sins.

But conflict with the synagogue leaders is looming. When they see the large crowd of Gentiles attempting to get into the synagogue to hear Paul, they are upset. Luke says “they were filled with jealousy” (13:45). (The same motive was attributed to the Sanhedrin regarding the preaching of Peter and John in 5:17.) We can imagine some of the thoughts in the minds of the synagogue leaders, and some of the faithful. The strange ideas Paul is preaching are turning out to be more attractive than Judaism. Proselytes and God-fearing Gentiles might leave the synagogue and no longer support it. Or Gentiles might flood the synagogue and take it over for their own purposes — to hear about Jesus rather than Moses.

We turn to the Gentiles (13:46-48)

Paul is probably denied permission to speak during the next synagogue service. At some point, he turns to the unbelieving Jews and says: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (13:46). This is a pattern that will be repeated in city after city: Paul begins his missionary work by preaching in the synagogue. After he is rejected by the leaders and the majority of the Jewish worshipers, he then preaches to the Gentiles in that city.

Luke records three statements in which Paul says, “I go to the Gentiles.” The first is here. It is followed by one in Corinth (18:6), and a final one in Rome, which closes the book of Acts (28:28). Paul’s commission includes preaching to the people of Israel, which he will continue to do. In his mind, the gospel is always to go to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). Paul has a special desire to bring the gospel to the Jews in hopes that all Israel will be saved (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1).

But Paul’s specific mission is to the Gentiles. On this occasion, he quotes Isaiah 49:6 in support of his contention that he has been commanded by the Lord to preach to the Gentiles. This scripture speaks of someone being made “a light for the Gentiles” that he “may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:47). The words of Isaiah 49:6 were originally addressed to the Servant of Yahweh, and then they are applied to Jesus (Luke 2:32). Now Paul applies it to the missionaries who are bringing the good news of Jesus, the Servant. Thus, Paul is saying that the mission of Jesus (the Servant) is also the mission of the followers of Jesus. It is the task of the new Israel (the church) as the servant of God to bring the light of the gospel to all peoples.

When the Gentiles listening to Paul hear that God has purposed to give them salvation, “they were glad and honored the word of the Lord” (13:48). As many as “were appointed for eternal life believed” (13:48). This verse suggests that a person cannot simply decide to believe in Christ. There is a matter of divine election involved (John 6:44; 1 Corinthians 2:14). That is not to say that salvation is restricted by God in the sense of limiting it to a few people. God’s purpose is that all people come to know about the truth and find salvation (1 Timothy 2:3). However, a person must respond in faith as the Spirit leads him or her to saving knowledge. In the words of William Neil:

It is a pictorial way of expressing the conviction of the sovereignty of God — i.e. that salvation is God’s gift, and does not depend on man’s efforts. But it is not in any sense narrowly predestination, as if some are scheduled for salvation and others for damnation; the Bible constantly stresses the element of free choice: we may accept or reject the Word of God. [Neil, 161.]

Jews incite persecution (13:49-52)

Paul and Barnabas meet with great success in the area around Pisidian Antioch. Luke says, “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region” (13:49). The Jewish leaders are angry, and enter a plot with “the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city” (13:50). Luke is probably referring to Gentile women who are adherents of Judaism and their politically connected husbands.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

Apparently, the Jews put pressure on the wealthy women who attend the synagogue. They are probably urged to convince their husbands, the city’s leading magistrates, to expel Paul and Barnabas from the area. This is what happens (13:50). Luke doesn’t say what excuse is given; perhaps the accusation is that the local Jewish community believes Paul and Barnabas to be heretics. Since they are not representing Judaism, a legal religion in Rome’s eyes, Paul and Barnabas are teaching a religion that is not legal. As such, they should be expelled since they are disturbing the Roman peace.

Upon being expelled, Paul and Barnabas shake “the dust off their feet” in protest (13:51). This is a gesture that Jesus himself suggested his disciples practice upon encountering persecution (Luke 9:5; 10:11).

It was customary for Jews to shake off the dust of a pagan town from their feet when they returned to their own land, as a symbol of cleansing themselves from the impurity of sinners who did not worship God. For Jews to do this to their fellow Jews was tantamount to regarding the latter as pagan Gentiles. The Christians were demonstrating in a particularly vigorous manner that Jews who rejected the gospel and drove out the missionaries were no longer truly part of Israel but were no better than unbelievers. [Marshall, 231.]

Luke ends his story of gospel preaching in Pisidian Antioch by saying, “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52). Paul and Barnabas have established a congregation of believers in Pisidian Antioch. But they are forced to move on, this time to Iconium.

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