Story 50 – Paul and Barnabas at Pisidian Antioch
Based on Acts chapter 13 verses 13 to 52
It was time for Paul (who used to be known as Saul) and Barnabas, along with John Mark, to move on. So, leaving Cyprus, the place Barnabas knew so well, they decided to head up to the area Paul was from. Sailing from the Cyprian port of Paphos, they took the 100 mile or so sea voyage up to Asia Minor, probably landing at Attalia, and then travelled about 12 miles inland to Perga. However, when they reached Perga, they suffered a painful setback, as John Mark abandoned them and left for Jerusalem.
Quite what was happening, we don’t know. Maybe John Mark missed his home and his mother? Or maybe he didn’t like the way things were changing, as Paul took more and more of a leading role and his cousin Barnabas less? It could have been that they’d come to a new and potentially dangerous place and John Mark felt worried? We’ll never know but, even as they suffered this loss, it seemed that other things were also going wrong as, instead of staying in Perga, they quickly left that area and headed north. It seems that Paul may have been quite ill, as he talks about that in one of his letters at another time. So, instead of staying in Perga, they went on quite a long and arduous journey on dangerous roads and through mountain passes that were well known for being infested with robbers and bandits. But the advantage of the journey, especially if Paul was ill, was that it took them away from the heat of the south Galatian plateau and up to the cool and no doubt bracing air of the Taurus plateau, about 3,500 feet above sea level. And so, they eventually came to a place called Antioch. Obviously, it was a different Antioch from where they’d originally started, and was known as Pisidian Antioch, to distinguish it from the Antioch that had sent Paul and Barnabas out on the mission they were now on.
On their arrival at Pisidian Antioch, and no doubt when Paul was well enough, on the Sabbath day – the day when Jewish people always gather together to worship, and which is our Saturday – they went to the Jewish synagogue in town.
The service followed its usual pattern and it was a custom that, if a visiting Rabbi or Jewish teacher came to the synagogue, they’d be asked if they’d speak to the gathered people. Now, Paul was a teacher and they would’ve probably known that from the type of clothing he wore. So, at the appropriate moment in the service, the leaders of the Jewish synagogue sent a message to Paul and Barnabas to ask if they had a message to encourage the people and, if so, to speak in the meeting. Well, as you can imagine, Paul and Barnabas did have a message, all about the wonderful news of God’s love through Jesus, and were more than happy to share it with them.
It was Paul who did the actual preaching and he was a man who knew how to preach and had lots of experience. Starting by standing and making a hand gesture to let the people know that he had something to say that was worth listening to and, knowing that he was talking to mainly Jews, he began by talking about a subject close to their hearts, Jewish history.
‘Men of Israel and everyone else who fears God, listen to me,’ he started. Then, Paul skilfully pointed out how Jesus was the Messiah that Jewish history had always been pointing towards. He talked of their ancestors and of the time the people of Israel had lived in slavery in Egypt and how God had saved them from their servitude. He reminded them of God’s patience with the Israelites while they’d spent 40 years in the wilderness after they’d left Egypt. Then he talked about how God had helped them destroy seven mighty nations so that they could have the land of Israel as their inheritance and that all this had taken 450 years - no doubt adding together the 400 years in Egypt, 40 in the wilderness and 10 to take full possession of Israel. Paul then reminded the people of how Israel had asked for a king and how God had firstly given them King Saul and then how God had removed him. And, after that, God had given them King David, who was a man whose desire was to do what God wanted and from whose descendants the promised Saviour was to come.
Paul then moved on to talk about John the Baptist, who had clearly told everyone that he wasn’t the promised Messiah and had, instead, pointed to Jesus. Then, Paul talked about the fact that the leaders in Jerusalem hadn’t understood who Jesus was and had asked for him to be killed by Pilate, who’d had him executed. But, in doing so, these leaders had actually fulfilled the very things God had said in the Scriptures would happen to the Messiah, such as the Messiah’s body being placed in a tomb and not thrown into a mass grave.
Paul then talked about something even more amazing, that, after the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had had Jesus killed and He’d been buried in the tomb, God had raised Jesus from the dead and, for many days after, Jesus had appeared to His followers who had come with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. These people included the Apostles, the likes of Peter, Andrew and John, who now witnessed to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection to all the people.
And Paul told them that the purpose of his visit was to bring them the Good News about Jesus. He explained that, in raising Jesus from the dead, God had shown that Jesus was even greater than the great King David of old. For King David had died and his body had been laid in a tomb and, like everyone else on earth, his body had decayed away. But the same was NOT true of Jesus, because God had truly raised Him back to life and so He would never experience decay.
The final part of Paul’s sermon was probably unexpected and given as a word of warning to the people listening to him. You see, Paul was talking about things that were so important that they shouldn’t be ignored or left until later but, instead, should be acted on at once. He was talking about God reaching out to us, and sending His Son to die for us, so that we could be forgiven and become children of God. He was showing them a New Way that was different from the way they’d been following. Their old way to try and get right with God was by trying to obey a series of laws. However, if they failed to obey even one, they would remain guilty in God’s eyes and subject to punishment. But now, he explained, through Jesus, a New Way was open to God that could make them clean and forgiven in the eyes of God in a way that the old system simply couldn’t. However, and this was the warning, if they ignored what God was offering them in Jesus then, like their ancestors of old, who’d refused to believe that God was going to punish Israel and hadn’t turned from their evil ways and, as a result, had suffered great loss and death, they too could suffer great, eternal loss if they ignored Paul’s message. Put simply, this message was too important to ignore.
Paul’s sermon set the whole synagogue alight with discussion and excitement and, as they were leaving, the people begged Paul and Barnabas to come back the following week so they could hear more about all these things. In fact, many of the people present went after Paul and Barnabas as they left and the two of them urged those who had believed their message to continue to rely on God’s grace.
And so the next Sabbath arrived, but the people who’d been their the previous week had been so excited about all that Paul had said that they’d told almost everyone in the whole city about it. As a result, pretty much the entire city turned up to hear Paul and Barnabas preach about Jesus.
That’s when the problems started for the two men. Because, when the Jews saw all those people attending the meeting, they became very jealous. They were jealous that Paul and Barnabas had been so powerful in their message that so many people had turned up to hear them, but they were also jealous to think that God would save anyone other than Jews and those who’d become Jews. As a result, when the meeting started, the Jews said all kinds of lies about Paul and argued with everything he said.
Paul and Barnabas understood what was going on, and were no doubt very sad to see it happen, as the incredibly important message they were bringing to these people was rejected by the Jews, in a similar way to how Jesus’ message had been rejected by the leaders in Jerusalem. So, with great boldness, undaunted by this new opposition, they declared to the Jews, ‘It was necessary that we started by preaching the Word of God first to you Jews. But since you’ve rejected it, and in so doing have judged that you aren’t worthy of eternal life, we will take this message and offer it to everyone else who isn’t a Jew, that is, to the Gentiles. For the Lord Himself gave us this command. He said, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the furthest corners of the earth.’’
Of course, when the non-Jews or Gentiles heard this, they were overjoyed and thanked the Lord for His message. Everyone who was chosen to receive eternal life became a believer and the Lord’s message spread throughout that region.
However, the Jews were NOT happy with this situation and wanted their revenge on Paul and Barnabas. They stirred up the influential religious women and the leaders of the city to create a mob to grab Paul and Barnabas and violently run them out of town. It’s probable that Paul and Barnabas were badly beaten as they were thrown out of the town (again, something Paul talks about later on in one of his letters). So, as a sign against those Jews who’d refused the message, and in the same way that Jesus had told His disciples to do when their message was rejected, Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet as a sign of the rejection they’d experienced and went to another town called Iconium. Jesus had warned His disciples that, if they got to the point of having to shake off the dust from themselves when rejected, like Paul and Barnabas had just been, then the judgment of God against those who’d refused their message would be very severe. But, in the meantime, those who had believed were filled with joy and also with the Holy Spirit.