In my last blog post, we talked about how Paul and Barnabas were ordained as missionaries. In today’s blog post we are going to continue with Acts 13 starting at verse 13.
Let’s read Acts 13:13-23
After some indeterminate amount of time that the three remained on Cyprus, at some point, they found a ship to take them to the Asia Minor coast of Pamphylia and the city of Perga.
Perga was the major metropolitan city of the region. It was there that John Mark left Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem. No reason is given for his leaving.
But later in Acts, we hear that Paul was pretty unhappy with John Mark for leaving them and regarded it as abandonment. So there were some underlying problems that had developed between John and Paul (remember, John and Barnabas were family, so no doubt this dust-up also caused friction between Barnabas and Paul).
Verse 14 explains that from Perga Paul and Barnabas went to Pisidia Antioch. And, as usual, they waited for Shabbat and then went to the local Synagogue.
Now, this is a different Antioch than the one in Syria. In fact, there are 15 or 16 public places called Antioch, because they were all named in honor of Antiochus Epiphanies. We are told that they had to cross over a mountain range to get there, so no doubt they timed their trip to avoid the winter snows and spring downpours. The distance between Perga and Antioch of Pisidia was over 125 miles so that the travel time would be about a week in decent weather.
As with everywhere, they’ve gone thus far, and there is a Jewish community in Antioch of Pisidia. It isn’t that nearly every town in the Roman Empire had a Jewish community; it is that Paul and Barnabas intentionally targeted those cities and villages with a sufficient number of Jews in them that could support a Synagogue.
It was a typical procedure on Shabbat that the Torah Scroll would be removed from its Ark, and then rolled out and read. Notice how verse 15 says that “after the reading of the Law and the Prophets….” The Law is synonymous with the term The Torah.
So after reading the weekly Torah Portion (that is, a section of Genesis through Deuteronomy), then next is the reading of the Haftarah, which is a series of Scripture readings from the Prophets. The word Haftarah may sound like it is connected to the word Torah, but it isn’t. The word means something like “parting” or “taking leave.”
No one knows when this Tradition of meeting on Sabbath in Synagogues began, nor when the usual service of reading a portion of the Torah followed by a reading from the Prophets originated. But what we do know is that it happened before New Testament times because we’re reading about it right here in Acts 13 verses 14 & 15.
It was also customary that following the two readings of Scripture, a short comment made by either the Synagogue President or later in Synagogue development, the Rabbi. Often the floor was opened to the congregation to see if someone had something they wanted to say. The readings would have been in Greek, taken from the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).
During Paul’s era, most Synagogues didn’t have assigned teachers per se. There might be a few different men who were regularly called on to teach. But even then the teachings following the readings weren’t exegetical Scripture study; rather they more resembled a moral teaching on some aspect of Jewish life.
Remember: Judaism revolved then, as it does now, around Halakhah; Jewish Law. And Jewish Law is a fusion of the Torah of Moses, Traditions, and Customs. So Scripture study, as we know it wasn’t the usual mode at Synagogue. When it did occur, it took place at a Beit Midrash, which was a house of study.
Paul’s Sermon At Antioch
So those who presided over this Synagogue in Antioch then offered for Paul or Barnabas to provide a word of encouragement to the congregation. Paul responded by going to the raised platform, the Bema, and he began to speak. His opening words are revealing: he addresses his audience as
1) Men of Israel (Israelim) and
Men of Israel mean Hebrews; Jews. God-fearers mean gentiles who worship the God of Israel, but they have not converted to becoming a Jew.
So here is proof that at this particular Synagogue, gentiles were allowed to join the Jews and apparently there were no serious issues of ritual purity that concerned the Jewish congregation. And this was not so in all the Synagogues of the Roman Empire, and it was the opposite case in the Holy Land and especially in Jerusalem. This reality will play a significant role in what happens at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.
Paul now goes into a speech that brings back memories of the speech that the martyr Stephen gave in his defense before the Sanhedrin. It is essentially a historical survey of Israel’s past to make a point.
Paul begins with the first of Israel’s Patriarchs, Abraham, because upon God’s election of Abraham we have the birth of the Hebrew people. A series of important theological points are made that actually ought to be labeled Christianity 101. These are the basics for understanding the history of our faith; and so when one realizes that Abraham was the root and that he was also the first Hebrew, then we have every justification we need to defend the definition of our faith as honestly and accurately a “Hebrew Roots” faith.
When Paul says that God made the people “great” when living in Egypt, he means “great” in the sense of “many,” not of merit. I want to pause for a moment and have you hear what the editor of the Complete Jewish Bible, David Stern, says about the concept of God choosing the Hebrew people out of all the other people on this planet, to be set apart for Himself. God “choosing” one over the other is often taken as a matter of pride when it should be the opposite.
“While it is possible that some Jews like some Christians, become proud to be chosen, I think many find it embarrassing and wish like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” that God “would choose somebody else for a change.” But only if I take choosiness to imply superiority do I become either embarrassed or proud. The right attitude, the one taken by Sha’ul (Paul) and by the writers of the Tanakh, is that Israel’s election by God is not predicated on any special quality in Israel but entirely on God’s grace, rightly defined as God’s undeserved favor. Being aware of this favor as undeserved should make us humble without embarrassing us”.
In verse 17 when we see Paul speak of God leading Israel out of the land (of Egypt) “with a stretched-out arm,” it means that God rescued Israel with a judgment against those who were hindering His people. And then after delivering His people from bondage God cared for them out in the desert for 40 years, after which He destroyed seven nations in Canaan to pave the way for Israel to inherit the land the seven nations had inhabited (the list of these countries can be found in Deuteronomy 7).
The land of Canaan was not a gift of conquest from God to the Israelites; it was a gift of inheritance. Why an inheritance? Why not as a spoil of war? Because God already owned the land; He had hundreds of years earlier promised to give it to Abraham; it became Abraham’s land the instant God promised it. All that remained was for Abraham’s descendants to possess it.
So the Lord merely evicted the illegal squatters and then turned over to the rightful inheritors (Israel) that which He had long ago bequeathed to them. For God is a Father to His children, Israel and that’s what fathers do.
Verse 20 says that the process of Israel living in Egypt and then God rescuing them and taking them through the desert and dispossessing the Canaanite squatters took 450 years. This number is given in round terms; it is not to be taken as precise. After that, the Lord gave Israel Judges (shofetim) to rule over them.
The age of the Judges lasted through Samuel who was part Judge, part prophet. But the people of Israel wanted a king like their gentile neighbors, so God gave them Saul, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. Let’s take another brief pause to make an interesting connection.
In Genesis 45, which is part of the story about Joseph and his brothers coming to Egypt to buy grain from him, we read about how Joseph gave his little brother Benjamin 5 times as much food, clothing, and silver as he gave to his other brothers.
In Egypt 5 times the regular portion was the royal share. But why would Joseph give the royal portion to Benjamin? Is it because they had the same mother? Is it because Benjamin is the only brother not guilty of selling Joseph into slavery?
It is certainly not because Benjamin would become the inheritor of the nation of Israel; that would turn out to be an older brother, Judah. Whatever was Joseph’s real motive at the time, in the end, it is because this was prophetic of Saul of the tribe of Benjamin becoming the first king (the first royalty) of Israel?
But then comes an important turning point: after 40 years God removes Saul and turns the throne over to David of the tribe of Judah. So this sets the stage for David’s messianic descendant who would deliver Israel all over again. King David was chosen because he will do what God wants him to do, and this is because David was a man after God’s own heart.
Remember: in the Bible, any reference to the heart is not about emotions or warm feelings. In that day and age, the heart organ (the lev) is where the ancients believed that our thought processes (our mind) existed; they didn’t know then that it occurred in the brain. So God is saying that David is a man after God’s own mind. That is, David wants what God wants.
Then in verse 23, the messianic promise is fulfilled. God promised David that his bloodline would never end and we read of that promise in many places in the Bible but the first place it is recorded is in 2 Samuel 7.
2 Samuel 7:9-16 CJB
I have been with you wherever you went; I have destroyed all your enemies ahead of you; and I am making your reputation great, like the reputations of the greatest people on earth. I will assign a place to my people Isra’el; I will plant them there, so that they can live in their own place without being disturbed any more. The wicked will no longer oppress them, as they did at the beginning, and as they did from the time I ordered judges to be over my people Isra’el; instead, I will give you rest from all your enemies.
“‘Moreover, Adonai tells you that Adonai will make you a house. When your days come to an end and you sleep with your ancestors, I will establish one of your descendants to succeed you, one of your own flesh and blood; and I will set up his rulership. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish his royal throne forever. I will be a father for him, and he will be a son for me. If he does something wrong, I will punish him with a rod and blows, just as everyone gets punished; nevertheless, my grace will not leave him, as I took it away from Sha’ul, whom I removed from before you. Thus your house and your kingdom will be made secure forever before you; your throne will be set up forever.’”
Then Paul says, and in keeping with the promise to make David’s throne secure forever God has brought Israel the descendant from David who will sit on that throne forever and His name is Yeshua.
My daily prayer is that Yeshua will come back very soon to occupy that throne of David, forever.
We’ll continue with Acts 13 in my next blog post.