Jewish rejection equals Gentile opportunity

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Acts 13:1-15

This is the point in the book called the "Acts of the Apostles" where the focus changes. Up to now, the story has centred very much on what had happened in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas of Judea and Samaria. Although there is mention of places outside of these areas (such as Antioch where Saul went after his conversion on the road to Damascus), the main thrust of the first twelve chapters is on Israel and the main character we have been following is Peter.

The action now shifts to the man who had been called "Saul" (after Israel's first king) but who is now known as "Paul" (meaning "little"). This man, who started out by persecuting the believers, now takes up the main role in the book and the area of focus is now very much the Gentile world. The good news about the kingdom of God had always been a message for all people on earth, but Jesus was born in Israel of Jewish parents and naturally spoke to His own people at first. However, their leaders roundly rejected what He had to say and made life difficult for the early believers.

Just as surely as God’s plan for salvation is worldwide, so is His intention for His church. Individual churches will always express their worship as a unique product of their particular environment and culture, but the vision of the universal church as the "Bride of Christ" was intended to reflect the entire body of believers throughout the world: local, national and international. Jesus reminded His disciples of this just before His ascension into heaven. (See Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8.) He speaks to us now about the role of the church in our own time and, believe it or not, His commission has not changed. We need to think big and understand that our task is truly global. If necessary, we may need to get a passport and a rucksack and be prepared to go wherever the Holy Spirit calls us.

It is important that those who believe that they are called to stay in the local area, doing things for local people, are not prevented from doing that. It is equally important, though, that they do not stand in the way of those who hear God's call to move in wider spheres. Every person has a vital function in the body of Christ. Those who had become comfortable in their narrow ministry to Jerusalem suddenly found that they were displaced through persecution, but could preach the good news equally well in their new home and with far more resounding effect than if they had stayed behind. So the good news spread and, in this chapter, we are pushed to the edge of a worldwide movement that could not (and will not) be stopped until the entire earth is renewed and Satan is finally defeated.

The church at Antioch must have been an exciting place in which to be a believer. For a start their several prophets - inspired interpreters of the will of God - and more than one teacher! They had not been born and bred there; they had come from very different backgrounds and were probably from different, ethnic minorities. It is worth reflecting on what each had been through in the last few months: "Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch were Barnabas and Symeon (also called "The Black Man"), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (a member of the court of King Herod) and Paul." (Acts 13:1 Living Bible Version) Barnabas was known in the church as an encourager. (Acts 4:36-37) He was the man who, when Saul arrived in Jerusalem after his conversion, acted as the intermediary for him when the believers refused to believe that Saul had become a believer. They thought it was just another trick to discover those who loved the Lord. (Acts 9:26-29) When new converts required help, it was Barnabas to whom the believers turned. They sent him to Antioch and the Bible records the profound effect he had on the people there. Not only did he encourage them, but his character as a strong, kind and reliable man for the Lord shone through. (Acts 11:22-26) Now, here were Paul and Barnabas, hurrying to return from Jerusalem to Antioch, but taking with them John-Mark who would later write Mark’s Gospel. (Acts 12:25)

These people were part of a thriving church which, apparently, did not suffer from the common ailment of many churches today. There was no place for "managing directors" here! Everyone had executive authority. The only managing director was God Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:2-3) This church was dedicated to God’s work, so it was no surprise that the Holy Spirit spoke to them and shared with them His vision. The men whom the Holy Spirit chose were Paul and Barnabas. What a pairing! Paul was fearless in his love of the Lord whom once He had persecuted and Barnabas was the ideal backup man: an encourager and a man who would get alongside those he was helping. This was God’s team to begin the evangelisation of the Gentile nations.

What gifts has God given you? Are you holding back from something He has called you to do because you are afraid of stepping into the unknown? If God has called you, it is because He has also uniquely equipped you to do this job. If you don’t do it, then nobody else will; indeed, nobody could do it as well as you. When Joshua stepped up to take the Israelites over the River Jordan, God spoke to him and gave him amazing promises to encourage him to get started and to keep going:

"No one will be able to oppose you as long as you live, for I will be with you just as I was with Moses; I will not abandon you or fail to help you. Be strong and brave, for you will be a successful leader of my people; and they shall conquer all the land I promised to their ancestors. You need only to be strong and courageous and to obey to the letter every law Moses gave you... think about them every day and every night so that you will be sure to obey all of them. For only then will you succeed. Yes, be bold and strong! Banish fear and doubt! For remember, the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:2-9)

Paul's First Missionary Journey

If God has called you, don’t look for reasons to justify not doing what He has asked you to do; just seek His face and His Word for the promises He has for you and your situation. Those who chose Paul, Barnabas and John-Mark laid hands on them and sent them out into the unknown with only the Holy Spirit to guide them. The journey they were about to undertake has become known to Bible scholars as "Paul’s First Missionary Journey". It is the first in a sequence and, if God has laid this lifestyle on your heart, you will (like Paul) be totally unable to resist the excitement. We can view the journey in four stages with each one teaching us something about the rigours of life in the centre of God’s plan for your life.

The first stop was Cyprus. Located in the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Cyprus, with a large Jewish population, was where Barnabas had been raised. Their first stage, therefore, was in familiar territory. The strategy they adopted was to go initially to the Jewish synagogues and to preach the good news there. This was to be the pattern that Paul would adopt throughout his life as a missionary. He always began a new mission by starting with the Jewish people. When they refused to listen any more, he would move on and give the Gentiles their opportunity.

The trio of missionaries preached from town to town until finally they came to Paphos. Here they found their first real test. The governor, Sergius Paulus, had heard what Barnabas and Paul were doing on the island and wanted to know more, but a local sorcerer called Elymas sought to interfere and tried to prevent the governor from listening to them. In doing so, he was also preventing Sergius Paulus from trusting in the Lord. We need to understand that someone who comes against one of the servants of God as he or she carries out their commission actually comes against God Himself. Paul understood exactly what his authority was in Jesus and, filled with the Holy Spirit, dealt with the problem. Occasionally, we too may need to deal forcefully with people who stand in the way of God and fulfilling His plan for someone else's life and our commission to share the good news of His kingdom.

Paul addressed Elymas with blunt truth: "you master in every form of deception and recklessness, unscrupulousness and wickedness; you son of the devil; you enemy of everything that is upright and good." (See Acts 13:9-12 Amplified Version.) He commanded blindness to come on Elymas. It was an appropriate measure for someone who was trying to inflict spiritual blindness on others: a physical blindness that left him groping around in the dark. Of course, this physical blindness was only temporary whereas spiritual blindness can last for all eternity. When the governor saw that God's kingdom was not a matter of talk but of power (1 Corinthians 4:20), he did indeed become a believer himself.

AttalyaPaul and Barnabas then left Paphos by boat and set out for Asia Minor (what we know as modern-day Turkey). They landed in the port area of Perga, a location we now know as Attalia. It was here that John-Mark deserted them. Luke does not explain why; we simply know that he turned back to Jerusalem. Paul was not happy about this and it caused a rift between him and Barnabas for many years until finally they were reconciled (as we shall see later in our exploration of Acts). Nonetheless, Paul and Barnabas continued their journey together and set out for Antioch. We should remember that the Holy Spirit was in charge of this trip and it seems that there was some urgency to move on.

Antioch in PisidiaWe can easily lose sight of the fact that travel in those days was an arduous undertaking. Even today, the perils of travelling to foreign places are still numerous, but it's worth reflecting on the fact that they had no motor transport to make life easier. At best, their route would have been a rough track and very difficult to traverse in parts. It climbed through spectacular mountains and beside large lakes and it would have been many days until they arrived at their destination.

Antioch in Pisidia

 

 

(The pictures show excavations of a main thoroughfare in the city of Antioch-in-Pisidia and the ruins of a satanic temple to the Emperor Augustus. Notice the snow on the hills in the background.)

When they reached the city, Luke tells us that they went first of all to the synagogue, following the pattern that they had laid down in Cyprus. Here they were invited to speak: "Brothers, if you have any word of instruction for us, come and give it!" (Acts 13:15)


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