The record of the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey, preserved in the Acts of the Apostles, is infused with adventure, high drama, worldview collision, risk and reward and that’s just the story. At the heart of these two chapters (13–14) is one of the most essential sermons for the shape of early Christian theology recorded in Scripture, or early Church writings. Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch called into question the very nature of Jewish interpretations of Torah, its role in spiritual life, and in soteriology. It also throws wide open the doors of God’s kingdom to whomever believes in Christ; whether Goy or child of Abraham. Further, Paul presents the sacrifice of the lamb of God and the life offered beyond the law (Torah). Stranger still, Paul’s soteriological convictions foreshadow the shape and expression through which divine signs and wonders are revealed along the way, appearing to validate the claims of his preaching.
There are seven main scenes of the story; the commission (13:1–3), Paul, Barnabas and John Mark in Cyprus (13:4–13), the mission to Pisidian Antioch (13:14–52), then Iconium (14:1–7), later Lystra and Derbe (14:8–20), and finally the return home (14:21–26) and the reception back at the mother church of Antioch (14:27–28).
It’s no surprise Paul quotes Isaiah 64:4 in 1 Corinthians 2.9: “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor mind imagined, what God has in store…” Paul’s own mother church of Antioch (which grows to become a church of the Pentarchy), was founded by Christians fleeing Saul’s (Paul’s) persecutions, culminating in the stoning of Stephen, before Paul’s conversion to the very movement he was trying to exterminate. No mind would have imagined that Paul would later find a spiritual home within this dispersed group of believers, and that its greatest enemy would become its most successful missionary and theologian. It is from this unbelievable beginning, that we find Paul and Barnabas (meaning ‘black man’) chosen by the Spirit for missional work (a truly diverse mission team and microcosm of the shape of things to come). The power of Christianity is validated by the testimony of changed lives, but also of Christ our life beyond the law, the shape of the kingdom to come.
Mission to Cyprus
Paul, Barnabas and John Mark travel to Cyprus on the first stop of their mission and after preaching throughout the Island they then face a formidable opponent: Elymas, the wise man in the service of Proconsul Sergius Paulus. The text intentionally includes his Jewish name: Bar-Jesus (meaning ‘Son of Jesus.’ Jesus means: YHWH is salvation). Far from being a ‘son of God’s salvation,’ Elymas qualifies as an anti-Christ (see 1 John 2:22; 2 John 1:7). By opposing the light of the Gospel, Paul authorises the same curse he himself suffered when in opposition to Jesus Christ; namely, blindness. Not only does Elymas receive poetic justice, he serves as proto-paradigm for the Jewish opposition to the good news Paul experiences throughout this first mission. Sergius Paulus believes their message because of this blinding of Elymas. This is the first sign linked to Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, which is precisely where we travel to next on this first missionary journey.
Mission to Pisidian Antioch
John Mark unexpectedly leaves the mission team in verse thirteen, with no further detail given for why he returns to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas continue on from Perga to Pisidian Antioch. Paul’s mission approach is consistent throughout scripture. He first takes the message to synagogues, then marketplaces, and other venues (like the Areopagus in Acts 17:16–34). Here in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch Paul delivers one of his most important sermons (Acts 13:16–41). It is the meridian of our passage, the cap sheaf of the good news.
Paul begins by addressing the men of Israel, but he also includes God-fearing goy in verse 16 and again more crucially in verse 26, as the message of salvation is opened to both groups. This is just a foretaste of a notion that will lead to riots later in our passage, and to the necessity of the first church council of Jerusalem in around A.D. 50. The very idea that the good news relates to both groups, and critically to those outside the family of Israel is too much for many Jews to swallow. How can God’s chosen people now include goy? It calls into question the very idea of the elect and remnant. At this stage the penny is yet to drop however.
Paul begins by reliving the highlights of Israel’s history: the Exodus, the founding of the nation, the Judges (and Samuel), the establishment of monarchy, and King David, “a man after my (God’s) own heart who will do all my will” (Acts 13:22). He then tells of the coming of Jesus, the descendent of David (13:23), the rightful heir of the Davidic covenant (1. Rest from enemies, 2. Never-ending kingdom, see 2 Sam 7:11–13 & Luke 1:32). Paul then tells of the repentance message of John the Baptist, and the judgement, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Verse 38–39 are the key texts for our entire passage, the apex of the good news: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” (13:38–39 NASB). The Jewish worldview has at its core held in balance the idea of Law, but also the idea of Sacrifice. Jesus fulfils scripture in that he both calls for obedience to the Law and provides the ultimate sacrifice for sin. He is the true king who does ‘all God’s will.’
The dynamite of this passage is verse 39 however: “and through him, everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the law of Moses.” In this passage, this very idea is in addition to the forgiveness of sins in verse 38. Not only can the Law of Moses not atone for sins committed, which Christ accomplishes; critically, the Law of Moses cannot give resurrection of life, it cannot heal men born lame, or affect the sight of Elymas for a time, or be the power to raise Paul from the experience of being stoned alive. These are the key ‘signs’ and ‘wonders’ that accompany this core message. Only Jesus Christ through the power of God can give you life beyond the law.
Pause for Thought
In almost every Seventh-day Adventist church in which I have been a member, perfectionism, works-based salvation, or last-generation theology has been a thorn in the side of church thought, ministry and mission. In fact, these ideas possess some of my closest friends. I remember having a conversation with a proponent of last-generation theology in my last district who took me aside one day and, quoting James 2:14–26, said, “Daniel we know that salvation is by works and by faith.”
This is why Paul’s sermon is so important as a corrective measure to theology that focuses on the Law of Moses (Torah), while misunderstanding the good news of Jesus Christ. To this point our passage is crystal clear; Jesus is our life beyond the law. On resurrection morning, will the Law or the keeping thereof raise a person from the grave? No, it is utterly powerless in the face of death. Can a last generation of Christians perfect themselves by keeping the law perfectly, and in the process correct thousands of years of sin, encoded into the very fabric of human epigenetics? No, human agency and the keeping of the law is not enough to correct genetic deformation. Our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 10:5–9). Only in Christ Jesus are we freed from all the things the law is powerless to provide. Only Jesus is our life beyond the law.
I understand the friction this causes to worldviews engrained with the groves of self-reliance. Self-reliance and personal responsibility are not one and the same here though. You may experience kingdom living by keeping Torah (personal responsibility). But when your breath goes back to God who gave it, self-reliance is as useful as a stone-cold corpse.
Mission to Pisidian Antioch, Continued
Most Christian sermons end with an appeal, a call to action, or to a change of mind. The Apostle Paul’s conclusion is unorthodox by modern standards: “Behold, you scoffers, and marvel, and perish; For I am accomplishing a work in your days, a work which you will never believe, though someone should describe it to you.” (Acts 13:41). His conclusion should be a sobering thought to anyone who believes keeping Torah can overcome the perishing.
Paul’s message seemed to strike a nerve. The next Sabbath, Acts 13:45 reports that nearly the whole city turned up to listen. This time Paul’s sermon ends on a different note, to the tune of Isaiah 49.6: “I have placed you (the Servant) as a light for the gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” This is the point at which many Jews decide to oppose Paul. How can gentiles also be the elect, the ‘chosen’ of God? They have neither Abraham’s blood line, nor the Torah, nor the circumcision prescribed therein. From this point on riots follow the preaching of the Good News, as do threats to the lives of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. Acts 14:3 follows the theme that ‘Signs’ and ‘Wonders’ followed the message that Christ is our life beyond the law. It is to Lystra that we turn next, and to an entirely different kind of obstacle to mission.
Mission to Lystra
Paul’s preaching takes on new significance in Lystra. Here a man “lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked,” listens to Paul’s message of this good news, and with faith in his eye, Paul commands the man to stand on his feet. At this point the writer of Acts seems as excited as the lame man: “And he leaped up and began to walk.” Paul and Barnabas now become the victims of the mission’s success. This is the first time Paul has to grapple with the disastrous collision of worldviews. Because of this third ‘Sign,’ the people of the city proclaim: “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” They designate Barnabas (the black man) as Zeus and Paul as Hermes his messenger. It may not have only been the ‘Signs’ and ‘Wonders’ that confuse their identity with Zeus and Hermes. Hermes is often depicted in sculpture and art as carrying a lamb. Paul may have been heard carrying the message of the ‘Lamb of God’ Jesus Christ. It is a logical next step to equate Paul, carrying the message of the lamb, with Hermes the bearer of the lamb. Worldview collision ensues, riots become the result of preaching the good news, and the attempted worship of Paul and Barnabas gives the Jews the perfect excuse to stone Paul, drag him outside the city, and leave him for dead. As the disciples of Christ stand around Paul’s motionless body, his preaching is again validated by ‘signs’ and ‘wonders.’ This time Paul becomes that wonder, in that he gets up, and goes back into the city. This isn’t the first time and won’t be the last, that Christ is Paul’s life beyond the law.
From here Paul and Barnabas consolidate their missional gains, appoint elders to each church they have raised up through their ministry, and make the journey home. Paul’s first missionary journey ends where it had begun, back at his home church of Antioch.
The preaching of Christ our life beyond the law won many to the good news, to church fellowship, and to the new identity as the ‘chosen’ people of God. To the astonishment and acceptance of many Jews and Gentiles alike, the early missionaries were also met with disgust at their preaching, violent opposition, and even stoning, the very punishment Paul incited on Stephen in Acts 7. Wherever the message of Christ our life beyond the law was preached however, ‘signs’ and ‘wonders’ validated the message, but the very notion that goy/gentiles could belong to the ‘chosen’ lights a fire that leads to the first church council in Jerusalem, covered in the next lesson. The gospel in Paul’s time, as in ours, is good news to all, but not those who would limit the kingdom of God, its power or its reach. The first missionary journey of Paul truly represents the shape of not only the future church, but the future resurrection life to come through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Daniel Thompson(Contractor). Recently moved to Washington, DC from the UK, in November of last year.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8944