Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 13:27-52

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 2:383:195:3110:4326:18.] 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 3:21-285:19Galatians 2:163:11.] 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 9:1-310:1).

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 6:441 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.

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 9:510:11).

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.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012