Commentary on Acts 13:13-25
Paul and Barnabas continue their first missionary journey. From Paphos on the north coast of Cyprus they set off for Perga, the capital of the province of Pamphylia. Pamphylia was a coastal province in Asia Minor, between provinces of Lydia and Cilicia on the south coast of modern Turkey. It was 8 km (5 miles) inland and 20 km (12 miles) east of the important seaport of Attalia.
At this point, John Mark, who had originally been one of the party, returned to Jerusalem, from where they had originally brought him. Later, this will lead to a dispute between Saul and Barnabas. John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas.
Why did John turn back? Various suggestions have been made, none of them certain:
- homesickness to get back to Jerusalem
- an illness of Paul which forced Paul to change his plans and go to Galatia
- a change in leadership from Barnabas to Paul
- or simply an inability to get on with Paul.
Later, Paul will express his dissatisfaction with John’s behaviour.
Paul and Barnabas (from now on Paul’s name is put first) do not seem to have stopped long in Perga but continued on to Antioch in the province of Pisidia (not to be confused with the Antioch in Syria where they had begun their missionary journey).
Pisidia was a district about 200 km (120 miles) long and 80 km (50 miles) wide, north of Pamphylia. Bandits were known to frequent the region. Antioch, its capital, had been named after Antiochus, king of Syria, following the death of Alexander the Great. It was about 185 km (110 miles) from Perga and was at crossroads of busy trading routes. The city had a large Jewish population. It was a Roman colony, which meant that a contingent of retired military men also settled there. They were given free land and made citizens of the city of Rome, with all the accompanying privileges.
As usual, on arriving in Antioch, the two missionaries went to the local synagogue on the sabbath. We saw yesterday Paul’s reasons for doing this. At the same time, he was not neglecting his mission to the Gentiles because Gentiles who believed in the God of the Jews were often among his audience. It was obvious, too, that the synagogue provided a readymade starting point with a building, regular meetings and people who were familiar with the Scriptures.
After the reading of the scriptures, as was the custom, they were invited by the synagogue officials to speak to the assembly. (We remember how Jesus, too, was invited to preach in the synagogue.) It was the responsibility of these officials to call on readers and preachers, to arrange the service and maintain order. As a rabbi and leading Pharisee, it was natural, too, to invite Paul to give a homily. This gave Paul the opportunity to give an outline of Jewish salvation history and to show that Jesus was the expected and promised saviour of Israel.
As he goes through the great events of the Old Testament, Paul shows how it was all part of God’s plans for his people. This discourse is typical of Paul’s preaching to a Jewish assembly. It falls into two parts, of which we have the first part in today’s reading (ending with v.25). It gives a summary of the history of salvation with an appendix recalling John the Baptist’s testimony.
Today’s reading ends half way through Paul’s speech with John the Baptist pointing to the “one who comes after me”, the thongs of whose sandals he was not worthy to loose. We will have the rest of the discourse in tomorrow’s reading.
It might be very profitable for each one us to look back over our own lives and see how God’s providence has been at work at various key points. Some of these experiences will bring back happy memories; others may be more painful. Nevertheless, God was present there and leading us on to something higher. How did we respond? And now that we are where we are now, where is God leading us at this stage of our life?