Saturday of week 4 of Easter – First Reading


Commentary on Acts 13:44-52

We are still with Paul and Barnabas in Asia Minor.  They are still proclaiming the message about Jesus as Lord in Pisidian Antioch.  They now have the whole city coming to hear them speak the word of God.  But they now incurred the jealously of some Jews who hurled abuse at the apostles.  Perhaps, they believed that the word of God was only for them and not for Gentiles.  Pearls were not to be thrown to swine.

Paul and Barnabas (notice that Paul is now regularly mentioned first) took this as a sign to transfer their energies to preaching among the Gentiles, who responded enthusiastically.  Paul’s fellow-Jews in Antioch had shown themselves unfit to hear the Gospel.  “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”  He had to speak to them first – and he will do this in other places as well – because the Gospel came and was intended for the Jews first.  And Paul, of course, was himself a Jew and had great compassion for his people.  This is expressed very well in his letter to the Romans (Rom 9:1-5; 10:1-3).

We are told that the two apostles spoke out these words “boldly”.  The ‘courage’ and ‘confidence’ of the apostles has been already stressed by Luke on a number of occasions.  Luke repeatedly attributes these qualities to Paul and Paul himself lays emphasis on them in a number of his letters. ‘Fortitude’ is one of the four cardinal virtues which should be the characteristic of every Christian.

On the other hand they turn to the Gentiles because the Lord had told them to be “a light to the nations [meaning the Gentiles]” and “a means of salvation to the ends of the earth”.  This is a free rendering of the Septuagint (Greek) reading of Isaiah 49:6.

The words may be taken either as referring to Paul himself, apostle and teacher of the pagans, or to the risen Christ. Christ is the light of the pagans, he himself had said “I AM the Light of the World” but since only the apostles’ witness can spread this light, Paul considers this prophecy as a command that he must carry out.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had told his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14) – in the sense that they are being called to transmit the Light that is Christ.

The Gentiles responded enthusiastically.  “They glorified the word of the Lord” (received though Paul and Barnabas) and “all who were destined for eternal life came to believe”.  ‘Eternal life’ refers to the life of the world to come.  These are the ones whose names are “written in heaven” (Luke 10:20) and in “the book of life”.  Actually, “destined for the life of the world to come” was a common rabbinic expression.  For Christians, the first and necessary condition for this predestination to glory is faith in Christ.

As a result of the Gentiles’ enthusiasm for the message, “the word of the Lord was carried throughout that area”.  In other words well beyond the bounds of the city.

However, some of the Jews continued their harassments.  They incited prominent women who were believers (though not necessarily Jews) and leading men to stir up attacks on the two missionaries.  They eventually managed to drive the two apostles from the city.

Following the teaching of the Gospel, they shook the dust of the city from their feet (cf. Matt 10:14; Luke 9:5).  In doing this, they showed the severance of responsibility and the repudiation of those who had rejected their message and had brought suffering to the servants of the Lord.

They now continued on to the town of Iconium, lying to the east of Antioch on the southern borders of the province of Galatia.  Its modern name is Konya.  In Paul’s time it was an important crossroads and an agricultural centre for the central plain of Galatia.

Far from being discouraged by their experience in Antioch, we are told that the two missionaries, “could not but be filled with joy and the Holy Spirit”.  It teaches us a lesson we continually need to learn.  The preaching of the Gospel, in spite of its message of love and forgiveness and justice and its rejection of all forms of violence, can incur vicious and violent opposition.  We should neither be surprised nor discouraged at this.

On the contrary, like the apostles, we should rejoice that, with Jesus, we suffer for proclaiming the message of life and love.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of righteousness” (Matt 5:10).  We think of the story of the three men, thrown into the fiery furnace by an angry King Nebuchnadnezzar, singing the praises of God or, in much more recent times (and with more historical validity) of the civil rights marchers under Martin Luther King singing ‘We shall overcome’ as they were carried off to jail.

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