This is part of an ongoing study of the book of Acts. If you’d like to catch up, you can read the previous studies here. Before you begin today, be sure to read the entire chapter of Acts 12-13 here, and don’t forget to sound off in the comments below. We will be studying Acts at an accelerated rate for the rest of 2013.
Acts 12 begins with possibly the saddest and darkest hour of the church thus far. With no James Bond style drama, Herod puts the apostle James to death. This should prove to us today the words that Jesus spoke in John 15:
18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.
Jesus did not promise us health, wealth, peace and safety, although He does do that sometimes. No, those things are the exception to the rule that Jesus promised us the same trouble He had. We in the West today love to read the next part about Peter’s miraculous salvation while overlooking James’ untimely death. Both are part of the plan, providence and goodness of God and we cannot take one without the other.
But God did save Peter, in one of the most miraculous ways. He walked right out of prison. It was so surreal that Peter didn’t believe it was happening. In what is likely Luke’s attempt at interjecting a little comic relief into a chapter that begins with so much sadness, he tells us the story of Peter and Rhoda. I love this story because it shows the very real, human and sometimes silly nature of those we venerate as untouchably holy. They were the same as us today, and Luke playfully includes Rhoda’s story for us to enjoy today. Even when the days are dark, God intends us to experience joy and laughter in His presence. I’m sure the disciples enjoyed retelling this story for years to come.
Herod had the guards executed for losing Peter as this was standard practice in the Roman world. Any soldier given charge over a prisoner was responsible for them with their lives. If they lost their prisoner, they lost their lives.
Luke ends this chapter with God’s vindication of His people. In Romans 12 Paul quoted this from Deuteronomy 32:35:
19Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
God took vengeance on Herod for James’ death, as well as his other crimes against Jesus and God’s people. The disciples then, like us today, need not writhe in anger over those who wrong us, no matter how egregious the offense. God will surely stand up for us. No, God’s wrath will be poured out on those who persecute us and we have a sure promise.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Acts 13 quickly shifts gears back to Barnabas and Saul. Luke starts by acknowledging who the church at Antioch recognized as prophets and teachers, of which Barnabas and Saul were two, however he does not say who was what. He also makes mention of Manaen, who he says was raised with Herod in Rome (where Herod spent his youth).
During a time of prayer and fasting, the Holy Spirit told the group to set apart Barnabas and Saul to go on a missionary journey. Having prophets in your midst makes this kind of thing much easier! Barnabas and Saul did not have to wonder for years whether they were really fulfilling their calling! I encourage you, like Paul does in 1 Corinthians 14:1 to seek to God for prophecy.
Barnabas and Saul set off with Barnabas’ cousin Mark (or some close relative—it is difficult to know sometimes by the way ancient Jews referred to family) to the island of Cyprus, where Barnabas was from. This is a good point to realize, in that the three of them did not immediately set off for some far off land that they were unfamiliar with, but they started somewhere a little more comfortable, and that’s okay.
They travelled to the western-most end of Cyprus where the met the Roman ruler of the island. The exchange with Elymas the sorcerer is interesting. Saul, whom we may now call Paul, surely knew what Elymas was going through with his blindness, having experienced the same thing himself years earlier.
Also, as for Paul’s name change, that was a relatively common thing for ancient Jews in the Roman world. Many Jewish travelers and merchants would adopt a Romanized name, much like people from China take on Western names when they move to avoid that awkward five-minute exchange of trying to pronounce a name unfamiliar to a foreign tongue. (When someone from Shanghai tells you his name is “Mark,” you can be sure that it is not his real name)
Barnabas and Paul sailed north from Cyprus to modern-day Turkey to a place called Perga, where John (Mark) left them. This is the same Mark who wrote the gospel of Mark, Barnabas’ cousin. I have personally been to Perga, and it is a fascinating ancient city, but they didn’t stay there long. They travelled north to Pisidian Antioch. There were many Antiochs in the ancient world because the successor of Alenxander the Great, Seleucus, named many conquered cities after his father, Antiochus.
Luke records Paul’s first sermon here in chapter 13. It is important to note anytime a sermon is recorded in scripture. Of all the sermons given throughout all time, God has taken the effort to make special note of only a few. Moses, David, Jesus, Peter and Paul are but a few in history to have their sermons recorded in scripture, so we would do well to study their words carefully.
The fact that Paul gave a sermon unannounced in a synagogue far away from home was not uncommon. Synagogues operated much differently from our churches today. It would have been completely appropriate and requested of a traveling Pharisee to teach the group gathered at the synagogue.
Paul begins his sermon by taking the Jews in attendance through a history lesson of their people. He uses the passage about David doing “everything I want him to do” to introduce Jesus as the Messiah in the pattern of David. He also used David’s prophecies about the Messiah to continue in the same mode.
His methods were very effective at garnering the attention of the Jews, who wanted to hear more the next week. The problem was that Paul was able to draw a larger crowd than they ever had. The Jewish leaders’ jealousy caused them to reject Paul’s message. How often do people reject the truth because we despise the messenger? These Jews’ jealousy would prove disastrous for Paul very shortly, as we will see in Acts 14.
Shake Off The Dust
The gospel did spread in Pisidia, even with the persecution of the Jews. A few Jews, and many Gentiles, followed the Lord and His church was born there. As Jesus commanded in Matthew 10:14, Barnabas and Paul shook the dust off their sandals as a sign to the Jews in Antioch and moved on to another city.
We can learn much from this last action of theirs. Often, we are too “bought in” to seeing a particular neighborhood, city or region saved, even when we see no fruit or encounter harsh resistance. God has given us the grace and license to move on from there. Jesus said that the “fields are white” but He didn’t say that all fields are white. We need to exercise this same freedom like Barnabas and Paul to move on when the Word of God is rejected. Many have rendered themselves ineffective because they stay somewhere God is completely rejected over and over again.
Questions for Chapter 12-13
- Why didn’t God protect James, one of Jesus’ 3 “inner circle” disciples?
- Why did Jesus protect and save Peter?
- Why did God kill Herod?
- Why did the church grow and multiply at the news of the death of Herod?
- How do you think the Holy Spirit spoke to the group fasting and praying? What does that look like?
- Why did Saul speak so harshly to Elymas? Don’t we fight “not against flesh and blood?”
- Did Paul forcefully take over synagogue meetings?
- Why the name change from Saul to Paul?
- What were the main points of Paul’s sermon at Pisidian Antioch?
- Why were the Jews envious of the Gentiles listening to Paul?
- Why did Paul and Barnabas “shake the dust off their feet”?