We pick up in Chapter 14 of Acts as we see Paul’s first missionary journey result in the planting of new churches and the Gentiles becoming a big factor in the growth of Christianity. The kingdom of God never advances but that it experiences trials and tribulations at every step, at every point along the way. Paul and Barnabas have been driven out (at the end of chapter 13) of Pisidian Antioch, and now they move in an easterly direction towards the great city of Iconium, in the Phrygian region.
And a summary of what took place in the city of Iconium is given to us in verses 2 and 3: “Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles.” Trouble comes in the city of Iconium.
Read Act 14:1-7.
In Iconium they first of all go to the synagogue. It was a place where people gathered, and they gathered for worship, and they gathered to hear the word of God, they gathered to hear the Old Testament Scriptures. It was a wonderful evangelistic opportunity at this period in redemptive history, and Paul makes every use of it. But of course there’s a greater reason than that, too, because as Paul reminds us when he writes his letter to the Romans, in Romans 1:15 he writes “to the Jew first,” he says, “and also to the Gentile”…because there was a sense of obligation to the Jews. It was to the Jews that God had first revealed His promise. It was to the Jews that God had revealed the promise of Messiah. And Paul was a Jew, and he feels a sense of obligation now to take the gospel to his fellow countrymen, and to use every opportunity that God avails him in providence to bring now the fulfillment of all that God has done in the person of Jesus Christ, and declare to his fellow countrymen and fellow Jews ‘Behold the Messiah!’
He talks about the words of grace in verse 3: “…Bearing witness to the word of His grace….” He preached grace in the synagogue. He came to the synagogue and proclaimed a gospel that had at the very heart of it the idea of grace: that we don’t earn our salvation; that we don’t merit our salvation; that we’re not saved because of who we are or what we’ve done, or because of the privileges that have been bestowed upon us. It’s the unmerited favor of God, free; a gift that God gives to sinners.
As he’s preaching in the synagogue, as he’s proclaiming the gospel, the unbelieving Jews make an alliance with the Gentiles to run them out of the city. They travel to the east and come to the city of Lystra. This is a pagan city! This is a city that worshiped a pagan pantheon of gods. There’s no point of contact here. They have no Bible. They didn’t know the stories of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the prophets.
And just as Peter had stood outside the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and declared the power of Jesus Christ to restore and heal, so Paul is doing the same now in Gentile territory and outside a pagan temple. He’s not preaching the way he had preached in the synagogue in Cyprus. He’s not quoting the Old Testament. He’s not quoting Psalm 2 or Psalm 16. He’s not quoting from the Servant Songs of Isaiah because these people didn’t know the Bible. They didn’t have a Bible. So he begins where they are. He establishes a point of contact with them, and he begins by telling them about the Creator, the only God there is, the God who made the heavens and the earth, and the God who provides, the God who sends the sunshine and the rain.
He hasn’t come yet to the gospel. He hasn’t come yet to the story about Jesus. He’s establishing a platform. He’s talking to them about the God who created the world, and he’s talking to them about accountability. He’s introducing an idea and the concept of sin. And men come, and they come from as far away as Antioch and Iconium because the city has responded to this message and they lift up stones and they hurl them in the direction of the Apostle Paul, and he’s dragged outside of the city and he’s left outside of the city as though he were dead.
They’ve been gone six months, eight months. The year is 47, perhaps 48 A.D. It’s the church in Antioch that sent them. And what have they done in this six to eight months? They had planted churches in Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch, and Iconium and Lystra and Derbe and now they are reporting back to the whole church in Antioch.
They reported all the things that God had done through them including that God opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. They strengthened the churches, by encouraging them to continue in the faith. And Paul and Barnabas strengthened the church by appointing God-fearing, servant-hearted elders to care for the church. And they warned them of the trials and tribulations they would endure.
God has been pouring out His Spirit, and through various persecutions in Jerusalem, Christians have spread to Samaria, through Judea, to northern Galilee, to beyond to the great city of Antioch in Syria, and now to Cyprus and what we would call Turkey. And in these places God has been drawing to Himself hundreds, possibly thousands, of genuine believers who have put their trust in Jesus Christ, so that the number of believers outside of Jerusalem now outweighs the number of believers in the city of Jerusalem. There are more Gentile believers than Jewish believers.
There’s a tension, a rift growing between mother church in Jerusalem and the new church in Antioch. There were certain unnamed men who had come down to Antioch from Judea who held to a very different “gospel,” a “gospel” which, in reality, was a false one. We are told that these men were believers. Their “gospel” might be summed up in this fashion:
Christianity is Jewish. To be saved, one must believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, but in order to be a part of this covenant community, Israel, one must become a proselyte, which is entered into by circumcision, which obligates the individual to keep the Law of Moses.
Put differently, to these “Judaisers” salvation meant identifying not only with Christ but with the nation Israel. It meant placing oneself under the Mosaic Covenant and keeping the Laws of Moses, as defined by Judaism.
As wrong as these “Judaisers” were, they believed their position was biblical. Circumcision was no mere ritual—it was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. By being circumcised men bore witness to their faith in the God of Abraham and in His covenant with him and his descendants.
Paul strongly opposed this added requirement of circumcision as heresy; indeed, it was the introduction of another gospel (Gal 1:6). The Antiochian church seems to have been unable to settle this debate, and so they appealed to the church in Jerusalem. This, after all, was where the apostles would be found, or at least some of them, and this was the church from which (it would seem) the Judaisers had come. And so it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and others were sent to Jerusalem for a decision from the apostles and the elders there.
The decision of the Jerusalem Council then was that the gospel, for Jew or Gentile, was salvation as a gift of God’s grace, through faith alone, faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Messiah who bore one’s sins and judgment, so that they could be pronounced righteous in God’s sight and have eternal life in the kingdom of God. Those who taught otherwise did not have the approval of church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were right, and those men who came to Antioch from Judea were wrong. They made their decision on the basis of human and divine testimony, which was in accordance with the teachings of the Old Testament.
The things which were proposed as requirements were not requirements for salvation, but rather requirements for fellowship between Jewish and Gentile saints. These four prohibitions were the four most offensive things to a Jew:
(1) Partaking of foods contaminated by their involvement with idol worship
(2) Fornication—sexual practices contrary to God’s standards
(3) Eating those things which were strangled, not killed as God had instructed
(4) Eating blood
From a historical (and thus Luke’s) point of view, the gospel has been officially defined and defended at the Jerusalem Council.
This is a tense moment. Paul is resolute: Barnabas is resolute. Paul and Barnabas separate, yet later you can read in Colossians 4:10-11 and II Timothy that John Mark and Paul are together awaiting Paul’s execution and whatever the issue Paul had with John Mark has been resolved. And of course we see how God uses Mark as the author of his Gospel.
These two chapters are full of conflict and trials. The early church shows us that nothing would stop God’s Word from being taken to the ends of the world.
Joh_16:33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Act 14:21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,
Act 14:22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.