The word of the day is “brethren.” We might have the impression that Paul did not want anything to do with the Jews. After all, he was the champion of accepting Gentiles into the fellowship of faith. But in today’s reading of Acts 13:13-24, we find an example of Paul’s practice of first going to the synagogue when he arrived at a new field of mission. When they noticed newcomers in their midst, the leaders of the synagogue invited Paul and his companions to address the people (vs. 13). Paul returned the courteousness of his hosts with a gracious sermon. Our reading stops in the middle of the speech.
The next Sabbath the “whole city came together to hear the Word of God”(OSB Acts 13:44). But this time a number of Jews opposed him out of envy. It was then that Paul said that he would “turn to the Gentiles” (OSB Acts 13:46). Our reading today reminds us that Paul lamented the rejection of his fellow Jews as a tragedy (Romans 11:1-32). Today we consider how the opposition to the Gospel produced irrational animosity. Our reading warns us of unreasonable hostility and suggests that we should respond to those who oppose us with the Spirit of Christ. And we should leave those who reject the Gospel either actively or passively to God’s judgment.
Paul Is Well Received in the Synagogue
As we read today’s passage, we are impressed with the cordial tone of Paul’s proclamation. Paul addresses his hearers as “brethren.” Moreover, he identifies with them, saying that “God… chose our fathers” as he began to relate to them the history of their ancestors. He graciously says that the message of salvation has been sent to you, the Jews, and the “God-fearing Gentiles” in the congregation. Moreover, though Peter had accused the Jews of killing Christ (Acts 2:26 and 3:15), and Stephen had accused them of being stiff-necked (Acts 7:51), Paul only blames “those who dwell in Jerusalem and their rulers” (Acts 13. 27).
Note, however, the conclusion of the sermon. Paul preaches the forgiveness of sins. And He says that all who believe in Jesus Christ are “justified from all the things from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). If the congregation did not get the point that they must look to Christ and not Moses for salvation, he ended with a warning, a quote from the prophet Habakkuk.
The Good Feelings Become Hostile
So far, Paul has a receptive audience of “Jews and devout proselytes,” who followed Paul and Barnabas out of the synagogue to hear more. But trouble arose when the Jews of the synagogue argued with Paul, even “blaspheming” him (vs. 44). The term blaspheming captures their antagonism against Paul. The term means to impugn the honor of sacred things, to revile or speak profanely (Strong’s #987, 55).
When Paul and Barnabas encountered bitter opposition from the Jews of that place, Paul proclaimed, “You have rejected the Word of God and deemed yourself “unworthy of everlasting life” (OSB vs. 46). “Therefore,” he said, “We turn to the Gentiles.” The result was that among the Gentiles “as many as God had chosen for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
In today’s reading, we have an outright rejection of the Gospel. It was not merely a simple refusal to believe. Slander against God and his representatives accompanied it. The mood reminds us of Saul, who, in his zeal, persecuted the community of faith. As Saul “breathed threats and murder against the company of believers” (OSB Acts 9:1), so these men were enraged with jealousy. Spite so filled their hearts that they became irrational.
Our reading teaches us to beware lest we be caught up in this spirit of animosity. We should be careful that our response to those who oppose us would fester into unreasonable hatred. In contrast to this irrational spirit, the Lord said, “Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21). And again, “Love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Nothing Comes of Hatred but Bitterness
Nothing comes of hatred except bitterness and an inner desire for the destruction of one’s enemy. No, we must leave the rejection of the Gospel to the judgment of God. Thus, Paul clung to the hope that eventually the Jews would return to the Lord and be re-grafted onto the tree of the People of God (Romans 11:23-26).
Yet, let us realize that rejection might be more subtle and passive than the outright opposition of the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia. Those who fail to respond may be like Governor Festus who said, “Go away now, when I have a convenient time, I will call for you” (Acts 24:25). But those who think this way must be reminded that the opportune time may never come. And their passive resistance to the Gospel may also harden into the overt disbelief that we hear in our reading. Let us pray for their change of heart along with our prayers for those who overtly refuse God’s offer of salvation in Christ.