Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 13:14-26

In the synagogue (13:14-15)

Luke now turns to describe a sermon Paul delivers in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (13:14). Paul’s practice of presenting the Christian message in the synagogues of Roman cities becomes a regular feature of his itinerary. Because of this, Paul can put into practice the principle that the gospel should be given “first to the Jew” (Romans 1:16). The synagogue plays a major role in Jewish life in the Diaspora. It serves as a meeting place, schoolhouse, library and court. The synagogue houses the Scriptures and other important writings, so it is a center of religious education and learning. And it is the place where Jews came to worship.

For these reasons, the synagogue is a place in which the Christian missionaries can find a receptive audience, primed for the gospel message. This is true because Gentile proselytes and God-fearers attend the synagogue as well as Jews. The synagogue-attending Gentiles serve as a bridge to pagan relatives, acquaintances and business associates.

After the reading (13:15)

During the synagogue service, Paul listens to the reading from the Law and the Prophets. After this is completed, the synagogue “rulers” ask if Paul and Barnabas have any words of encouragement for the assembly. One might wonder why these strangers are allowed to speak. This is not necessarily their first Sabbath at the synagogue. Thus, they may be known to the synagogue rulers or officials. Paul’s dress or some other symbol may identify him as a rabbi and Pharisee.

The “ruler” or leader of the synagogue is usually an elder or leading layman. He takes charge of organizing and arranging the service and is responsible for maintaining the building. Luke mentions two individuals who hold the office of ruler, Crispus (18:8) and Sosthenes (18:17), both in Corinth.

Luke provides us with two vignettes in which he describes parts of a synagogue service. The first is a service in the Nazareth synagogue at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 4:16-17). The other is the one given here at Pisidian Antioch.

From the details Luke gives and our knowledge of later customs, we can reconstruct the following pattern of a Jewish synagogue service. It begins with the Shema, summarized in the phrase: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Prayers follow the Shema. Then comes two readings, one from the Law and a second from the Prophets. A sermon of explanation and exhortation is drawn from the second reading, as was done by Jesus at the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:17). The address is given by one or more persons judged to be competent by the synagogue rulers. Philo in his description of a Sabbath synagogue service writes, “Some of those who are very learned explain to them [the audience] what is of great importance and use, lessons by which the whole of their lives may be improved.” [Philo, Special Laws 2.62.] After the instruction period is over, the synagogue service closes with a blessing.

Paul’s sermon (13:16-41)

A large part of the rest of this chapter is devoted to Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. It is one of three sermons or speeches Luke records for Paul during his missionary tours (13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31). This sermon is the only one in a synagogue, and it is by far the longest of the three. Luke gives a rather complete summary so he won’t have to repeat himself every time Paul preaches in a synagogue. In later episodes, Luke simply tells us that Paul goes into the synagogue to preach, without giving any details (14:1; 17:2; 18:4).

At most, Luke offers only a sentence or two, tersely summarizing what Paul says. We can infer that Luke wants his readers to understand that Paul preaches a similar message in synagogue after synagogue. If we compare Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch with other speeches given in a Jewish setting, we find they contain the same message and similar elements.

It has often been remarked that this sermon bears a striking resemblance to the speeches of Peter in both outline and content and to a lesser extent to the speech of Stephen (both contain a resume of Israel’s history)….It is now widely accepted that all of the early preaching followed a common pattern that to some extent was based on rabbinic models. These models, no less than the form of preaching based on them, were familiar to Paul, and naturally he adopted this pattern himself. [David J. Williams, Acts,New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), page 229.]

Paul’s exhortation here begins with a survey of Israel’s history. Like Stephen, Paul describes how God dealt with the Jews’ ancestors. However, he begins not with Abraham and the patriarchs, but with God’s saving grace in the Exodus. Paul then moves on to Israel’s history in the Promised Land, but he focuses on the life of King David. The reason for Paul’s emphasis has to do with his being able to proclaim Jesus as the promised Son of David, using proof-texts about the Messiah from the Hebrew Scriptures. He then moves the point of his speech: that through Jesus his listeners have forgiveness of sins. Paul’s speech ends with an appeal not to reject the Savior and a solemn warning about the consequences of unbelief.

Gentiles who worship God (13:16)

Paul begins by addressing not only the Jews, but also “you Gentiles who worship God” (13:16). Besides Jews, there are Gentile proselytes and God-fearers listening to him. Because of their presence, Paul can fulfill his commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by preaching in the synagogue!

The Gentiles worshiping in the synagogue are an informed audience, already familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and knowing the messianic hopes of the Jews — which have become their hope as well. Thus, Paul can present his speech as though he is talking to Jews. These Gentiles already recognize the one true God. There is no need to begin at the more elementary level of identifying God and contrasting him with the false gods of the pagans. Later, when Paul talks before purely pagan audiences, he is forced to take this extra step before moving on to explain that Jesus is Savior.

God chose our fathers (13:17-20)

Paul’s first point is that God chose Israel — “our ancestors” — to show his grace and mercy (13:17). He wants to emphasize God’s redemptive activity among the Jews, which would bring him in line with Jewish interests. Paul’s speech is characteristic of rabbinic models of exhortation. The recitation of Old Testament history is a kind of confessional recognizing God’s mighty and merciful hand in the nation’s history. We can see the same pattern in Stephen’s speech, Matthew’s Gospel and in the book of Hebrews. Paul is beginning on thoroughly familiar and acceptable ground.

But Paul doesn’t begin his sermon about God’s redemptive acts with Abraham and the patriarchs. Even Moses is not singled out for discussion. Paul moves quickly to events in the wilderness, and then talks about the entrance of Israel into the Promised Land. “All this took about 450 years,” Paul says (13:20). This would include the centuries of sojourning in Egypt (Genesis 15:13Acts 7:6), the 40 years wandering in the desert and an additional 10 years conquering the Promised Land (Joshua 14:1-5).

David, king of Israel (13:21-23)

Paul then recounts events from the period of the judges until the time of Samuel. This enables him to describe Saul as the nation’s first king, who was anointed by Samuel. Saul isn’t often mentioned in surveys of Israel’s history, since he was not a very good example of faith or obedience to God. Perhaps Paul’s reference to him reflects his personal interest in a king who bore the same name as he did, and came from the same tribe (Philippians 3:5).

In any case, the reference to Saul’s reign is only an aside. Paul is much more interested in Israel’s next king, David. Here Paul lingers over the details, as David’s example is pivotal to his sermon. Paul quotes God’s testimony of David: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (13:22). This seems to be a composite quote from at least two Old Testament Scriptures: 1) “I have found David” (Psalm 89:20) and, 2) “A man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).

For Paul, David is pivotal as the servant in whom the purpose of God is centered. After picturing David as a man of faith, Paul says: “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised” (13:23). Paul’s comment about David’s “descendants” may be based on an interpretation of 2 Samuel 7:6-16, which describes a descendant of David in the following words: “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14). This passage may be considered messianic by first-century Jews. It is similar to Psalm 2:7 (“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”), which is usually considered messianic.

David is a type of the Messiah (“he will do everything I want him to do”) and also the Messiah’s forbearer (“from this man’s descendants”). The promise of 2 Samuel 7:12-16 refers to a continuing line of kings. But Paul, and Peter before him, interprets the verse messianicly, as referring to one king, the Messiah (Jesus). Paul here builds a bridge from the Jewish expectation of a Messiah — David’s Son — to Jesus as the one in whom the hope is fulfilled. Paul’s proclamation to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch is that God has brought forth the Savior-Deliverer from David’s line, and it is Jesus.

John the Baptist’s work (13:24-26)

Paul’s speech skips from David to the work of John the Baptist. John is highly regarded by the Jews. Some even thought he was the Messiah (John 1:19-20). Most consider him a prophet (Matthew 21:26). Paul uses John’s testimony as a further piece of evidence that the promised Messiah is Jesus. Paul quotes John’s statement that the Messiah is one who is “coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (13:25). John clearly pointed out that Jesus is the Messiah “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Paul has made his case about Jesus from ancient Jewish history and the recent testimony of John. Then he begins to show why all this is vitally important to his listeners. “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles,” Paul shouts, “it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent” (13:26).