Alexander the Great, when he heard that Memnon's fleet was in the Aegean, and marched from Perga to rejoin Parmenio in Phrygia, found some of the worst difficulties of his whole campaign in penetrating through this district. No population through the midst of which Apostle Paul ever traveled and preached the gospel abounded more in those "perils of robbers," of which he himself speaks, than the wild and lawless clans of the Pisidian Highlanders.
And if on this gospel evangelizing journey he was exposed to dangers from the attacks of men, there might be other dangers, not less imminent, arising from the natural character of the country itself. The rivers of Asia Minor, like all the rivers in the Levant, are liable to violent and sudden changes. And no district in Asia Minor is more singularly characterized by its water floods than the mountainous tract of Pisidia, where rivers burst out at the bases of huge cliffs, or dash down wildly through narrow ravines.
Antioch in Pisidia
Pisidian Antioch, where Paul wanted to take the gospel, lay on an important line of communication, westward by Apamea with the valley of the Maeander, and eastward by Iconium with the country behind the Taurus. In this general direction, between Smyrna and Ephesus on the one hand, and the Cilician Gates which lead down to Tarsus on the other, conquering armies and trading caravans, Persian satraps and Roman proconsuls have traveled for centuries. Antioch in Pisidia was situated about half way between these extreme points. It was built by the founder of Syrian Antioch and in the age of the Greek kings of the line of Seleucus it was a town of considerable importance.
Along with its population of Greeks, Romans, and native Pisidians, a greater or smaller number of Jews was intermixed. They may not have been a very numerous body, for only one synagogue is mentioned in the narrative. But it is evident, from the events recorded, that they were an influential body, that they had made many proselytes, and that they had obtained some considerable dominion (Acts 17:4, 12) over the minds of the Gentile women which was exerted when they were brought the gospel.
On the Sabbath days the Jews and the proselytes met in the synagogue. It is evident that at this time full liberty of public worship was permitted to the Jewish people in all parts of the Roman Empire, whatever limitations might have been enacted by law or compelled by local opposition, as relates to the form and situation of the synagogues.
To such a worship in such a building a congregation came together at Antioch in Pisidia, on the Sabbath which immediately succeeded the arrival of Paul and Barnabas. Proselytes came and seated themselves with the Jews. Jewesses who sat behind the lattice were considered honorable women (Acts 13:50) of the colony. The two strangers entered the synagogue, and, wearing the Tallith, which was the badge of an Israelite, sat down with the rest (verse 14). Prayers were recited and then extracts from the Law and the Prophets were read (verse 15).
Then we are told that "the rulers of the synagogue" sent to those who were new, on whom many eyes had already been fixed, and invited them to address the assembly, if they had words of comfort or instruction to speak to their fellow Israelites (Acts 13:15). The very attitude of Apostle Paul, as he answered the invitation, is described to us. He rose from his seat, and, with the animated and emphatic gesture which he used on other occasions (26:1, 21:34, 40) beckoned with his hand (13:16).
After thus graphically bringing the scene before our eyes, Luke gives us, if not the whole speech delivered by Apostle Paul, yet at least the substance of what he said. For into however short a space he may have condensed the speeches which he reports, yet it is no mere outline, no dry analysis of them, which he gives. He has evidently preserved, if not all the words, yet the very words uttered by the Apostle. Nor can we fail to recognize in all these speeches a tone of thought, and even of expression, which stamps them with the individuality of the speaker.
Paul preaches the gospel
On the present occasion we find Apostle Paul proclaiming the gospel by beginning his address (Acts 13:16 - 41) by connecting the Messiah whom he preached with the preparatory dispensation which ushered in His advent. He dwells upon the previous history of the Jewish people, for the same reasons which had led Stephen to do the like in his defense before the Sanhedrin. He endeavors to conciliate the minds of his Jewish audience by proving to them that the Messiah whom he proclaimed was the same whereto their own prophets bare witness.
The apostle Paul then proceeds to remove the prejudice which the rejection of Jesus by the authorities at Jerusalem (the metropolis of their faith) would naturally raise in the minds of the Pisidian Jews against the gospel.
Paul shows that Christ's death and resurrection had accomplished the ancient prophecies, and declares this to be the "Glad Tidings" which the Apostles were charged to proclaim. Thus far the speech contains nothing which could offend the exclusive spirit of Jewish nationality. On the contrary, Paul has endeavored to carry his hearers with him by the topics on which he has dwelt. But having thus conciliated their feelings, and won their favorable attention, he proceeds in a bolder tone to declare the gospel of salvation.
Paul's concluding words, as Luke relates them, might stand as a summary representing in outline the early chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. The speech ends with a warning against that bigoted rejection of the gospel, which this latter portion of the address was so likely to call forth.
Therefore, be it known to you, men and brethren, that through this Man (Jesus Christ) the remission of sins is preached to you.
And in Him everyone who believes is justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.
Take heed, therefore, lest that which is spoken in the Prophets come upon you: 'Behold, you despisers, and wonder and perish; for I work a work in your days, a work that you will in no way believe, even if one declares it to you.' (Acts 13:38 - 41, HBFV).
This gospel message made a deep and thrilling impression on the audience. While the congregation were pouring out of the synagogue, many of them crowded round the speaker, begging that "these words," which had moved their deepest feelings, might be repeated to them on their next occasion of assembling together. And when at length the mass of the people had dispersed, singly or in groups, to their homes, many of the Jews and proselytes still clung to Paul and Barnabas, who earnestly exhorted them "to abide in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43).
Meeting on the next Sabbath
The intervening week between this Sabbath and the next had not only its days of meeting in the synagogue, but would give many opportunities for exhortation and instruction in private houses where the gospel could be taught more freely. The doctrine would be noised abroad, and, through the proselytes, would come to the hearing of the Gentiles. So that "on the following Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the Word of God" and the synagogue was crowded (Acts 13:44).
Multitudes of Gentiles were at the synagogue in addition to the Proselytes. This was more than the Jews could bear. Their spiritual pride and exclusive bigotry was immediately roused. They could not endure the notion of others being freely admitted to the same religious privileges with themselves. This was always the sin of the Jewish people.
Instead of realizing their position in the world as the prophetic nation for the good of the whole earth, the Jews indulged the self-exalting opinion, that God's highest blessings were only for themselves. Their oppressions and their dispersions had not destroyed this deeply-rooted prejudice but they rather found comfort under the yoke in brooding over their religious isolation. Even in their remote and scattered settlements, they clung with the utmost tenacity to the feeling of their exclusive nationality.
Thus, in the Pisidian Antioch, they who on one Sabbath had listened with breathless interest to the gospel of the promised Messiah, were on the next Sabbath filled with the most excited indignation, when they found that this Messiah was "a light to lighten the Gentiles," as well as "the glory of His people Israel." They made an uproar, and opposed the words of Paul with all manner of calumnious expressions, "contradicting and blaspheming" God and the gospel truth.
Then the Apostles, promptly recognizing in the willingness of the Gentiles and the unbelief of the Jews the clear indications of the path of duty, followed that bold course which was alien to all the prejudices of a Jewish education. They turned at once and without reserve to the Gentiles and proclaimed to them the gospel.
Apostle Paul was not unprepared for the events which called for this decision. The prophetic intimations at his first conversion, his vision in the Temple at Jerusalem, his experience at Syrian Antioch, his recent success in the island of Cyprus, must have led him to expect the Gentiles to listen to that message which the Jews were too ready to scorn.
The words with which he turned from his unbelieving countrymen were the following.
It was necessary for the Word of God to be spoken to you first; but since you reject it and do not judge yourselves worthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles;
For so the Lord has enjoined upon us: 'I have set You for a light of the Gentiles that You should be for salvation unto the uttermost parts of the earth.' (Acts 13:46 - 47, HBFV).
While the Jews blasphemed and rejected Christ, the Gentiles "rejoiced, and glorified the Word of God." The gospel was not frustrated by the unbelief of His chosen people. A new Israel, a new election, succeeded to the former (See Romans 11:7, Galatians 6:16). A Church was formed of united Jews and Gentiles and all who were destined to enter the path of eternal life were gathered into the brotherhood.
The synagogue had rejected the inspired missionaries of the gospel, but the apostolic instruction went on in some private house or public building belonging to the heathen. Gradually the knowledge of Christianity began to be disseminated through the whole vicinity (Acts 13:49).
Paul is persecuted
The enmity of the Jews, however, was not satisfied by the expulsion of the Apostles from their synagogue. What they could not accomplish by violence and calumny, they succeeded in effecting by a pious intrigue. That influence of women in religious questions, to which our attention will be repeatedly called hereafter, is here for the first time brought before our notice in the sacred narrative of Apostle Paul's life.
The Jews contrived, through the female proselytes at Antioch, to win over to their cause some influential members of their sex, and through them to gain the ear of men who occupied a position of eminence in the city. Thus a systematic persecution was excited against Paul and Barnabas over the gospel. Whether the supreme magistrates of the colony were induced by this unfair agitation to pass a sentence of formal banishment, we are not informed.
And while Paul and Barnabas thus fulfilled our Lord's words, shaking off from their feet the dust of the dry and sun burnt road, in token of God's judgment on wilful unbelievers, and turning their steps eastwards in the direction of the interior of Galatia, another of the sayings of Christ was fulfilled (Matthew 5:11 - 12).
Even while their faithful teachers of the gospel were removed from them, and traveling across the bare uplands which separate Antioch from the plain of Iconium, the disciples of the former city received such manifest tokens of the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit, that they were filled with joy in the midst of persecution.