A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 13:13-52 Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch.
*From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed* north *to Perga in Pamphylia* (13a). In so doing, they crossed from ‘Barnabas’s native island’ to the south coast of ‘Paul’s native land, Asia Minor’. They probably landed at Attalia and then walked approximately twelve miles inland to Perga.
Here in Perga they suffered a setback: *John left them to return to Jerusalem* (13b). Luke announces the fact in a matter-of-fact manner and appears to apportion no blame. But it becomes clear in 15:38 that he sees Mark as having ‘deserted them’. Later, however, he recovered and again became ‘helpful’ to Paul in his ministry (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim.4:11). Why then did he desert? A variety of conjectures has been made. Was he homesick, missing his mother, her spacious Jerusalem home, and the servants? Did he resent the fact that the partnership of ‘Barnabas and Saul’ (2, 7) had become ‘Paul and Barnabas’ (13, 46. etc.), since Paul was now taking the lead and eclipsing his cousin? Did he, as a loyal member of Jerusalem’s conservative Jewish church, disagree with Paul’s bold policy of Gentile evangelism? Was it even he who, on his return to Jerusalem, provoked the Judaizers into opposing Paul (15:1ff)? Or did Mark simply not relish the stiff climb over the Tarsus mountains which were known to be infested with brigands (cf. Paul’s ‘in danger from bandits’ 2 Cor. 11:26)? We do not know.
Or was it that Paul was sick and that Mark thought it foolhardy that he was determined to go north over the mountains? We do know that, when Paul reached the cities of the south Galatian plateau, he was suffering from a debilitating illness (‘it was because of an illness that I first preached the Gospel to you’ Gal. 4:13). It seems to have disfigured him in some way, so that the Galatians might have treated him with contempt Gal.4:14), and to have affected his eyesight, so that if possible they would have given him their own eyes (Gal.4:15). Sir William Ramsay suggested that Paul was suffering from ‘a species of chronic malaria fever’ (which the ancient Greeks and Romans both knew and feared); that it involved ‘very distressing and prostrating paroxysms’, together with stabbing headaches ‘like a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead’ (perhaps his ‘thorn in the flesh’ 2Cor.12:7); and that it was his fever which necessitated leaving the enervating climate of the low-lying coastal plain, in spite of the rigorous climb involved, in order to seek the bracing cool of the Tarsus plateau some 3500 feet above sea level. Perhaps it was this hurry which explains why the missionaries did not stay to evangelize Perga, which they did on their return journey.
At all events, for whatever reason, Mark left them, and Paul and Barnabas continued without him. *From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch*, more than 100 miles north beyond the mountains. It was a Roman colony, a few arches of whose first-century aqueducts are still standing. It was also ‘the governing and military centre of the southern half of the vast province of Galatia’. Although politically it belonged to Galatia, in language and geography it belonged to Phrygia. *On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down* (14). The synagogue service will have begun with a recitation of the *Shema* (‘The Lord your God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God…’) and some prayers, continued with two lessons, one from the Pentateuch and the other from the prophets, followed by an expository sermon, and concluded with a blessing. *After the reading from the Law and the Prophets* (which, it has been suggested because of Paul’s quotations, may that day have been Deuteronomy 1 and Isaiah 1), *the synagogue rulers sent word to them*, perhaps recognising from his dress that Paul was a Rabbi, *saying, ‘Brothers if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak*’ (15).
Luke now provides his first full summary of one of Paul’s sermons. Although some Gentile God-fearers were present, it is essentially an address to a Jewish audience. Luke will later give two samples of Paul’s sermons to Gentiles, that is, to the pagans of Lystra and the philosophers of Athens. But now the whole atmosphere is Jewish. The day is the sabbath, the venue is the synagogue, the lessons are from the Law and the Prophets, the listeners are ‘men of Israel’ (16), and the theme is how ‘the God of the people of Israel’ (17) ‘has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised’ (23). Luke is evidently anxious to demonstrate that Paul’s message to the Jews was substantially the same as Peter’s; that Paul did not turn to the Gentiles until after he had offered the gospel to the Jews and been rebuffed; and that, far from being an innovator, Paul was declaring only what God had promised in Scripture and had now fulfilled in Jesus.
Tomorrow: Acts 13:16-25. a). The sermon’s introduction: the Old Testament preparation.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.