Monday 3 July 2023

Paul 6



The aim of my studies in tracing St Paul’s missionary life through the book, the Acts of the Apostles, is to show something of his heroism, and the sacrifices that were made by Paul and the early Christians in order to establish the Church in a Pagan world. Far from the beginnings of the early Church being some obscure struggle that took place in the Mediterranean and near East, the issues that had to be faced were very much the same that Christians have to face today. God does not change and neither does human nature. So, today we are going to revisit Paul all those years ago in the middle of the first century, roundabout 48 AD.


It was at that time in a synagogue in Antioch Pisidia, in a region located today in modern south Turkey,  that Paul gave a sermon. You could say that he made an electrifying speech, (Acts 13: 16-41).  Here Paul in that speech proclaimed the Gospel of Christ.  Paul as a Jew, as a former Pharisee, declared in that synagogue, that the Law, the Law of Moses could not save. In other words, that the Law was not adequate for salvation, for making us acceptable in the eyes of God. Not adequate; the reason being that the level of righteousness required to live up to that Law was not possible to achieve, thus it would always leave one with feelings of guilt and inadequacy; that, the Law could only show us how inadequate the efforts to comply can be. Jesus pointed this out when he said:


‘But I say unto you. That whosever looks after a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her in his heart.’  (Matt 5: 27)


Jesus himself summed up how difficult would it be to fulfil the obligations of the Law when he said:


‘For I say unto you. That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’


And Paul in that synagogue in Pisidian Antioch brought home that message to the congregation, that message, the Law of Moses could not save except only by faith in Christ:


‘Brothers, listen! We are to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight – something that the law of Moses could never do! (13:38)


Preaching the message that you cannot be made righteous by following  the law of Moses is not the message that one should really preach in a synagogue if you want to win friends and influence people. But this is exactly what Paul did preach. He did preach that and he did win friends and he did influence people through his message, the good news, that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. He preached that we can be saved only through belief in him. Through his visit to that synagogue and his activities in Antioch in the city in the days afterwards leading up to the next Sabbath day we can imagine how busy he and his companion Barnabas must have been, because we are told that on the following Sabbath day that ‘almost the whole city’ gathered to hear him preach to ‘hear the word of God,’ as the Bible would have it. I just want to stop here for a moment, to consider those words, ‘almost the whole city gathered to ‘hear the word of God.’


Now, Pisidian Antioch, as stated, was situated in that area known today as Southern Turkey, and that city was the capital city of the Galatia province. Later, Paul would write to his churches in Galatia, and that is why we have that book in the New Testament, the Letter to the Galatians and we have in that letter Paul’s strong and uncompromising statement to those who would seek to undermine the faith, of the early Church he wrote:


‘But though we or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.’ (1:8)


‘Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.’ (1:10)


This is the character of the Apostle Paul as he met the crowds in Pisidian Antioch that Sabbath day, and now we have that verse in full:


‘And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city, together to hear the word of God.’ Acts13: 44


Came almost the whole city together. Almost the whole city! Would it surprise you to know by the middle of the 1st century AD, that that city of Pisidian Antioch and the surrounding villages had a population of nearly 100,000 people? When Paul and Barnabas entered the city, they would have passed through a monumental gate known as ‘Propylon.’ The propylon at Pisidian Antioch was erected to honour the Roman Emperor, Augustus and was decorated with reliefs of gods, goddesses, winged beings and warfare. As Paul and Barnabas walked through the massive gates, they would have seen many grand buildings, foremost of which was the Temple to Augustus. (D. Coondrad: Drive Thru History Adventures)


But even as we consider the described grandeur of this city, and think about the awe-inspiring numbers that turned up to hear Paul and Barnabas on that Sabbath day, I wonder if we do really begin to grasp the scale of this event, almost all of that population of 100,000 in attendance. Whatever the final figure on that day, that was an enormous crowd. If for many in that crowd the good news was the revelation of God’s love, though the death and resurrection of Christ, and that message, ‘I am the way the truth and the life,’ then there was even more joy and wonderment for the God worshippers, for the gentile worshippers who were excluded from the covenant of God with Israel and were not therefore the ‘chosen people.’ Joyous news to the gentiles of their inclusion in this new Christian Church; what an invitation! But the Jews who saw the great crowd became envious and started to rail against Paul and Barnabas. Why should this be?


William Barclay in his commentaries provides an answer, he wrote:


‘The Jews were intent on keeping their privileges to themselves. From the beginning the Christians saw that a privilege is granted only to be shared. The Jews were intent on shutting the door. From the beginning the Christians saw that the door must be opened wide. As it has been said, “The Jews saw the heathen as chaff to be burned,” Jesus saw them as a harvest to be reaped for God.’ And his Church must have a like vision of a world for Christ.’


So, now as we survey that enormous gathering, that crowd in the city of Pisidian Antioch and we might think about the passionate cut and thrust of that dialogue, the supporters and the organised opposition and the courage of Paul and Barnabas, facing it all down and I think observing that scene, we should be inspired to see and to know that history was being made. Paul facing down the antagonism, bringing the good news, and reminding the Jews of Isaiah’s prophecy (13:47)


For the Lord gave us this command when he said: I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth.


Let’s hear those words from the prophet Hosea:


‘At that time I will plant a crop of Israelites and raise them for myself. I will show love to those I called ‘Not loved., And to those I called ‘Not my people, I will say, ‘Now you are my people.’ And they will reply, ‘You are our God!’ Hosea 2: 23


And those words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well:


Jesus replied, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4: 21-24