Friday 8 September 2023

Paul 7


But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts. But they shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost.   (Acts 13:50-52)

So far we have traced that missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas how they left the church in Antioch, Syria and sailed to Cyprus. They travelled the length of that Island of Cyprus preaching in the synagogues and then preaching before the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus at Pathos whom Paul subsequently converted. You will remember how Paul before that Roman governor dealt with the sorcerer, Elymas. Elymas the magician who tried to oppose him. Then, having completed their work in Cyprus, John Mark left them, but Paul and Barnabas sailed to that country we know today as Turkey, landing in Perga Pamphylia, they journeyed over the Taurus mountains before coming to Pisidian Antioch; Pisidian Antioch not to be confused with Antioch in Syria. In Pisidian Antioch you will recall that in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, Paul was invited to speak which he did, Paul preached the Christian gospel in the synagogue there. And afterwards both he and Barnabas were asked to preach the following week. And it was in that following week that the leading Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women and the chief men of the city and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas. 

 Now when Paul and Barnabas visited that city in 48 AD it was then the Roman centre of civil and military administration.  What we are told about this city, under Roman rule, is that it was a city of a mixed population of Greeks, Romans, Jews, the local people who were known as Phrygians who were known to be volatile. And I think that word ‘volatile’ could probably be used to describe that city, Antioch, at the best of times. Trouble could spark up at any time. The Romans were, as we know, from the trials and crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, were always careful and ready to maintain civil stability, and to use force, if necessary, to impose law and order in any of the territories that were under their control.

In saying this, I remind you of the prevailing circumstances surrounding the we are considering today, and those circumstances were quite simply this: 

‘But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city.’ 

The Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city.

And why should that be? Well, you might recall how we are told in the Acts of the Apostles that following week, after Paul had preached in the synagogue how almost the whole city had gathered to hear Paul and Barnabas preach again and how that city and the surrounding villages had a population of around a 100,000 people.  So, when we think about that, I’m sure that we can get an idea of the scale of that event!

So, we can imagine that any Roman governor with his eye on law and order would be nervously watching and monitoring the situation.  Nervously watching and monitoring the situation, but he and his advisors, they wouldn’t be the only ones – the Jewish leadership were hardly going to be joyful to see the huge crowds that were turning out for Paul and Barnabas, to hear Paul preach. “Look at the crowds, look at the numbers – it’s enormous!  That’s what the leaders of the synagogue must have thought, 'We can’t get a congregation anything like that size, and our people are amongst them- it’s massive.' You can imagine how they’d feel. Threatened, marginalised, and jealous. I think we could understand that.

But it was worse than that – this Paul was preaching that, since the Jewish leadership were rejecting his message, his message of salvation of salvation through Jesus Christ, they the Jewish leaders in rejecting this message, according to Paul, were unfit for eternal life, unfit for the Kingdom of Heaven, and  Paul’s message of salvation was now to be addressed to the gentiles.  The worst possible thing – the Jewish leaders were being dishonoured and being side-lined.

The Jews really had a total disdain for the gentiles, after all, they, the Jews, were the chosen people, and felt, perhaps, quite reasonably in their opinion, that they had a monopoly on God, he was their God only, and they wanted to keep it that way.  At the same time, of course, in a gentile city like Pisidian Antioch, you could say that they might not be averse to doing a little business with those self-same gentiles. A little business would be one thing, but you know, it went a bit further than that. To be fair we also know that there were some gentiles who were allowed, to a certain extent, were allowed to share in the life of the synagogue. And I’ll come back to that in a minute.

But first, let’s go back to our text again, and I’m reading the first half of verse (50).  It reads: 

But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women.  

Who are these devout and honourable women?  You might well ask.  Well, one thing we can say for certain, is that they weren’t the Jewish women.  These devout and honourable women were gentiles and more than that they would have been the wives of the important men in town, the wife of the Roman Governor, wives of the general staff, wives of the high-ranking administrators, and the wives of Roman magistrates, and soldiers all of them gentiles.

Now in this somewhat cosmopolitan city we’d have to say that the rabbi and the leading members of the synagogue have had a working relationship with the Roman powers, that relationship possibly being an expedient, cosy relationship.  In order of importance if you look at that text again, you’ll see that it’s the honourable women who are mentioned first, followed by the ‘chief men of the city’.

Why should that be?  Well, once more I’m obliged once again to turn to the writing of William Barclay, who gives us a clear and succinct explanation of why this should be.

At this time the Jewish religion had a special attraction for women.  In nothing was the ancient world more lax than in sexual morality.  Family life was breaking down.  The worst sufferers were women.  The Jewish religion preached a purity of ethic and cleanness of life.  Round the synagogues gathered many women of high social position who found in the teaching just what they longed for.  Many became proselytes; still more were God-fearers.  The Jews persuaded them to incite their husbands who were often men in influential positions to take steps against the Christian preachers.  The inevitable result was persecution.  Antioch became unsafe for Paul and Barnabas and they had to go.

So, we see that it is the gentile women of high social standing who have gathered round the synagogue, those women who in fact had attached themselves to the Jewish faith although they weren’t Jews, some men who were also gentiles did the same. These kinds of people were known as God-fearers, meaning that they believed in and feared the God of the Jews, these God-fearers could sit and listen in a synagogue but they weren’t allowed to participate.  The proselytes were those who additionally had been circumcised, and who observed the Mosaic law, and thus were allowed to participate in the Jewish religious feasts like the Passover, for example.  Such proselytes and God-fearers were acceptable to the Jews and were indeed an important source of funding for the synagogue.

But again, it’s to the women, the ‘devout and honourable women’ we turn, and bearing in mind that such women at that time, had to live in a Roman society that celebrated and accepted sexual immorality. This was a society where women had few legal rights, where their position in society and within the family could be both tenuous and vulnerable. These Roman women had no property rights and were expected to remain loyal and subservient to their husbands.  On the other hand, their husbands were legally free to do what they wanted to do. They were free to have all kinds of sexual affairs outside marriage with whomever they could, including boys and other men and with their slaves who had no rights whatsoever.

From the standpoint of the women at least, one need not exercise the imagination too much to realise how terrible their lives could be.  A reading of Roman history will reveal that there were times when hardly any sexual abomination was forbidden.  The emperor Nero reigned from 58 -68 AD, during the time of Paul, and I mention the Roman Emperor perhaps to give you a sense of the wickedness of that age.  Nero proclaimed himself a god, he murdered his own mother and reportedly murdered his wife, Poppies Sabina. I won’t be too explicit but lets’ just say that he also mutilated the youth, Sporus and forced him to marry him. Sporus committed suicide when he reached the age of twenty.

Life was cheap – unwanted children were killed or simply left to die.  This is not to say that everyone approved, but given the culture and the depravity of such emperors as Nero, we can see the type of society in which the Jews and the emerging Christian Church were inhabiting and contending with. I hardly need remind you of the very obvious parallels between our own increasingly degenerate society, its culture, to that of ancient Rome. In Antioch unfortunately, the leading Jews were able to incite the honourable and devout gentile women against Paul. As Barclay has pointed out, these women through Judaism, through the Mosaic law had obtained a clearer, purer vision of a world that could be and should be.  Although not Jews themselves, they could find a place for themselves as part of the synagogue that would give them an identity and a dignity that Roman pagan society could not.  But they trusted the Jewish leaders who themselves would rather destroy the Christian Church than embrace it. In the end, it was not Judaism but the triumph of Christianity that through much of the world brought an end to that state sanctioned gratuitous immorality with its message of the integrity of marriage and the sacredness of human life.  Christianity with its teachings on faith, in repentance and believing in Christ bringing its own high standards of morality. 

Although Paul and Barnabas were forced to flee Antioch, we know that the message of the gospel had been received amongst many and that it had been received with joy. We may imagine now, Paul and Barnabas expelled, outside of the city walls of Antioch, an apparent ignoble end to what had begun as a promising ministry in that city of Pisidian Antioch, they shook the dust off their feet as they left, a final protest, and a symbolic act of rejection to those who had conspired or refused the gospel message.  It might seem that this episode in Antioch did finish on a low note, but in fact the work had been done.  It’s often said that that book – The Acts of the Apostles, should really be called ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit’. In those early days it was indeed a spirit led church, a movement that broke out onto the world with enormous power. And so, we read or final verse:

But they shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost.



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