In the account of Paul’s first missionary journey, chiefly with Barnabbas, we read about their visit to a relatively primitive area, Lycaonia, which had three main cities, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, all of which Paul visited, as mentioned in the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. Actually, it was both a missionary journey and a prophetic journey. I think it is helpful to realize that when we Jews seek, through Yeshua, to call our own people to deeper faithfulness to the God of our ancestors, we are functioning in a prophetic role rather than a missionary role. A missionary goes to people of another religious culture and seeks to bring them the good news of Yeshua, while prophets go to their own Jewish culture. The only exception to this distinction is when Jewish bring the gospel to other Jews in such a manner as to nullify their communal and covenantal connection to the Jewish people. Such messengers are not prophets, but missionaries in the negative sense.
Returning to Acts 14, we find here some fascinating accounts which ought to be read slowly with attention to the details of the text which cue us on how to interpret the how situations developed for the apostolic team. It is also crucial we be vigilant against any knee-jerk reactionary tendency to “simply” interpret the text as if its events were taking place now, instead of 20 centuries ago, in a far away land and culture.
Let’s restrict ourselves to the first section, where the emissaries are visiting the capital of Lycaonia, Iconium. We read that their base of operations was the Jewish synagogue there. And theat they spoke in such a manner that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed (in their message about Yeshua). We read also that “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and and poisoned their minds about the brothers.” This is unfortunate language. First of all, in context, those being spoken of as “unbelievers” are Jews who do not believe in Yeshua. We must always remember that Jews are not looked upon categorically as unbelievers in the Newer Testament, because the Jewish people are the covenant people of God. The assumption in the Newer Testament is that the Jews are the people of God and that it is pagans who are “strangers to the covenants of promise and alens from the commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2).
So the big question for today is why were the Jewish people in the area so upset? The text says that the emissaries stayed in Iconimum “a long time” (v.3), likely a number of months, perhaps the major part of year or even more, that the emissaries did signs and wonders in connection with their preaching, that the people of the city were divided on the matter, with some siding with the Jewish community and some siding with the apostles. We read finally that “an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and stone them” (v. 4). What’s going on here? What was it about the emissaries’ conduct during that “long time” they were in Iconium, that would have motivated not only the Jews and their leaders, but also the pagans and their their leaders to seek to stone and eliminate the apostolic band? What were the apostles doing that caused both Jews and pagans to form a coalition against them?
Our first reflex is that they were upset because the emissaries were proclaiming Yeshua as Messiah. That is possible. Perhaps the emissaries were proclaiming Yeshua as King of Israel, and the Roman authorities there were nervous that Caesar would find out. However, Lyconia was definitely a backwater, and it is by no means certain that the pagan leaders would have reacted the way Pontius Pilate did to Yeshua the King of the Jews.
The reason wasn’t likely theological either. There were lots of people running around proclaiming Messiahs of this kind of that, without this kind of disruption. What was going on here?
I think it was that the apostolic message had begun to totally disrupt the social structures in the city. Formerly, if you wanted to be part of the people of Israel’s God, you went to the synagogue and if male, were circumcised and immerse, and if a female immersed, each after due instruction, and received in to the community and covenantal life of the people of Israel. But now, this apostolic band had come to town, saying that pagans could become part of the people of God through believing in this Yeshua who had been crucified under the Romans in Jerusalem. Now multitudes of pagan Gentiles were rejoicing in their newfound identity as children of Abraham, along with Jews who had come to believe that this Yeshua was truly the promised Messiah.
The societal structures were collapsing, the boundaries were being redrawn, people’s predictable lives were being ruined forever.
And some people didn’t like it. They didn’t like it at all.
Does this still go on, even here? Even now? Or do we have new boundaries being redrawn and protected? And whose getting angry now?