Acts 13-14: The Gospel Spreads to the Gentiles

Stonebrook Community Church https://www.stonebrook.org

I. Introduction

In this week’s passage, the Holy Spirit sends Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries to travel hundreds of miles, preaching the gospel to new regions. This pair of traveling evangelists will sail the seas, move past mountains, and survey new cities as they encounter a magician, government officials, religious leaders, and much more. But will the gospel be accepted or rejected? What unforeseen dangers await? Let’s find out!

II. Sent by the Holy Spirit

A. Setting and Context 

Please open your Bibles to Acts chapter 13. Since today’s passage is a narrative with significant length, it will be helpful to have your Bible in front of you. Up to this point, we’ve been going through a series on this book — the Acts of the Apostles — and we’ve seen many important events. We’ve seen the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost, miraculous healings to validate the message of the gospel of Jesus (God’s promised Messiah), and the Christian church being established and spreading and growing in numbers, but we’ve also seen the early Christians being persecuted and imprisoned by the Jewish community which lead many of them to scatter. Then we saw the dramatic, crazy conversion of Saul who opposed the Christians, but then begins to proclaim Jesus to basically anyone who will listen to him, starting with the Jews, both in Jerusalem and elsewhere. 

And perhaps the most remarkable shift is that we’ve even seen the Holy Spirit coming to the Gentiles, not just the Jews, as Peter proclaimed the gospel to them.

That brings us to Acts 13, where we will see the Holy Spirit send Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel far and wide. Let’s read in chapter 13, verse 1.

B. Acts 13:1-4 // Saul and Barnabas Sent 

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

So, the church is gathered in Antioch, and even looking at the names of the prophets and teachers, we see something special: this group of church leaders spans across multiple cultural and social boundaries. Both Simeon and Lucius are from North Africa. Lucius also had a high social standing with his government connections. God has chosen to call and gift these diverse members to be the leaders of this church, and He continues to call and gift the church in that way today.

One thing you likely noticed in this passage was the phrase “the Holy Spirit said.” Now, don’t raise your hands, but how many of you have heard the Holy Spirit say something to you? What was that like in this situation in the church in Antioch almost 2000 years ago? Was it audible? Was it clear? Was it obvious?

We don’t know all the details surrounding this, but what we do know is the situation that the Holy Spirit spoke into. They were actually doing something seemingly ordinary and routine, something that we gather to do every week: they were gathered for worship as well as fasting (you probably don’t do that every week, except overnight — ever wondered why breakfast is called that — break-fast). From what we know, this very well could have been the normal, weekly gathering of worship with teaching of the Word, prayer, fellowship, singing, and breaking bread. And this is what the Holy Spirit speaks into. This is where the Holy Spirit calls Barnabas and Saul. 

Now, I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit is going to audibly speak to you this morning, or any Sunday, or anytime for that matter. But I know that the Holy Spirit does speak through the Word of God, as all Scripture is God-breathed, and that’s why every single Sunday morning worship we listen to the Scriptures, so every single Sunday morning, God is speaking. And God will speak to you every single day through His Scriptures if you pull out that Bible every day and read and pray and reflect. And the Holy Spirit speaks these truths into our minds and hearts and souls as we worship together (in various ways). So, worship together!

Now, let’s see what Saul and Barnabas do now that they’ve been called as missionaries.

III. The Missionaries in Cyprus

A. Acts 13:4-5 // Arrival in Cyprus

4“So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.”

On their journey, Saul and Barnabas and John Mark first head to the island of Cyprus. This was a fairly large island filled with commerce and multiple synagogues, and those synagogues are where they begin preaching. Remember that in Romans 1:16, Paul writes that the gospel was given first to the Jews, and that makes sense because this was not a brand new, start from scratch religion that they were trying to form. This was the continuation of the redemption of God’s people, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, Paul and Barnabas, called by the Holy Spirit, bring the message of God to the people of God in Cyprus.

Seems simple right? Well, it wasn’t quite that easy — it never is. Look at the next section, starting in verse 6. 

B. Acts 13:6-12 // Confrontation in Paphos

“When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus (By the way, Bar-Jesus is an ironic name in this situation, as it means “son of Jesus,” but this man doesn’t actually have any connection to Jesus of Nazareth…now back to the text). He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” (6-8)

A proconsul is the highest-ranking official in a Roman senatorial province. He’s a pretty big deal. This proconsul, Serigius, has apparently heard some of the buzz that was rippling through the area, and wanted to hear from Saul and Barnabas. 

But he’s got this right-hand man. And he’s like the classic crafty character of a unsavory sidekick/betrayer. Not a good, dependable, honorable helper of a ruler, but someone who is just in it for himself, loves his position, and will do just about anything to keep it. To get a picture of Bar-Jesus in your mind, think:

  • think Jafar to the Sultan in Aladdin
  • Tolkien nerds: think Alfrid Lickspittle & Grima Wormtongue, both advisors (the names alone invoke serious reservations about these two)
  • Potter fans: Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew
  • Younger Disney fans: Hans Westergaard from Frozen “I mean it’s crazy…Love is an open door” He says that love is an open door, but he is a liar.

So, Bar-Jesus is a pretty bad dude. But Saul knows what to do about him.

Verses 9-12:

9“But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”

Saul, filled with the Holy Spirit, straight up calls this guy out. He rebukes him, and he humbles him. Notice that his response is not based on some kind of personal vendetta. He responds to defend “the paths of the Lord” (v10), and he responds with “the hand of the Lord” to do something known as a judgement miracle. This is something that is pretty rare in Acts — we saw judgement miracles in last week’s passage to King Herod, and we saw it to Ananias and Sapphira who lied to God. But there’s another miracle that this is even more like. Can you think of it?

Just as Saul was temporarily blinded, which lead to his conversion, so he is involved with this miracle which temporarily blinds Bar-Jesus. Saul has got to have a bit of a twinkle in his eye here, and while this isn’t directly recorded in this text, I think Saul has got to be thinking “trust me, buddy; this is for your own good.” This miracle is meant to humble Bar-Jesus, and may accomplish the work of bringing him to faith in Jesus. 

Often, we need to be humbled to truly see. We need to be humbled to truly learn. We need to be humbled to remember that we are not God. We need to be humbled  to have our faith built up, for it to grow and thrive and flourish. 

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” says James 4 (v6).

When you are humbled, and you will be, turn to God for grace. Don’t try to cover your sins and run and hide, turn to God. Confess your sins to one another, to someone you trust, and turn to God for grace.

And by the way, I feel that I should clarify something. Because when you run into someone you think is a Bar-Jesus, you may be tempted to think: “okay I’m gonna go all Saul on this dude if somebody doesn’t hold me back.” We may think “we’re supposed to imitate Saul right? Well, we’re supposed to imitate Jesus, but I don’t see any of you trying to calm the storms when they come around or turn one Jimmy John’s sandwich into enough to feed the entire campus. Saul was an apostle acting under the authority of God, performing specific miracles during a specific time for a specific purpose, and we should not expect or even try to wield this sort of power. 

So, to recap this section, we saw an apostle of God bring the message of God past an enemy of God followed by the work of God to bring belief to the government official. Next, Paul and Barnabas are going to set sail from the island of Cyprus and head northwest to the mainland.

IV. Antioch

A. Acts 13:13-15 // Arrival at Antioch 

“Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.”” (13-15)

They travel to the city of Antioch and attend a Sabbath service at the synagogue, which had both Jews and non-Jews present. These weekly gatherings were about 2000 years ago, so they look almost nothing like our modern-day church services…right? AAAAA Wrong! They actually have a lot of the same elements are our services. They have a call to worship followed by prayers followed by Scripture readings – one from the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the bible), and one from the Prophets (books like Isaiah, Daniel, & Jonah), that was followed by an address/sermon based on the readings. In these gatherings, it was normal for different people to speak on the passages of Scripture. 

So, Paul didn’t bust in and interrupt a gathering, he didn’t step into the spotlight during the readings and say “I’m gonna let you finish, but I just gotta say that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the best news of all time!” He wasn’t dropping hot takes and hashtags. He was approaching this with wisdom in good faith in order to be persuasive with the message of the gospel and give it the best chance to reach the ears, minds, and hearts of the people that were seeking God. God shows us through Paul that the way we share the message of Jesus matters (repeat). Paul is well-prepared. It was 10 years after his conversion that he began this missionary journey, and he’s ready. So he steps up and delivers what may be the most God-centered, God-exalting, and God-saturated sermon in the Bible. 

I’m going to read that whole sermon for you next without interruption (yes, this is a sermon within a sermon – Inception style), and it’s a long text, so please look at your Bibles or listen with your full attention, because you’re going to like this. And as a reminder, Paul is preaching this to both Jews by heritage and non-Jews who were there to worship God:

B. Acts 13:16-41 // Paul’s Sermon 

“So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:

“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’

“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,

  “‘You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you.’

And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,

  “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’

Therefore he says also in another psalm,

  “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed/justified from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:

  “‘Look, you scoffers,
    be astounded and perish;
  for I am doing a work in your days,
    a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”

As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.”

So let’s break down this sermon a little bit: 

  • Paul begins by showing (1) the Preparation for Christ (which was all the work God did and the plan that He had to bring a Messiah to rescue sinners like me)

Paul preaches:

  • God chose them 
  • God made them great
  • God lead them out of Egypt
  • God put up with them for 40 years in the wilderness
  • God conquered Canaan
  • God gave the land to Israel

    Then

  • God gave them Judges
  • God gave them Samuel
  • God gave them a king, Saul for 40 years
  • God raised up David
    • from the line of Jesse 
    • David was “a man after my heart, who will do all my will.” 
  • Then, he jumps ahead 1000 years to Jesus
  • Then, Paul showed (2) the Fulfillment of Christ (connecting the dots between the prophecies found in the books of the Old Testament — their whole Bible — and who Jesus was and what He did, showing that Jesus was truly and unmistakably the one, true, promised Messiah)
  • Finally, Paul gives them a (3) call to action — a call to respond to Jesus — as well as a warning for those who would reject the truth about Jesus, and this warning is actually given by the prophet Habakkuk, cited from Hab 1:5

Paul steps back appeals to “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation” (v26). He is emphasizing the fact that the salvation that Jesus brought is for the Jew and the Gentile; for those born into families with a heritage of faith and those arising from a different belief system; for those who had deeply studied the Scriptures and a rich tradition of walking with God, had been rescued by God and given His law and blessed with miracles time and time again, and for those coming from a people who had never worshipped God, never seen God, had been His enemies, maybe knew very little or nothing about Him up to this point. This good news about Jesus and His salvation was for them all. And this salvation is for us, no matter what your background is, no matter where you come from, no matter if you’re rich or poor, no matter what your appearance is, no matter what you have to offer to God, what he offers to you is life in Jesus. I invite you today to respond to this message, this life-changing truth. Respond to Jesus. If you have questions about what that looks like, I would love to talk to you, as I’m sure any of our pastors would or the person that brought you today.

So Paul makes an appeal to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the response is remarkable: many people were begging Paul to come back next week, because they wanted to hear more, and Paul and Barnabas encouraged them to continue in the grace of God. 

Alright, let’s see what happens a week from now:

C. Acts 13:44-52 // Response & Opposition 

44“The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.”

Paul’s sermon had an incredible ripple effect. People seemed to be telling everyone that they knew about this good news of Jesus, and the whole town shows up the next week to hear more. The synagogue becomes a packed house, probably standing room only, no social distancing, camels parked all the way up and down the street. Sabbath worship at the synagogue is all of the sudden a HOT event. And when the Jews see what has happened, they get hot, they get angry, they get jealous. So they start speaking against Paul. They start bullying him. But that’s not going to stop them:

46“And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,

  “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
    that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” (vv46-49)

Paul and Barnabas do not back down, but they also don’t point people to themselves, they don’t prop themselves up. Instead, they bring them to the Scriptures – this quotation from Isaiah – showing that this was not Paul’s plan or Barnabas’s plan, but God’s plan all along. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel spreads throughout the whole region!

But the Jews who don’t like this aren’t just going to roll over and let this happen.

50“But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

So, many of the Jews have had enough and they instigate persecution against Paul and Barnabas, driving them out of town. This would be discouraging for me to experience, but Paul and Barnabas say “haters gonna hate, so we’re just gonna shake it off.” They head on out to the next town. And the disciples that received the message of Jesus and turned to Him, they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

V. The Rest of the Journey (Chapter 14) 

After being run out of town, in chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas continue on to preach the gospel in multiple cities. They’ve taken the gospel to some of the culturally developed city centers, but they carry on to smaller towns and areas with less influence, less social and political capital. The Holy Spirit intended for the gospel to reach far beyond just the big cities, beyond the political and social elites, beyond the wealthy and the put-together, and the gospel was not going to be stopped. 

But the Jews would try with all their might to stop Paul and Barnabas. In Iconium, Paul continued to speak in synagogues, and people continued to believe. Paul even performed more signs and wonders by the power of the Holy Spirit, but not everyone is convinced. An angry mob forms, planning to stone Paul, but he and Barnabas are able to flee to the next town, preaching the good news of Jesus there. These angry Jews end up following Paul, stoning him, and dragging him out of town, thinking he was dead. But in seemingly miraculous and epic fashion, Paul gets up and walks right back into the city. Eventually, Paul and Barnabas preach in one more city before making the journey home. As the final piece to their journey, after traveling for about a year, these missionaries stop back in the cities that they had preached in, to encourage these communities of believers that had formed, and to appoint elders in these churches, praying over them and committing them to the Lord. 

Finally, they head back to their sending church in Antioch, back to where they started, and tell the stories of their missionary journey. Verse 27: “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples.”

VI. Conclusion 

As we reflect on this story that we just read in Acts 13-14, I want us to consider a few things: 

1. Remember that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and is our only hope.

This is the message that the Holy Spirit brought to the Jews and to the Gentiles, it’s the message that Paul and Barnabas worked hard to spread, and it’s the same message that we need to remember and spread for the sake of our own souls. It is the message of the Scriptures. 

Our affections are a fickle thing, aren’t they? One day we’re hoping in Jesus, everything’s great, and then the next, we get tossed back and forth like a ship on choppy seas. But let this be your anchor:

Our one hope in life and death is that we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God, and to our savior Jesus Christ.

2. Expect that your life will be harder (at times) because you are a Christian. 

When Paul made his final visit to these churches, the parting charge he gave to them was to “continue in the faith, saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” 

If we think that this charge is only for the churches he planted, we need only to look at the words of Jesus, who said in Matthew 5: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

And later in that sermon on the mount, Jesus says:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

If it feels like you’re on the hard road, you’re probably on the right road. But, don’t lose hope, because…

3. The Holy Spirit will not be stopped.

When we look back at all of the book of Acts, and the passage we studied today, the main message, the main point that we see is this: The Holy Spirit will not be stopped. Not by angry mobs. Not by powerful politicians. Not by any human scheme or success or failure. 

That’s a message we all need to soak in right now. Oh, how that would change our lives if we would believe that. Just let that truth wash over you for a minute: God will not be stopped! God will accomplish everything He sets out to do. God will never be tricked, never be surprised, never be outmatched. God has never failed, will never fail, and is certainly not failing now. God is unstoppable, unshakeable, unfaltering, unbeatable, and unbelievably merciful and gracious to humble sinners who run to the cross of Jesus Christ, and lay down their lives, so that in doing so they might gain something more precious than anything in this whole, wide world. 

So that we can say:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

Let’s pray

Benediction 

Phil 3:7-8a

But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. — Philippians 3:7-8 (CSB)