[13:1-13]. «The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.».
In listing the five principal church leaders of Antioch, Luke places Barnabas first, while Saul is last. Even if he is appointed last, it was clear to me that Paul was the most important personality. Writing these notes, however, forced me not to neglect the details, including the reversal of appointment order that will follow (i.e., Paul before Barnabas, see below Further Insight no. 5). We have already mentioned that Luke uses the Hebrew name of Saul as long as the context remains predominantly Jewish, as it was still in the church of Antioch, introducing in this passage the more suitable name of Paul when he begins his service among the gentiles (v. 9).
One often imagines a persecuting Saul who, following conversion, immediately becomes the apostle Paul, while we have considered that getting to be inserted into a church (Antioch) was the result of not an easy path. Therefore, the initial phase of the relationship between Barnabas and Saul must be carefully considered, because what we call “the vice of backward projection” moves back the events that instead occur later, transforming a historical path into a reassuring stable framework.
Going back in part to what was already mentioned, we note that Saul was young when Stephen was stoned (7:58-60), while Barnabas had long since entered the Church and was well known by the apostles (4:36-37): Barnabas was therefore considerably more advanced in years than Saul.
When we then find Saul who was going to Damascus to persecute those of the “Way”, obviously a few years must have passed, with Saul just having arrived at adulthood. Having become a believer and finding it difficult to integrate into the Church, Paul was welcomed by Barnabas with an attitude of the “paternal” type, Barnabas being the older of age and faith (9:26-28). But Saul cannot be considered a “disciple” of Barnabas, for various reasons: because Barnabas was not a teacher (rabbi) and in fact he did not have a circle of disciples; because Saul had already completed his biblical training «at the feet of Gamaliel» (22:3); because Saul showed that he knew immediately how to apply his biblical knowledge to faith in Christ (9:20-22).
In short, it can be said that Saul began his journey in the Church under the “protection” of Barnabas, who regarded him as a sort of “adopted son”. This is corroborated by the fact that Saul arrived at Antioch precisely because he was brought there by Barnabas, who, having successfully managed the consolidation and expansion of the church on behalf of the apostles, enjoyed an undisputed prestige there.
If, therefore, we consider the previous facts without allowing ourselves to be conditioned by the subsequent ones (concerning Paul’s later prestige), it is not strange that, among the leaders of the church of Antioch, Barnabas should be appointed first and Saul last. Significantly also the Holy Spirit, in calling them to service, will first place Barnabas and then Saul (v. 2).
Paying a little extra attention, it can be noted that in the group of five leaders of the church of Antioch (v. 1) there is already an enriching diversity, which goes beyond the complementarity between Barnabas and Paul. For example, there is racial diversity, since there is also a «Niger» (that is, a “black one”) and one from Cyrene (the current Libya). Even social diversity was not lacking, as there was a «childhood friend of Herod the Tetrarch»; this Herod was the son of one who had the new-borns killed at the time of Jesus’ birth (Mt 2:16) and had himself killed John the Baptist (Mt 14:1-11): it will have been very encouraging for those believers to see that the Gospel was entering even where they would not have thought.
Through Antioch, God would have started an extraordinary work, but not because that church was so particular. Certainly it showed a good attitude in disposing itself to prayer and to listening to the voice of God (v. 2), but the initiative is of the Holy Spirit, who gives a precise order («Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul») without giving particular reasons («for the work to which I have called them»). Motivations are not infrequently absent in God’s call (as in the case of Peter being sent to Cornelius, cf. commentary on 10:29).
Let’s conclude with a military analogy. When there is a war, the roles are assigned primarily by headquarters, which are not in the centre, but the outskirts; in the fight between believers and the enemies of Jesus, the “strategic direction” of war has already in fact moved from Jerusalem (centre of resistance) to Antioch (expanding outskirts): formal ratification is still lacking, however form cannot but adapt to reality, as we shall see.
Further Insight n. 5
FROM “BARNABAS AND SAUL” TO “PAUL AND BARNABAS”
When making a list of leaders, the order in which they are appointed is an important clue; plus in this case Luke uses precise and meaningful criteria (13:1). Initially, Barnabas is first named («Barnabas and Saul»: 11:30; 12:25; 13:1,2,7). Then, immediately after the replacement of “Saul” with “Paul” (13:9), the order of appointment will also be reversed («Paul and Barnabas»: 13:43,46,50; 14:1,14). The greatest importance of Paul in the Greek context is immediately made clear by Luke with the formula «Paul and his companions» (13:13), where Barnabas is not even named, but placed together with the “companions” of whom at that time Paul had in fact taken over the leadership.
In chapter 15 there is a fluctuation in the order of appointment between «Paul and Barnabas» (vv. 2, 22 and 35) and «Barnabas and Paul» (vv. 12 and 25), but the context sufficiently clarifies the reason for Barnabas’ momentary return to a prominent role. He was in fact very familiar with the apostles, who had initially considered Saul only because he had been introduced to them by Barnabas (9:26-27). Barnabas then had the role of the apostles’ “special envoy” at Antioch, and it is only natural that, when the apostles wished to have a report on what was happening there, they would listen more to Barnabas than to Paul (15:12). Even when the apostles wrote to those brothers to whom they had sent Barnabas at the time, they referred to him more than Paul (15:25).
We have dwelt on these details not so much for their relevance in themselves, but as an encouragement to treasure even those details present in Scripture that often seem “random”, but only because we have not paid sufficient attention to them. It is inevitable to remember that Jesus considered the smallest sign of the Word of God by no means negligible (Mt 5:18).
[13:4-13]. Launch of Barnabas and Saul’s mission.
Luke had already specified that the mission’s initiative was not of the Church, but of the Holy Spirit (v. 2), even though the Church had the merit of hearing and welcoming it. This accords with the continuation of the story: «So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia» (v. 4). Their preaching began in the synagogues (vv. 5 and 14), but then it would increasingly involve the Gentiles (v. 46). Barnabas and Saul took Mark with them (v. 5), but he would soon return home (v. 13). A “filigree design” of Luke is to emphasize the similarities of Paul with Peter, in order to give Paul further legitimacy. Paul’s judgment on the magician Elymas (vv. 8-11), in fact, recalls that of Peter on the magician Simon (8:18-24).
[13:14-52]. Paul’s exemplary speech in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia.
Speaking of parallels, in this speech at the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul begins with a style reminiscent of that of Stephen (7:2ff), but then ends in a less harsh way (cf. 7:51-53 with 13:40-41). One reason might be that Paul is addressing Jews who heard the message for the first time, while Stephen’s audience was mostly composed of people who had previously rejected the message. In fact, when the Jews subsequently persevere in a hostile attitude, Paul’s language tends to be harder (v. 46). There is also an obvious parallel with Peter’s preaching, because Paul’s exposition is also closely related to the Old Testament and aims at proclaiming the forgiveness of sins through Jesus (13:38 compared to 2:38). Paul’s preaching, in other words, did not differ from the one previously practiced by the Church and the presence and approval of Barnabas is also a guarantee of this.
Antioch of Pisidia was in what is now Turkey, but then it was in a fully Greek cultural context. The synagogue, therefore, was also frequented by non-Jews, who participated in it at various levels: from the “fear of God”, that is, from recognizing in YHWH the true God, up to a complete adherence and to being circumcised, thus becoming full Jews.
Significant is the description of the synagogue meeting, focused on the Word of God and where an unknown person like Paul is also invited to speak (vv. 14-15). Paul took the opportunity and addressed both categories of listeners: «Men of Israel and you who fear God» (v. 16, cf. also 26), arousing much interest both among the Jews and among those non-Jewish frequenters (proselytes; v. 43). A majority of the Jews, however, did not accept Paul’s message and actively opposed him by joining the pagans, to the point of unleashing a real persecution (vv. 43-50). This created a new situation, which should be considered more closely.
There is first of all to note the great influence that Judaism also exerted in populations located in the Greek context, so much so that «almost the whole city» was intrigued by the novelties that emerged on the previous Sabbath in the synagogue (v. 44; see also 14:4).
Verses 45 and 50 begin with «But the Jews», meaning those Jews who did not accept the Gospel. The language is clearly imprecise, because even among those who had accepted the Gospel there were Jews who continued to feel as such, as Paul and Barnabas did too. In other words, since the majority of the Jews had not adhered to the Gospel, the synagogue remained under their control and therefore they represented the Jews. This change of meaning of the word “Jews” is not to be neglected, all the more so when one considers that Luke was a close associate of Paul and therefore reflects his approach. The meaning of the word “Jews” in the Epistles of Paul, then, is not always the same as in the Gospels, but this is generally not taken into account.
There is much discussion about what meaning to give to the expression “people of Israel” (which is equivalent to “Jewish people”) present in Romans chapters 9-11 and many define it as “ethnic Israel”. But this is unsustainable, because even Paul, Barnabas and the thousands of Jews who had believed were of Jewish “ethnicity“. Once again, then, it is precisely the book of Acts that makes it clear, recording how the apostles, with “Jews”, tend to indicate the nonbelieving majority.
The final message that Paul and Barnabas addressed to the Jews is the following: «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» (v. 46). It is not that from then on Paul will no longer speak to the Jews, because this scheme of “first to the Jews and then to the others” will continue to repeat itself in the other cities too, until the final destination of Rome (28:17-28).
At Antioch in Pisidia, as elsewhere, the preaching of the Gospel reshuffles the cards and thus two new blocks are formed that show solidarity within themselves: the division is no longer between Jews and Gentiles, but between those who have accepted the Gospel (partly Jews and partly Gentiles) and those who did not accept it (partly Jews and partly Gentiles). It is in this new situation that the word “Christians” acquires its full meaning, because the Jews who believe in Jesus are no longer in fact allowed to attend the synagogue: however, it should not be neglected that it is the others who consider them incompatible and who throw them out, they are not the ones to leave.
The new situation that has come about makes necessary the constitution of new “Christian synagogues” that welcome all those who have believed in the Gospel, both Jews and Gentiles. We use “Christian synagogues”, because “church” and “synagogue” have the same meaning as “assembly” and because Christian churches are built on the model of synagogues (reading the Word of God, exhortation, prayer, leadership of the “elders”, mutual assistance, climate of freedom, etc.). Of course, if you compare a Christian church with Temple-centred Judaism, the differences are sensitive, but the transition from synagogue-Judaism of the diaspora to a Christian church brought little novelty.
What we saw for Antioch of Pisidia is evidently representative of what Paul generally said in the synagogues and which Luke avoids reporting each time (cf. for example 13:5; 14:1; 17:1; 18:4; 19:8).