At Iconium too we find the usual alliance between «the Jews who refused to believe» and the Gentiles, directed against «the brothers», that is, those Jews and those Gentiles who had believed (v. 2). But those who had previously been called «the Jews who had refused to believe» are just called «Jews» (v. 5), since it is now understood that those who refused to believe were the majority (as we have considered earlier).
Luke calls the pair Paul and Barnabas «apostles» (vv. 5 and 14), but for us “the apostle Paul” is paired with “the apostle Peter”, in a widely used formula: “The apostles Peter and Paul”. Another sign that something’s off is that it does not sound right to us to say “the apostle Barnabas”. They seem unimportant details but, instead, they can be the sign of a deep distortion employed to change the vision of the Church that emerges from the Book of Acts; on this it is then appropriate to do the Further Insight n. 6 (The apostles “Paul and Barnabas”, not “Peter and Paul”), placed at the end of the chapter.
Fleeing from Iconium to avoid persecution, the two apostles arrive at Lystra, where Paul heals a «cripple from birth» after «looking…at him» (vv. 8-9): to leave little doubt on the will of Luke to highlight the parallels of Paul with Peter, is that not only does Paul do something that is entirely similar to what Peter accomplished in 3:1-7, but even the same words are used (the ones above between quotation marks are the same in the two episodes).
But while Peter had worked in the Jewish context, Paul worked in a pagan context and then the spectacular healing induced the people to adopt an attitude of adoration towards Paul and Barnabas, who managed «scarcely» (v. 18) to make them desist, with a speech (vv. 15-17) which references the first chapters of Genesis; it is indeed emphasised that all human beings are of the same nature (drawing from the fact that Adam and Eve are parents of all), that the true God is not represented by idols, but is the Creator of all things (Gen 1) and it is that true God who had given them «food and gladness» in their hearts: this last expression refers to the blessing that God had pronounced to Noah and his descendants (Gen 8:22).
Paul and Barnabas were to teach Lystra the fruit of thousands of years of history to those who, of that history, had forgotten even the first pages! There was some justification for those Jews who reproached Peter for baptising the pagan Cornelius and fraternising with him (Acts 11:1-3), just as there was some justification for those Jews who, even if they tolerated that they should not be circumcised before baptism, demanded that it be done at least afterwards (15:5). Inserting a pagan within the people of God immediately, then, looked like an admission to the university of those who had not even finished elementary school!
Some define the Church as “an absurdity that stands miraculously”. Others say that “the Church proves to be the work of God because human beings cannot destroy it”. Finally, some Jews say that “the Church is made by active pagans converted by bad Jews”. Each of these definitions grasps some truth and we Christians must recognise the Church’s limits and weaknesses, because the more the Church lowers herself, the more the work of her God is exalted who sustains her. But it must be said that, if it is easy to speak ill of the Church, it is even more so of the other organisations, in comparison with which the Church shines like the moon at night: in fact, God always brings out, within his people, an urge to be renewed, while the degeneration of human organisations is irreversible (see Nazism, communism and various paganisms).
The crowd of Lystra who idolized Paul and Barnabas, was at the instigation of the Jews from Antioch of Pisidia and Iconium, soon transformed into an angry crowd, who stoned Paul to the point of believing him dead. But Paul was only unconscious and the next day, as if nothing had happened, he evangelised the next city of Derbe. Then he proposed to return to his church in Antioch of Syria, but instead of going in that direction, he turned back and went back to those cities which he had evangelised and which had proved very dangerous (Lystra, Iconium and Antioch of Pisidia): This is because there were new converts there who needed to be encouraged and the best way to do so was to show that you were not afraid.
Paul told them that «we must enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations» and it is evident that the apostles were waiting for that kingdom which would come with the glorious coming of King Jesus, which would finally reduce his enemies to be the footstool of his feet (Mt 25:31-33; Heb 10:13): Jesus also works in the present and God always remains sovereign, but Jesus’ present way of reigning should not be confused with his full reign after his return.
Further Insight n. 6
THE APOSTLES “PAUL AND BARNABAS”, NOT “PETER AND PAUL”
The work of God in the New Testament resembles to some extent the construction of a house, where the various craftsmen succeed each other roughly one at a time (scraper, bricklayer, electrician, plumber). John the Baptist is the initiator and Jesus is connected to his work (Mt 3:13-16; Jn 1:29-37), but when Jesus begins to act, John begins to disappear. Something similar happens between Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, who take on the utmost importance after Jesus has gone. Even between Peter and Paul a mechanism of “collaboration and succession” is established, so Paul must be seen as an operator who logically comes after Peter. The fact that they continue to operate at the same time is somewhat misleading, because it soon happens that they no longer operate in the same space (Gal 2:7-9).
The fact that not even the Twelve Apostles prove to be “steadily adequate” in carrying on the work of God, somewhat upsets those who work in the Church, because understandably they strive to be “adequate for life”. In order to stay calm, we must then try to neutralise this “disorderly” emergence of Paul. One way is to make him a pair with Peter and this explains the fate of the expression “the apostles Peter and Paul”, with which Paul is substantially considered as one of the Twelve Apostles. The expression “the apostles Peter and Paul”, however, is misleading, because it wants to give the impression that Peter and Paul belonged to the same category. Since Luke uses the expression “the apostles Paul and Barnabas” (14:14), why don’t we also put Barnabas in that group? In short, there is something wrong with the common way of thinking about the “apostles” and so it is good to deal with the subject in a more orderly fashion.
By “apostles” (which means “one who is sent off”) in common language we mean those so defined by Jesus himself (Luke 6:13), who considered them most trusted and “special representatives” and who will act as missionaries-founders. Not only did Jesus appoint them to this special assignment, but he also prepared them in a special way and Mark clearly specifies the two sides of the medal: «He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach» (Mk 3:14-15). As the word “apostle” is generic, those chosen by Jesus are often referred to as “the Twelve” (e.g., Mt 26:14; Mk 11:11; 14:20; Luke 9:12; Jn 6:67; 20:14; Acts 6:2; 1 Cor 15:15).
Apart from the ambiguous case of Judas, which Jesus chose despite knowing his unreliability (Jn 6:64) and who was later replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:24-26), it can be said that this group succeeded in carrying out the tasks assigned to them by the Lord. In Acts, Luke made us see them full of the Holy Spirit (2:4), who stir up conversions by the thousands (4:4), healing all (5:16) and even raising up a dead person (9:40); under their direction «the word of God increased and multiplied» (12:24).
The shocking fact is that these Twelve, chosen by Jesus, instructed by Jesus, commissioned by Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, extraordinarily effective and without having sinned… they suddenly seem to be considered by God as inadequate to direct the Church in those new areas which they know little and for which they are therefore ill-suited. The appearance on the scene of Paul and the role he assumes at a certain point, in other words, certify that not even the early Church could have a “stable leadership”.
Not finding in the New Testament a solid foundation for “normalising” Paul, some have the audacity to argue that the true substitute of Judas would not have been Matthias, having been chosen in a wrong way (that is, by lot, 1:26), but Paul, because he was instead chosen by the Spirit: as if Paul had been available since that moment and not several years later! As if the Spirit had not called Paul with Barnabas (13:2)!
Other ways to overcome the “Paul scandal” are the glossing-over and the counterbalancing: «Certainly, Paul did not belong to the Twelve, but he was also chosen by God to spread the Gospel throughout the world». These are understandable considerations, but they dodge the problem we are facing and avoid acknowledging it.
We come to the widespread expression “the apostles Peter and Paul”, which seems undisputable and instead is substantially false. To make an example, it would not be correct to say «the two Italian singers Fernando De Angelis and Adriano Celentano», because it is true that I too sometimes hum, but I am not in the same category as Celentano; then to say “the two” and not “two” gives the impression that Celentano and I are the only Italians to sing. At the same time, Peter and Paul were not made apostles in the same way and their work cannot only be seen as complementary but, as we have said, also succeeding, in the sense that the new developments of God’s plan will be increasingly entrusted to Paul; so much so that, after chapter 15, Peter is no longer named and everything revolves around Paul.
The fact that Paul acts later is relevant, because if Paul comes after Peter, someone else could come after Paul and then it is not possible to “embalm” Christianity and be quiet! To avoid misunderstandings, we are convinced that the apostolic times are foundational and unrepeatable. We are also convinced that the New Testament is the “universal Word of God”, that is, always and for all. However, it is possible that the “universal history” traced in Acts can then continue with national histories. For example, did not the Spirit continue to work in Italy after the testimony given in Rome by Paul? Does not the New Testament itself say that History is moving towards its passing and towards the return of Christ? Is logic enough to interpret Revelation and apply it to our time or is the help of the Spirit, who caused its writing, necessary?
On the use of the word “apostle”, however, Paul can be of help to us, who wrote that Christ appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once […] Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God» (1 Cor 15:5-9). Three concentric circles of apostles are thus identified:
1) Peter and the Twelve;
2) James (Jesus’ brother) and all the «other» apostles, that is, those outside the Twelve;
3) Paul, who therefore considered himself a “third-rank” apostle.
It is then not wrong to say that Paul was an apostle, but we must not believe and make believe that he was of the same category as Peter, because one is put at the top of the list and the other at the bottom. Nor should we forget that with the same “formal” qualification of apostle there were many of the level of Paul, whose rank was certainly not given by the title, but by the work accomplished. Incidentally, we will see then that in the government of the Church in place of Peter there will be the prevailing of James, which is another case of bypassing the Twelve.
In short, the book of Acts shows a living God, who continues to direct and work in the Church, a God who certainly did not go into retirement two thousand years ago.