At Antioch in Syria, a flourishing congregation was well established by the time Barnabas and Paul were selected to expand their teaching activities. The support of the followers of Jesus meant much to the two men, and they would return to their home base to report on their experiences. The two men set out with Barnabas’s relative John Mark (see Colossians 4:10) as a helper. Together they went down to the Roman port of Seleucia, about 16 miles away, to take a ship to the island of Cyprus. Sailing southwest about 135 miles, they would have arrived in the pristine waters of the eastern Cypriot city of Salamis after just a few hours.
From Synagogue to Sorcerer
Cyprus was a natural first stop on their journey, since Barnabas was a native of the island (Acts 4:36), and others had preceded them following the persecution and dispersion of the church in Jerusalem after the martyring of Stephen (Acts 11:19). Paul had of course been actively opposed to the believers and instrumental in Stephen’s murder and the scattering of the group. He surely was mindful of the origins of his newfound faith as they stepped ashore and he considered the work ahead.
Facing the coastline just to the north of Palestine, Salamis had probably long attracted Jewish people, beginning in the Greek period (fourth to first century B.C.E.), when it was the island’s principal city. In the first century C.E., the city was still the major commercial center on the island. The Jewish Diaspora community had several well-established synagogues.
It was there that the three travelers went first. This was to become the pattern in Paul’s teaching—initially he would go to the synagogue, where according to some scholars, the audience was as much as 50 percent non-Jewish in the first-century Diaspora. He would speak to his fellow Jews, proselytes and the gentile worshipers or “God-fearers” among them. He would tell them that the Messiah had come and then prove it from the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, these were the people with whom he had a common background. If Paul’s message had contradicted the Hebrew writings and traditional worship, no one would have listened.
Nothing more is recorded of this stay in Salamis, though we know that later Barnabas returned to Cyprus with John Mark—it seems to encourage the believers established there (Acts 15:36–39).
The three men went next to the western side of the island, to the city of Paphos, which had become the Roman administrative capital and was the first port of call in Cyprus for vessels sailing eastward through the Mediterranean. It was to be a very significant visit. Here they came in contact with the governor of the island, the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus. The name has been found on three Roman inscriptions, one of which identifies a curator of the River Tiber in Rome near the time that Barnabas and Paul would have visited Cyprus.
Sergius Paulus called for the visitors and was especially impressed when Paul showed the governor’s spiritual advisor, the Jewish magician Bar-Jesus, to be a fraud. The man had opposed the travelers and tried to dissuade the governor from accepting their teaching. Paul called on God to temporarily blind the magician so that he would learn not to be an enemy. When Bar-Jesus asked to be led by the hand, Sergius Paulus was convinced and became a believer in God’s power and Paul’s message.
The governor probably came from Pisidia in central Asia Minor, from another city named Antioch, where according to recent scholarship his family owned large amounts of land. It was to this city that Barnabas and Paul would travel next. Did the proconsul suggest that they go to his home region to deliver their message to his family? After all, his relatives could have given help and support and contacts in the Roman colony. It seems a good enough reason for Paul and his party to have sailed from Paphos to Perga on what is today the southern Turkish coast.
Success in a Roman Setting
In Perga, we are told, John Mark left his companions and returned to Jerusalem. The reason for his departure is unclear, though we may surmise that it was not a good enough reason in Paul’s mind. Writing about a contention between Paul and Barnabas over the future use of John Mark, Luke tells us, “Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:38).
With their helper gone, the men began the difficult journey from Perga across the challenging Taurus Mountains to Antioch, about 3,600 feet above sea level. For much of the time since its founding around 280 B.C.E., Jews had lived there. It was a Roman administrative center in the province of Galatia, which had been named a Roman province in 25 B.C.E. by the emperor Augustus. By Paul’s time, some of the inhabitants were descendants of Roman veterans who had been allowed to retire there. It was a city under significant construction—so much so that its magnificence was said by some to resemble that of Rome.
“Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas. . . . On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God.”
When Paul and Barnabas arrived in the city, Luke tells us that they “went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (Acts 13:14). The leaders of the congregation asked the Jewish visitors to speak to the people. Once again the synagogue community Paul came among was both Jewish and gentile. It is important to note here that many in the Roman Empire were impressed with Judaism, which was regarded as a very old religion—perhaps even the primary religion. Many adopted the Hebrew God, Yahweh, and Judaism was granted special religious liberties in some parts of the empire—including freedom to worship on the Sabbath. So it would not have been so strange to find non-Jewish Romans in synagogues outside Judea. This explains why Paul addressed the audience in Antioch as “sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God [the gentile God-fearers]” (verse 26). Here is a clear indication that Paul was speaking to two distinct groups—some of the same kinds of people that formed the Church in other parts of the Diaspora. His discourse about the history of ancient Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was so effective that some Jews and proselytes and/or God-fearers joined with him. Others asked that the same message be given to them the next Sabbath, when we are told that “almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (verse 44).
What Paul taught has been the subject of much debate. Some are convinced that he spoke against keeping the law and in favor of “living under grace.” But if Paul had taught against the law, would he have been able to convince Jews in the synagogue, who became followers of Jesus, not to keep the Sabbath, for example? Or would he have taught Jewish and gentile believers to have different practices? Would Paul have asked the Jews to meet on the Sabbath and the gentiles to meet separately on Sunday? How could the Church ever have come together on that basis? How could the Church ever have been united in belief and practice? They could not, and indeed Paul refers to the Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus in Corinth in the singular as “the church of God,” not as two different groups with different beliefs and practices (see 1 Corinthians 10:32). The only logical conclusion is that he taught both parts of the Church the same thing, including assembling together on the same day—the Sabbath.
Violent Opposition Begins
The Jews who did not accept Paul’s message were envious of his success and spoke against him (Acts 13:45). This had the effect of convincing Paul that in this place he should now teach only gentiles. Again he was successful, and word spread throughout the region. More animosity from the unbelieving Jews, who stirred up the city leaders and some of the God-fearing wealthy women supporters of the synagogue, caused the two apostles to be thrown out of the area.
“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.’”
From Antioch, Paul and Barnabas traveled southeast about 90 miles to Iconium (modern Konya) in what was anciently the province of Phrygia. It had become part of Galatia in 25 B.C.E. At the time of Paul’s visit, it was probably a Greek city and not yet a Roman colony, though the emperor Claudius allowed it to be named Claudiconium after him. It was connected to Antioch by a Roman road, known as the Via Sebaste. Paul went to Iconium more than once during his ministry and wrote one of his New Testament letters to the congregations in the surrounding area of Galatia.
On the first visit, Paul and Barnabas went into the synagogue as usual, and many Jews and gentiles were convinced by their message. But in reaction, the remaining Jews became upset and poisoned the minds of the other gentiles against the new believers. In spite of this strong opposition, Paul and Barnabas kept on teaching for quite some time. It was only when a violent plot against them was discovered that they fled for their lives to avoid being stoned (Acts 14:1–6).
Treated Like Gods, Left for Dead
The next two cities on Paul and Barnabas’s journey, Lystra and Derbe in Lycaonia, were reached by an unpaved road. Today there’s virtually nothing to be seen of these cities, just mounds of debris where they may have been. When Paul healed a crippled man who sat by the gates of Lystra, it caused a public sensation. The onlookers were convinced that the gods had come down to them. This was an audience unlike others Paul and Barnabas had encountered. They were pagans, believers in the Greek gods. Just outside the city was a temple dedicated to Zeus, father of the gods. The people took Barnabas to be Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, since in Greek mythology it was he who accompanied Zeus and was his messenger. The local priest of Zeus immediately responded, arriving with garlands and oxen to offer a sacrifice to the visitors.
“When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul Hermes, since he was the chief spokesman.”
Paul and Barnabas were shocked by the adulation and ran in among the people to dissuade them, explaining that they were just men (verses 14–15). The situation gave Paul the opportunity to craft his message in a new way, one that he would repeat with other pagan audiences. He told them that there was a living God, maker of all creation. This God was different from their powerless “vanities” and in the past had allowed all nations to follow their own ways. Yet He did not fail to make Himself known to humanity in that He did good for all by giving “rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (verses 15–17). But Paul’s words were only barely sufficient to prevent the emotionally charged Lystrians from completing their sacrificial offering.
Soon trouble of a more serious kind emerged with the arrival of enemy Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who had heard about the events in Lystra. They led the people in an attempt on Paul’s life. They stoned him and left him for dead outside the city. As the few who had responded to Paul’s message stood around his body—no doubt including the young man Timothy and members of his family—Paul miraculously got up and went into the city.
From there he and Barnabas departed the next day for Derbe, where Luke tells us simply that they preached the gospel and taught many. Following their visit, Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps, strengthening the new believers in each place and appointing elders to take care of the new churches. Arriving back at Perga, they preached once more and soon boarded a ship bound for their home base at Antioch in Syria.
A Make-or-Break Crisis
Once back in Antioch, they reported to the Church all that had happened and how God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (verse 27). For about the next two and a half years they remained there, and it seems that the Church was flourishing. But with the arrival of visitors from Jerusalem a serious controversy began to develop. The matter of what Paul was teaching, especially to the gentile believers, now came to a head. It was to become a major discussion in the New Testament Church, one that required a visit to Jerusalem and a council decision. What exactly was the issue?
The Syrian Antioch church was a very mixed group, comprised of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. But despite their physical and cultural differences, as members of the Church of God, they were all united in their belief. Then some men came from Judea and began to upset their peace. They were likely followers of Jesus, but probably also of the sect of the Pharisees. Though they had no instructions from Jerusalem to do so, they demanded circumcision of gentile followers of the Way. They said, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
Though Paul was also a Pharisee and Barnabas a Levite, they had not required circumcision of the gentile people they had taught, nor had the church in Syrian Antioch made any such demand. The argument could not be easily settled, so Paul and Barnabas were sent to confer with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem and to seek a decision. They were received positively when they reported how the Church had developed among the gentiles. But again, contention arose. “Some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses’” (verse 5). These men were insisting that gentiles be circumcised so that the Pharisaic approach to the law of Moses could be maintained.
Agreeing and Disagreeing
After much debate, first Peter, then Barnabas and Paul recounted from their own experiences what had happened over the years in the developing Church as gentiles had come to belief in Jesus. They confirmed that such people had received the Holy Spirit without undergoing adult circumcision. In effect, their “circumcision” was of the heart. The sign that they were accepted by God as equals with Jews in His sight was not by physical marking, but that they had the same Spirit-led mind.
When the audience had no more to say, James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, summarized and made a binding decision. Quoting the prophet Amos and relying on related statements from Isaiah and other Hebrew Scriptures, James showed that God’s purpose is not limited to the people of Israel but includes “the rest of mankind” (verse 17). Any thought of a rift over the controversy between Paul and Peter or Paul and James is shown by this account to be without basis in fact.
Thus the apostles and elders in Jerusalem decided that adult gentiles did not have to be circumcised. What Paul and Barnabas had taught was upheld as correct. The Jerusalem church also decided that the gentiles should be especially aware of four issues of particular relevance in their societies. They should “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (verses 20, 29).
What is often missed is that these four prohibitions came from the time of Moses and governed the entry of gentiles into the nation of Israel. They were in that respect part of the Mosaic law. There is no indication in the book of Acts that the gentiles should not keep the law. What had happened in respect to circumcision was simply a clarification of how the law of Moses would be applied to gentiles entering the community of the Church. When Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch, accompanied by two leading members of the Jerusalem church named Judas and Silas, there was joy that the teaching had been upheld.
The separation of the team of Barnabas and Paul now occurred. As mentioned earlier, they disagreed over the use of John Mark, whom Barnabas now took to Cyprus. As for Paul, he and Silas set out on a second journey, revisiting many of the same cities he and Barnabas had been to before and going to several new locations as well. We’ll continue their travels in Part 5.