“And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” (Acts 17:2-3)
In Acts 13:14-41, Paul would have preferred to preach the outwardly positive message of Jesus Christ the Messiah who rules and reigns from Jerusalem as the political, spiritual, and military leader who would bring world peace according to the prophecies we now understand…in hindsight…to relate to the second advent of Christ.
To begin his major evangelical missionary outreach to the first-century Mediterranean world, Paul would have liked to bring the up-to-the-moment recent news to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch Pisidia, of the positive impact of the Messiah Jesus in Jerusalem…who was in the beginning stages of restoring their homeland of Israel to political independence and spiritual predominance…as in centuries past.
This is the message that all Jews living outside of Israel would have been overjoyed to hear.
But Paul preached to them the cross (Mk. 9:12). The cross and the resurrection were the reality in first-century Israel and the Greco-Roman world.
Paul (a Jew having a first-rate rabbinical education, taught by Gamaliel in Jerusalem), preached that Jesus the Messiah was crucified and rose from the dead (Acts 13:30) for the remission of our sins (Acts 13:38-39), despite the temporary humiliation for our sakes of becoming a curse hanged on a tree (Gal. 3:13).
Paul preached the message of the cross, which was an offense to many of the Jews of his day, because they were looking in expectation for the other messiah, the “Son of David” prophesied in the Old Testament who would redeem Israel from her enemies and usher in an everlasting world reign of righteousness, justice, and peace (1 Chr. 17:11-13).
The Old Testament messianic prophecies that apply to the second coming of Christ are in the Bible for a very good reason. They supply indispensable information that forms the basis for hope for the future.
But these messianic prophecies also bring to the first-century a razor-sharp sword for dividing truth from error, and for exposing what is in the hearts of people…which can be instructive for us today.
Paul wrote of the Jews of his day in Romans 10:3…“For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”
Simeon in the temple in Jerusalem prophesied to Joseph and Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35).
Jesus said of many of the Jews in Israel “And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life,” and “How can ye believe, who receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only?” (Jn. 5:40; 5:44, italics mine).
Many of the Jews sitting in the audience in the synagogue in Antioch Pisidia, listening to Paul in Acts 13, thought of themselves, on balance, as good people. They did not think they needed additional spiritual improvement. They thought that they were righteous before God because they were Jews, faithfully practicing the Law and observing the rituals given to them by Moses.
Their expectation was for a messiah who would fix the negative circumstances of their outside world, not reform their inner man through conviction of sin, repentance, and spiritual rebirth (Jn. 3:3).
This important distinction is the issue that Jesus emphasized in His famous night conversation with Nicodemus the Pharisee.
The new preaching of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch Pisidia exposed the fact that some practicing Jews, going through the mere outward motions of religious observances, were worshipping God for naught.
Along these lines, Paul explains in Romans 9:6 “For they are not all Israel, who are of Israel.” Paul goes on to say in Romans 11:2 that: “God hath not cast away his people whom he foreknew” and in the previous verse says that he himself is also a Jew, believing in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Savior.
Paul and Barnabas, both Jews, preached Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the grave for the remission of our sins into a new and living way.
This new gospel message revealed the large gulf between people performing religious practices in a purely mechanical exercise according to cultural expectations, without their heart and mind being truly committed and engaged, and a genuine journey of faith following Jesus Christ through unconventional life-scripts composed by God to reveal Himself individually to people.
This was described by Jeremiah as the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). The new covenant preaching of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch Pisidia brought the journey-of-faith experience back full-circle to the promise of God to make Abraham, the father of faith, a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3; 22:18).
Jews and Gentiles alike, sitting together two thousand years after Abraham…in the synagogue in Antioch Pisidia…fulfilled this ancient promise.
The transition from the old covenant to the new covenant, inaugurating the new church age, exposed the emptiness of religious practices performed solely to enjoy the benefits of conforming to cultural expectations.
The new covenant opened wide the already existing entrance into a life of faith in God…first introduced through the life of faith of Abraham in Canaan years before…and perfected through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Passover Lamb of God sacrificed for our sins.