Joy is found throughout the New Testament. Yet it often occurs in situations which involve pain or trouble, including our passage. So what is this joy and how can we experience it?
Paul has preached Jesus as resurrected saviour to the synagogue worshippers of Pisidian Antioch (Ac 13:16-39). If his sermon was now to stop, then many of the Jews might react well to it (v42, 43). However, Paul knows a problem is about to strike which will unnerve them and he cannot duck it. So he wisely prepares his hearers with a warning and an encouragement. We understand his dilemma. We love to tell of the blessings that Christ brings to his people. But learning of him can bring hard conversations too and, at times, we have to face them head on, like Paul.
Paul’s warning (v40,41) exposes the problem. He quotes from a Greek translation of Habakkuk, a 7th century BC prophet who said that due to her sins, Judah would be ruined by God sending the ruthless Babylonians against her (Hab 1:1-11), in an unexpected invasion. That happened at the start of the 6th century BC. However, Paul sees a fuller experience of the prophecy breaking out in his own day due to the coming of Christ. Under God, Gentiles are, once again, going to ruin what the Jews love best. That will happen to Israel’s beloved culture, as the Lord expands his renewed Israel to Gentiles with faith in Him. And it will also happen, in the not too distant future, through the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Gentile armies, as Jesus predicted (Lk 21:20).
So Paul prepares his Jewish hearers for the life-changing issue they must face, with a warning. However, he also encourages. They sense the power of Paul’s words and urge him to say more (v42). His response is to point them to God’s grace (v43). No matter what they hear next from him, or see happen to old Israel, if they hold onto the mercy of God in Christ, then all will be well. The gospel is hard but good. When we come to Christ, his kingdom challenges our lifestyles in many ways: not only in regard to our sins but also our preferences, habits and attitudes. How do we deal with that? By always remembering his mercy to us, the grace that we’ve received.
Just seven days later, the synagogue attenders of Pisidian Antioch have to put Paul’s advice into practice when their sabbath is invaded by crowds of Gentiles (v44). Sadly, however, many of the Jews do not do so. Instead, they react with jealous anger and turn on Paul (v45). This must surely have broken his heart (Ro 9:1-3) and he, with Barnabas, could have wavered under the pressure. But they don’t. Rather, they grasp the nettle and tell the Jews that if they are determined to be like Jerusalem (Ac 13:27) and judge themselves unworthy of eternal life, then the gospel will go the Gentiles instead (v46), just as the prophet Isaiah foretold (v47; Is 42:1-9; 49:1-12). Jesus is the servant described by Isaiah who, through his people, spreads the light of the gospel to the world’s farthest corners. Paul does that in our passage and many have followed in his footsteps since.
Well, the Gentiles react with joy, which is a supernatural response since their belief flows from the power of God in their souls (v48). Christians, preachers, don’t convert people; only the Lord does (Jo 3:3-8). Which makes the kingdom of heaven unstoppable, as Paul discovers (v49). The bitter opponents, however, do their best to halt it using political means to expel Paul and Barnabas from the area (v50). But like Jews shaking Gentile dust from their feet as they enter the promised land, the apostles shake off the synagogue’s dust (v51). This striking symbol (Mt 10:14, 15) shows that these rebels have expelled themselves from God’s kingdom. Any who want to discover God’s grace will have to go to the church, now, not the synagogue. And there they’ll find joy (v52).
In this passage we can learn three lessons. 1) Christian joy comes from our relationship with the Lord, by the power of the Spirit in our souls – it is supernatural. 2) It runs deeper than our changeable emotions, being built upon who we are and what we have in Christ. 3) Of course, this joy will be felt at times. But even when we cannot feel it, it is still the believer’s reality and so it’s possible for us to “rejoice always” (Paul’s advice to heal a divided church – Ph 3:20-4:7).