Jesus was a divisive figure. One of the big factors in the negative reactions he provoked was his pointing out of others’ lifestyles and attitudes which had to change. That can really wind people up, especially when they expect the opposite: a pat on the back for their ways. After he was gone, Jesus remained divisive as his apostles preached in the same way. As a result Christians needed help to cope with the social pressure upon them to give up on Christ. Luke’s two books (his gospel and Acts) were designed to do that. Luke wrote to reassure believers that what they had learned about and from Jesus was good and right, even though it upset many (Lk 1:1-4). Today, his books continue to help believers cope with opposition to the good news of Christ.
Our verses do just that. They describe what comes next after Paul and Barnabas had to leave Pisidian Antioch (Ac 13:50). Paul had preached of Jesus as Saviour and flagged up the changes which his kingdom would bring to Jewish folk, especially through Gentiles. But when that reality became visible (Ac 13:44,45), some of the Jews were livid and stirred up trouble. So the team move east 80 miles or so to the city of Iconium where, despite their previous experience, they go first to the Synagogue, where Paul’s preaching has a powerful effect (v1).
However, since Paul now speaks both to Jews and Gentiles, Jewish opposition quickly arises (v2) and Iconium becomes a battleground. Paul and Barnabas, however, boldly stay around for a long time, preaching clearly of the mercy found in Christ (v3). Jesus then backs them up from heaven using the same miraculous signs he had performed in Jerusalem many years earlier (v4; Ac 2:22; 5:12). So it’s clear that, in Iconium, Paul & Barnabas are both representing Christ – a point Luke makes plain by calling them ‘apostles’ (a word meaning ‘envoys’ – those who act on behalf of another with his authority). These men are the equals of Jesus’ original 12 disciples (Lk 6:13) and have been sent out by the Lord to establish the kingdom he wishes to see planted in the Gentile nations. Luke’s use of the term ‘apostles’ underlines that forcibly and Paul will keep using it of himself, with confidence, in the future letters he’ll write to churches (eg Ro 1:1; 1Co 15:9,10; Ga 1:1). The threats the team face (v5) also underline their bond with Christ (Lk 9:23). However, they are able to escape before the planned persecution breaks out (v6, 7).
Luke’s account drives home the idea that the Lord’s kingdom is for people of every place and position. He’s been showing us, in recent chapters, how a very Jewish movement became the ethnically mixed church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. From Cornelies (Ac 10) to Syrian Antioch (Ac 11) to Cyprus (Ac 13), Gentiles have begun to enter the kingdom. And since Pisidian Antioch, Paul has had a clear policy of actively evangelising Gentiles alongside Jews. For many of Luke’s first Christian readers this was all very reassuring, showing them that God was pleased with them having open, brotherly unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. Today, of course, the idea of a racially mixed church may not be so unusual to us in the UK. But Luke’s tales are still helpful because we can face a more general pressure to keep quiet about our faith since to speak of Jesus to others might bring social disharmony. Luke assures that we should still speak.
Jesus will divide people; Luke would have us see that clearly. Be he’d also have us know that when that brings opposition, we should not assume we’re doing something wrong. The gospel is about grace – God’s mercy to us. But it also includes challenges to our lives. It tells us to turn from our sins. It also tells us that our priorities and preferences have to give way to Jesus’. Those traits will antagonise others, who may then tell Christians that they are bigoted, self-righteous or judgemental. However, those wrong assessments should not cause us to turn from the Lord. We must react with patient love (Lk 6:27-36), even when trouble follows, and determine to follow Jesus’ lead, no matter what difficulties it causes us at work, in sport, at home, or with friends, family, or community. It may even be that in the Western world Christians will start to face legal opposition to our faith. But Luke would tell us to hold on, for ours is the kingdom of heaven.