From Perga in Pamphylia, Paul and Barnabas proceeded across the mountains to Antioch, in the province of Pisidia, which lay between Pamphylia on the south and Phrygia on the north. Whether, in this journey of eighty-five miles into the interior, Paul met with any of those perilous encounters with robbers, to which he refers in one of his epistles, is not stated; but the nature of the road renders this abundantly probable. This Antioch was one of the towns of the same name founded by Seleucus Nicanor, and the name of the province in which it stood was usually added, to distinguish at from the others, and particularly from the great metropolitan Antioch. When it came into the hands of the Romans it was made the seat of a proconsular government, and endowed with the privileges of a colonia juris Italici, which included exemption from taxes, and a municipal constitution similar to that of the Italian towns. These privileges were calculated to attract a Jewish population; and, accordingly, Paul and Barnabas find here a synagogue of Jews, and a considerable body of proselytes to Judaism. Until lately, Antioch in Pisidia was supposed to have occupied the site of the present Ak-Shehr, or White City of the Turks; but the researches of the Rev. F.V. Arundell in 1833, confirmed by the still more recent observations of Mr. Hamilton, Note: Arundell, Discoveries in Asia Minor, 1834; Hamilton, Researches in Asia Minor, 1842. have determined its site to the vicinity of the town of Yalobatch. There are here remains of several temples and churches, besides a theater, and a magnificent aqueduct, twenty-one arches of which still remain entire. Several Latin inscriptions were here copied by Mr. Hamilton, in one of which the only words not entirely effaced were Antiochiae Caesari, which is important for the identification of the place, as it is stated by Pliny that Antioch in Pisidia was also called Caesarea.
On the Sabbath after their arrival, the two apostles “went into the synagogue, and sat down.” The latter intimation is emphatic, if, as Lightfoot assures us, their sitting down on entering was sufficient to apprize the elders of the synagogue that the strangers were persons accustomed to teach or preach. Accordingly, “after the reading of the law and the prophets,” the rulers of the synagogue courteously caused it to be intimated to them that they might then deliver any “word of exhortation” to the congregation, if they desired to do so Here it is well to observe, that they were not asked to read, as our Savior had been asked in the synagogue of Nazareth—it being unusual for any one to be called upon to read in any synagogue but that to which he belonged. Accordingly, although our Lord taught in many synagogues, he is not recorded to have read in any but that of Nazareth. The “word of exhortation,” or sermons, which the apostles were invited to deliver, must not be confounded with the exposition of Scripture which our Savior delivered on the occasion indicated. It was a distinct matter, after the regular service of the day had been completed. A discourse by some competent person then usually, but not always, nor necessarily, followed. There was no regular officer on whom the duty of delivering this discourse devolved, but any qualified person who happened to be present was asked, or offered himself, to address the congregation.
As the Jews resident in foreign parts had less abundant opportunities of obtaining instruction in this shape than those in Judea, they were, doubtless, all the more anxious to take advantage of such occasions as offered. Hence the present application to Paul and Barnabas, who had intimated, by sitting down when they entered, that they were accustomed to teach in the synagogues.
It was Paul, not Barnabas, who responded to the call. He stood up, and after his usual manner, by “beckoning with his hand,” and by corresponding words, invited attention to his discourse, “Men of Israel, and ye who fear God, give audience.” Then followed a well-arranged and convincing discourse—one of the longest reported in the Acts—in which he gradually led his hearers through the Old Testament Scriptures to the promise of a Messiah, which promise he declared to be fulfilled in the person of Jesus, as evinced by the fact that He had been raised from the dead. Through Him, he now, therefore, was enabled to preach “the forgiveness of sins; and that by Him all that believe are justified from all things from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses.” This was very vital doctrine, and it made a profound impression upon those who now heard it for the first time; and many of them, on leaving the synagogue, pressed around the apostles, and begged them that “these words”—meaning the same matter—might again be preached to them, or rather more fully opened to their, on the next Sabbath-day. And when the mass of the congregation had dispersed, there were still many, both Jews and proselytes, more strongly than the others smitten by the sword of the Spirit, who walked along with or near the apostles, as if reluctant to part from them, in their hunger for spiritual nourishment. But these were at length kindly dismissed, with the injunction that, till the next meeting, they should sedulously cherish the good impressions they had already received.
Doubtless many of those who had been thus impressed invited Paul and Barnabas to their houses during the ensuing week, and enabled them to declare the history and doctrine of Christ more fully to these inquirers and their circles of friends. Thus and by other means was the intensity of the first excitement deepened. It even extended to the Gentiles, the nature of whose interest in such matters has been lately explained; and many of them were found among the crowd that flocked to the Jewish synagogue on the next Sabbath-day. The stricter Jews beheld this concourse of Gentiles with an evil eye; and the eager curiosity which they manifested, as in a matter with which they had some concern, alarmed their pride and excited their displeasure; the rather when they called to mind that Paul had in fact, on the last Sabbath, opened his commission in very wide terms, and had plainly enough intimated the cessation of their exclusive privileges, and the abolition of their ritual system. Influenced by such feelings, these persons clamorously opposed Paul in his present discourse, “contradicting” his main positions, and “blaspheming” that blessed name which he declared to be above every name that is named.
The contrast between the blind rage of the Jews and the earnest solicitude of the Gentiles on this occasion, forcibly struck the apostles. They felt that the time for resolute decision, for openly unfurling the banner of the cross before the eyes of the Gentiles, was fully come. They therefore silenced the clamor with these grave and solemn words: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you; but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life—Lo, we turn to the Gentiles!” Nor would they let it be supposed for an instant that this was a mere caprice or ebullition of wrath on their part. They produced their authority: “For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth.”
This bold declaration seems to have struck the Jews dumb with amazement. But the Gentiles were very glad. And they had reason, for from this time forward Paul held forth the gospel freely, and openly to Gentile audiences whenever the opportunity offered or was found, although the Jews engaged a full share of his labors and hopes in the various places to which he came. Now, at Antioch he and Barnabas ceased to present themselves to the notice of the Jews, but prosecuted their evangelical labors exclusively among the Gentiles, in public places and private houses. Thus some time was occupied; so that the word of the Lord was fully preached with great success throughout all that neighborhood.
The Jews could not endure this; and therefore stirred up the devout and honorable women”—probably proselytes, whose husbands were men of consequence in the city—to use their influence with “the chief men,” to procure the expulsion of the apostles. They succeeded, and Paul and Barnabas left the city, shaking off the dust of their feet for a testimony against it.