Continuing my thoughts on the second Sabbath for Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian-Antioch in Acts 13.
Jews Resist, Gentiles Grab hold of
One of the interesting aspects of the passage (as we’ll see repeated again and again in Acts) is that many of the Jews, especially the synagogue leadership will resist Paul while many god-fearers will grab onto Paul and Barnabas’ message. Why?
The leadership were invested in the present establishment.
This of course isn’t hard to understand. It is a normal human impulse especially when you invest your self into a belief system, an institution, a way of life. Once you invest your reflected self into it, you will fight to defend it and you will resist anything that threatens this.
We recognize that this is normal, but we also recognize that this is often counter-productive when it comes to being open to truth correction and needed change. The truth I subscribe to is often the enemy of something that may in fact be more true on the basis of better information. This is a perpetual problem for any of who have made mental commitment, yet without mental ascent and commitment you can’t live.
This is a dynamic commonly critiqued against the religious, but we all have systems, ideas, notions, values that we have invested self into and hold onto because we are attempting to hold onto our identities derived from these things.
The Problem of Election
The notion of divine election in the Bible is clear (Israel’s election, Jesus’ election, being elect into Christ, etc.) but throughout the Bible election possesses a particular hazard.
One of the places it is most clearly seen is in the book of Jonah. Yhwh makes clear to Jonah that his calling entails a certain sacrificial posture towards obedience and God’s desire for a world made right. Jonah must announce God’s wrath upon Nineveh.
Jonah knows Yhwh and that knowledge doesn’t bring him comfort. He knows that even the worst presented offering of grace (40 days and Nineveh will be overturned) may in fact yield an outpouring of God’s mercy, and on the story goes.
Back to Acts 13. The synagogue leaders have invested themselves in the story of God, the institution of God, and are deriving their identity from the election of God. These are all good things. Now, however, upon new information by Paul and Barnabas, they perceive a threat to their system and they react zealously out of envy.
I want to be fair to these long dead synagogue leaders. The story Paul and Barnabas tells is not easy to believe. Resurrection? Plus there are a lot of people around with a lot of stories. In his epistles Paul himself will have less than gentle words for people Paul considers to be threatening the flock. Paul is no stranger to zeal. In the story in Acts 13 the best response was the first one. “Come back next week and we’ll talk more.”
The election of the synagogue leaders would in fact become a stumbling block for their behavior, just like it had done for Jonah.
The Insecurities of a self-constructed self upon items within the Age of Decay
Between the Sabbath the insecurities of the leadership got the best of them and they did what most of us do when we are threatened, we resort to bullying, conspiracy, manipulation and coercion. The synagogue leaders had access to the levers of power and they weren’t afraid to use them.
The Holy Spirit Shows Up Again
The Holy Spirit now makes another appearance in chapter 13. Earlier Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit when he denounces Elymas, now the new believers who didn’t have the obstacle of the self-constructed selves are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. Those without the same investment in the institution, establishment, and even the rehearsed election of a favored people of God are now called elect while Paul and Barnabas conduct a liturgical dusting off of feet to declare the leaders of the institution of the LORD to be unclean.
This story reminds us that self-constructed identity even upon the good gifts of God can become possibly the most dangerous form of idolatry available to us. It was that way with the bronze serpent, the temple of the LORD and the Bible itself.