How often have we heard, "What happens in a politician's private life is his own affair; it only concerns the voters when it affects performance in office"? Yet often sexual or financial indiscretion means the ruin of political ambitions, no matter how cogent the political message. A message's truth is judged by the messenger's integrity.
Luke's narrative about the gospel's advance at Iconium sets side by side the Jewish persecutors and the Christian witnesses. By focusing on the courageous Christian witnesses, he helps us decide between the Jewish attacks on the gospel and that gospel's truth claims.
Expelled from Pisidian Antioch, Paul and his band travel eighty miles southeast on the Via Sebaste. They move across rolling country to Phrygian Iconium, also in the Roman province of Galatia. Iconium, which maintained its Hellenistic culture as a Greek city-state, was a prosperous commercial and agricultural center with five roads radiating from it.
The apostles go to the synagogue first (13:5, 14). In response to their speaking, a great number of Jews and Gentiles [believe]. Luke delights in portraying the effectiveness of preaching in quantitative terms (13:43, 44; 14:21) and the church in a growth mode (2:47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31; 11:21). This is certainly a challenge to church leaders in status quo or declining situations.
Unbelieving Jews, however, engage in counterevangelism. They stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. Literally they "made their souls evil against," pointing to an assault on the feelings not intellect. (The "soul" is that inward place of feeling that may be influenced by others.) The Gentiles, in turn, become hostile toward the missionaries (not all the Christian converts). As in physics every action spawns an equal and opposite reaction, so in the spiritual realm the proclamation of the truth will always encounter opposition (Lk 8:12).
Resuming the story line of the missionary journey's itinerary (13:51; see notes for 14:2-3), Luke highlights the persevering boldness of Paul and Barnabas's witness. Like Peter, John and "the Twelve" in the face of the Sanhedrin's threats (4:31), Paul and Barnabas speak openly the plain truth for--better "because of, relying on"--the Lord--that is, the Lord Jesus Christ (epi; Bauer, Gingrich and Danker 1979:287; Krodel 1986:252). Bold perseverance in the face of hostility is as much an evidence of the power of God as the great numbers who come to Christ (compare 4:8, 13).
The Lord, for his part, confirmed (literally "bearing witness to") "the word about his grace" through signs and wonders by the evangelists. Luke labels the gospel the message of his grace in order to show that the signs and wonders confirm the reality of the salvation blessings claimed by that word (see comment at 11:23; compare 4:33; 13:43).
Luke's presentation of signs and wonders here gives us criteria for judging claims today. Their true source must be God alone. They must occur at his initiative. Their fruit will not necessarily be an irresistible compulsion, so that all who witness and hear of them will believe. Rather, their true purpose and effect is "establishing the Gospel in its full and genuine authority" (Calvin 1966:3). Far from denigrating the verbal, cognitive appeal of the gospel in favor of the visual, experiential impact of miracle, Luke sees signs and wonders as confirming support to the gospel. These miracles at Iconium place the work of Paul and Barnabas in continuity with the mission of Jesus and "the Twelve" and bear witness to unbelieving Jews that the salvation blessings Israel experienced in the past and hoped for at the end of the age are now not only theirs but also the Gentiles' (2:22; 5:12; 15:12; Ex 7:3; Ps 135:9; Acts 2:19/Joel 2:30; Gal 3:4-5).
The city is divided. Taking advantage of the situation, Jews and Gentiles, together with their leaders, plot to mistreat and stone the missionaries. Their "plotting" manifests itself as uncontrolled irrational violence (horme; Lk 8:33; Acts 7:57; 19:29; compare Bertram 1967:470). The persecution is so fierce (Lk 18:32) that a mob intends to stone the missionaries (compare Diodorus Siculus Library of History 17.41.8).
Paul and Barnabas flee some eighteen and then sixty miles to the southeast, finding refuge in the Lycaonian Roman outposts of Lystra and Derbe. They act from prudence, not cowardice, for there they continued to preach the good news.
The gospel's opponents stirred up and poisoned souls against messengers of the truth, creating division and spawning a bloodthirsty plot of mob violence. The gospel messengers manifested evangelistic effectiveness, persevering boldness, miraculous divine confirmation, tactical prudence and persistence in witness. Whose message should Theophilus and we believe?