The design of this story being to vindicate the apostles, especially Paul (as he doth himself at large, Rom. 11:1-36), from the reflections of the Jews upon him for preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, it is here observed that he proceeded therein with all the caution imaginable, and upon due consideration, of which we have here an instance.
I. There were some of the Jews that were so incensed against the preaching of the gospel, not to the Gentiles, but to themselves, that they would not bear to hear it, but went out of the synagogue while Paul was preaching (Acts 13:42), in contempt of him and his doctrine, and to the disturbance of the congregation. It is probable they whispered among themselves, exciting one another to it, and did it by consent. Now this bespoke, 1. An open infidelity, as plain a profession of unbelief as coming to hear the gospel is of faith. They thus publicly avowed their contempt of Christ and of his doctrine and law, were not ashamed, neither could they blush; and they thus endeavoured to beget prejudices in the minds of others against the gospel; they went out to draw others to follow their pernicious ways. 2. An obstinate infidelity. They went out of the synagogue, not only to show that they did not believe the gospel, but because they were resolved they would not, and therefore got out of the hearing of those things that had a tendency to convince them. They stopped their ears like the deaf adder. Justly therefore was the gospel taken from them, when they first took themselves from it, and turned themselves out of the church before they were turned out of it. For it is certainly true that God never leaves any till they first leave him.
II. The Gentiles were as willing to hear the gospel as those rude and ill-conditioned Jews were to get out of the hearing of it: They besought that these words, or words to this effect, might be preached to them the next sabbath; in the week between, so some take it; on the second and fifth days of the week, which in some synagogues were their lecture days. But it appears (Acts 13:44) that it was the next sabbath day that they came together. They begged, 1. That the same offer might be made to them that was made to the Jews. Paul in this sermon had brought the word of salvation to the Jews and proselytes, but had taken no notice of the Gentiles; and therefore they begged that forgiveness of sins through Christ might be preached to them, as it was to the Jews. The Jews’ leavings, nay, loathings, were their longings. This justifies Paul in his preaching to them, that he was invited to it, as Peter was sent for to Cornelius. Who could refuse to break the bread of life to those who begged so hard for it, and to give that to the poor at the door which the children at the table threw under their feet? 2. That the same instructions might be given to them. They had heard the doctrine of Christ, but did not understand it at the first hearing, nor could they remember all that they had heard, and therefore they begged it might be preached to them again. Note, It is good to have the word of Christ repeated to us. What we have heard we should desire to hear again, that it may take deep root in us, and the nail that is driven may be clenched and be as a nail in a sure place. To hear the same things should not be grievous, because it is safe, Phil. 3:1. It aggravates the bad disposition of the Jews that the Gentiles desired to hear that often which they were not willing to hear once; and commends the good disposition of the Gentiles that they did not follow the bad example which the Jews set them.
III. There were some, nay, there were many, both of Jews and proselytes, that were wrought upon by the preaching of the gospel. Those who aggravated the matter of the Jews’ rejection by the preaching of the gospel, cried out, as is usual in such cases, “They have cast away, and cast off, all the people of God.” “Nay,” says Paul, “it is not so; for abundance of the Jews have embraced Christ, and are taken in;” himself for one, Rom. 11:1, 5. So it was here: Many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, and received further instructions and encouragement from them. 1. They submitted to the grace of God, and were admitted to the benefit and comfort of it, which is implied in their being exhorted to continue in it. They followed Paul and Barnabas; they became their disciples, or rather the disciples of Christ, whose agents they were. Those that join themselves to Christ will join themselves to his ministers, and follow them. And Paul and Barnabas, though they were sent to the Gentiles, yet bade those of the Jews welcome that were willing to come under their instructions, such hearty well-wishers were they to all the Jews and their friends, if they pleased. 2. They were exhorted and encouraged to persevere herein: Paul and Barnabas, speaking to them with all the freedom and friendship imaginable, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God, to hold fast that which they had received, to continue in their belief of the gospel of grace, their dependence upon the Spirit of grace, and their attendance upon the means of grace. And the grace of God shall not be wanting to those who thus continue in it.
IV. There was a cheerful attendance upon the preaching of the gospel the next sabbath day (Acts 13:44): Almost the whole city (the generality of whom were Gentiles) came together to hear the word of God. 1. It is probable that Paul and Barnabas were not idle in the week-days, but took all opportunities in the week between (as some think the Gentiles desired) to bring them acquainted with Christ, and to raise their expectations from him. They did a great deal of service to the gospel in private discourse and conversation, as well as in their public sermons. Wisdom cried in the chief places of concourse, and the opening of the gates, as well as in the synagogues, Prov. 1:20, 21. 2. This brought a vast concourse of people to the synagogue on the sabbath day. Some came out of curiosity, the thing being new; others longing to see what the Jews would do upon the second tender of the gospel to them; and many who had heard something of the word of God came to hear more, and to hear it, not as the word of men but as the word of God, by which we must be ruled and judged. Now this justified Paul in preaching to the Gentiles, that he met with the most encouraging auditors among them. There the fields were white to the harvest, and therefore why should he not there put in his sickle?
V. The Jews were enraged at this; and not only would not receive the gospel themselves, but were filled with indignation at those that crowded after it (Acts 13:45): When the Jews saw the multitudes, and considered what an encouragement it was to Paul to go on in his work when he saw the people thus flying like doves to their windows, and what probability there was that among these multitudes some would be, without doubt, wrought upon, and probably the greater part, to embrace Christ—this filled them with envy. 1. They grudged the interest the apostles had in the people, were vexed to see the synagogue so full when they were going to preach. This was the same spirit that worked in the Pharisees towards Christ; they were cut to the heart when they saw the whole world go after him. When the kingdom of heaven was opened they not only would not go in themselves, but were angry with those that did. 2. They opposed the doctrine the apostles preached: They spoke against those things that were spoken by Paul, cavilled at them, started objections against them, finding some fault or other with every thing he said, contradicting and blaspheming; antelegon antilegontes—contradicting, they contradicted. They did it with the utmost spite and rage imaginable: they persisted in their contradiction, and nothing would silence them, they contradicted for contradiction-sake, and denied that which was most evident; and, when they could find no colour of objection, they broke out into ill language against Christ and his gospel, blaspheming him and it. From the language of the carnal man that receives not the things of the Spirit of God, and therefore contradicts them, they proceed to the language of incarnate devils, and blaspheme them. Commonly those who begin with contradicting end with blaspheming.
VI. The apostles hereupon solemnly and openly declare themselves discharged from their obligations to the Jews, and at liberty to bring the word of salvation to the Gentiles, even by the tacit consent of the Jews themselves. Never let the Jew lay the fault of the carrying of the kingdom of God to the Gentiles upon the apostles, for that complaint of theirs is for ever silenced by their own act and deed, for what they did here is for ever a bar to it. “Tender and refusal (we say) are good payment in law.” The Jews had the tender of the gospel, and did refuse it, and therefore ought not to say any thing against the Gentiles having it. In declaring this, it is said (Acts 13:46), Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, more bold than they had been while they were shy of looking favourably upon the Gentiles, for fear of giving offence to the Jews, and laying a stumbling-block in their way. Note, There is a time for the preachers of the gospel to show as much of the boldness of the lion as of the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. When the adversaries of Christ’s cause begin to be daring, it is not for its advocates to be timid. While there is any hope of working upon those that oppose themselves they must be instructed with meekness (2 Tim. 2:25); but, when that method has long been tried in vain, we must wax bold, and tell them what will be the issue of their opposition. The impudence of the enemies of the gospel, instead of frightening, should rather embolden its friends; for they are sure that they have a good cause, and they know in whom they have trusted to bear them out. Now Paul and Barnabas, having made the Jews a fair offer of gospel grace, here give them fair notice of their bringing it to the Gentiles, if by any means (as Paul says Rom. 11:14) they might provoke them to emulation. 1. They own that the Jews were entitled to the first offer: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you, to whom the promise was made, to you of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to whom Christ reckoned himself first sent.” And his charge to the preachers of his gospel to begin at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47) was a tacit direction to all that went into other countries to begin with the Jews, to whom pertained the giving of the law, and therefore the preaching of the gospel. Let the children first be served, Mark 7:27. 2. They charge them with the refusal of it: “You put it from you; you will not accept of it; nay, you will not so much as bear the offer of it, but take it as an affront to you.” If men put the gospel from them, God justly takes it from them; why should manna be given to those that loathe it and call it light bread, or the privileges of the gospel forced on those that put them away, and say, We have no part in David? Herein they judge themselves unworthy of everlasting life. In one sense we must all judge ourselves unworthy of everlasting life, for there is nothing in us, nor done by us, by which we can pretend to merit it, and we must be made sensible of this; but here the meaning is, “You discover, or make it to appear, that you are not meet for eternal life; you throw away all your claims and give up your pretensions to it; since you will not take it from his hands, into whose hand the Father has given it, krinete, you do, in effect, pass this judgment upon yourselves, and out of your own mouth you shall be judged; you will not have it by Christ, by whom alone it is to be had, and so shall your doom be, you shall not have it at all.” 3. Upon this they ground their preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised: “Since you will not accept eternal life as it is offered, our way is plain, Lo, we turn to the Gentiles. If one will not, another will. If those that were first invited to the wedding-feast will not come, we must invite out of the highways and hedges those that will, for the wedding must be furnished with guests. If he that is next of kin will not do the kinsman’s part, he must not complain that another will,” Ruth 4:4. 4. They justify themselves in this by a divine warrant (Acts 13:47): “For so hath the Lord commanded us; the Lord Jesus gave us directions to witness to him in Jerusalem and Judea first, and after that to the utmost part of the earth, to preach the gospel to every creature, to disciple all nations.” This is according to what was foretold in the Old-Testament. When the Messiah, in the prospect of the Jews’ infidelity, was ready to say, I have laboured in vain, he was told, to his satisfaction, that though Israel were not gathered, yet he should be glorious, that his blood should not be shed in vain, nor his purchase made in vain, nor his doctrine preached in vain, nor his Spirit sent in vain—“For I have set thee, not only raised thee up, but established thee, to be a light of the Gentiles, not only a shining light for a time, but a standing light, set thee for a light, that thou shouldst be for salvation unto the ends of the earth.” Note, (1.) Christ is not only the Saviour, but the salvation, is himself our righteousness, and life, and strength. (2.) Wherever Christ is designed to be salvation, he is set up to be a light; he enlightens the understanding, and so saves the soul. (3.) He is, and is to be, light and salvation to the Gentiles, to the ends of the earth. Those of every nation shall be welcome to him, some of every nation have heard of him (Rom. 10:18), and all nations shall at length become his kingdom. This prophecy has had its accomplishment in part in the setting up of the kingdom of Christ in this island of ours, which lies, as it were, in the ends of the earth, a corner of the world, and shall be accomplished more and more when the time comes for the bringing in of the fulness of the Gentiles.
VII. The Gentiles cheerfully embraced that which the Jews scornfully rejected, Acts 13:48, 49. Never was land lost for want of heirs; through the fall of the Jews, salvation is come to the Gentiles: the casting off of them was the reconciling of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; so the apostle shows at large, Rom. 11:11, 12, 15. The Jews, the natural branches, were broken off, and the Gentiles, that were branches of the wild olive, were thereupon grafted in, Rom. 11:17, 19. Now here we are told how the Gentiles welcomed this happy turn in their favour.
1. They took the comfort of it: When they heard this they were glad. It was good news to them that they might have admission into covenant and communion with God by a clearer, nearer, and better way than submitting to the ceremonial law, and being proselyted to the Jewish religion—that the partition-wall was taken down and they were as welcome to the benefits of the Messiah’s kingdom as the Jews themselves, and might share in their promise, without coming under their yoke. This was indeed glad tidings of great joy to all people. Note, Our being put into a possibility of salvation, and a capacity for it, ought to be the matter of our rejoicing; when the Gentiles did but hear that the offers of grace should be made them, the word of grace preached to them, and the means of grace afforded them, they were glad. “Now there is some hope for us.” Many grieve under doubts whether they have an interest in Christ or no, when they should be rejoicing that they have an interest in him; the golden sceptre is held out to them, and they are invited to come and touch the top of it.
2. They gave God the praise of it: They glorified the word of the Lord; that is, Christ (so some), the essential Word; they entertained a profound veneration for him, and expressed the high thoughts they had of him. Or, rather, the gospel; the more they knew of it, the more they admired it. Oh! what a light, what a power, what a treasure, does this gospel bring along with it! How excellent are its truths, its precepts, its promises! How far transcending all other institutions! How plainly divine and heavenly is its origin! Thus they glorified the word of the Lord, and it is this which he has himself magnified above all his name (Ps. 138:2), and will magnify and make honourable, Isa. 42:21. They glorified the word of the Lord, (1.) Because now the knowledge of it was diffused and not confined to the Jews only. Note, It is the glory of the word of the Lord that the further it spreads the brighter it shines, which shows it to be not like the light of the candle, but like that of the sun when he goes forth in his strength. (2.) Because now the knowledge of it was brought to them. Note, Those speak best of the honour of the word of the Lord that speak experimentally, that have themselves been subdued by its power, and comforted by its sweetness.
3. Many of them became, not only professors of the Christian faith, but sincerely obedient to the faith: As many as were ordained to eternal life believed. God by his Spirit wrought true faith in those for whom he had in his councils from everlasting designed a happiness to everlasting. (1.) Those believed to whom God gave grace to believe, whom by a secret and mighty operation he brought into subjection to the gospel of Christ, and made willing in the day of his power. Those came to Christ whom the Father drew, and to whom the Spirit made the gospel call effectual. It is called the faith of the operation of God (Col. 2:12), and is said to be wrought by the same power that raised up Christ, Eph. 1:19, 20. (2.) God gave this grace to believe to all those among them who were ordained to eternal life (for whom he had predestinated, them he also called, Rom. 8:30); or, as many as were disposed to eternal life, as many as had a concern about their eternal state, and aimed to make sure of eternal life, believed in Christ, in whom God hath treasured up that life (1 John 5:11), and who is the only way to it; and it was the grace of God that wrought it in them. Thus all those captives, and those only, took the benefit of Cyrus’s proclamation, whose spirit God had raised up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, Ezra 1:5. Those will be brought to believe in Christ that by his grace are well disposed to eternal life, and make this their aim.
4. When they believed they did what they could to spread the knowledge of Christ and his gospel among their neighbours (Acts 13:49): And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region. When it was received with so much satisfaction in the chief city, it soon spread into all parts of the country. Those new converts were themselves ready to communicate to others that which they were so full of themselves. The Lord gave the word, and then great was the company of those that published it, Ps. 68:11. Those that have become acquainted with Christ themselves will do what they can to bring others acquainted with him. Those in great and rich cities that have received the gospel should not think to engross it, as if, like learning and philosophy, it were only to be the entertainment of the more polite and elevated part of mankind, but should do what they can to get it published in the country among the ordinary sort of people, the poor and unlearned, who have souls to be saved as well as they.
VIII. Paul and Barnabas, having sown the seeds of a Christian church there, quitted the place, and went to do the like else-where. We read not any thing of their working miracles here, to confirm their doctrine, and to convince people of the truth of it; for, though God then did ordinarily make use of that method of conviction, yet he could, when he pleased, do his work without it; and begetting faith by the immediate influence of his Spirit was itself the greatest miracle to those in whom it was wrought. Yet, it is probable that they did work miracles, for we find they did in the next place they came to, Acts 14:3. Now here we are told,
1. How the unbelieving Jews expelled the apostles out of that country. They first turned their back upon them, and then lifted up the heel against them (Acts 13:50): They raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, excited the mob to persecute them in their way by insulting their persons as they went along the streets; excited the magistrates to persecute them in their way, by imprisoning and punishing them. When they could not resist the wisdom and spirit wherewith they spoke, they had recourse to these brutish methods, the last refuge of an obstinate infidelity. Satan and his agents are most exasperated against the preachers of the gospel when they see them go on successfully, and therefore then will be sure to raise persecution against them. Thus it has been the common lot of the best men in the world to suffer ill for doing well, to be persecuted instead of being preferred for the good services they have done to mankind. Observe, (1.) What method the Jews took to give them trouble: They stirred up the devout and honourable women against them. They could not make any considerable interest themselves, but they applied to some ladies of quality in the city, that were well affected to the Jewish religion, and were proselytes of the gate, therefore called devout women. These, according to the genius of their sex, were zealous in their way, and bigoted; and it was easy, by false stories and misrepresentations, to incense them against the gospel of Christ, as if it had been destructive of all religion, of which really it is perfective. It is good to see honourable women devout, and well affected to religious worship: The less they have to do in the world, the more they should do for their souls, and the more time they should spend in communion with God; but it is sad when, under colour of devotion to God, they conceive an enmity to Christ, as those here mentioned. What! women persecutors! Can they forget the tenderness and compassion of their sex? What! honourable women! Can they thus stain their honour, and disgrace themselves, and do so mean a thing? But, which is strangest of all, devout women! Will they kill Christ’s servants, and think therein they do God service? Let those therefore that have zeal see that it be according to knowledge. By these devout and honourable women they stirred up likewise the chief men of the city, the magistrates and the rulers, who had power in their hands and set them against the apostles, and they had so little consideration as to suffer themselves to be made the tools of this ill-natured party, who would neither go into the kingdom of heaven themselves nor suffer those who were entering to go in. (2.) How far they carried it, so far that they expelled them out of their coasts; they banished them, ordered them to be carried, as we say, from constable to constable, till they were forced out of their jurisdiction; so that it was not by fear, but downright violence, that they were driven out. This was one method which the overruling providence of God took to keep the first planters of the church from staying too long at a place; as Matt. 10:23; When they persecute you in one city flee to another, that thus you may the sooner go over the cities of Israel. This was likewise a method God took to make those that were well disposed the more warmly affected towards the apostles; for it is natural to us to pity those that are persecuted, to think the better of those that suffer when we know they suffer unjustly, and to be the more ready to help them. The expelling of the apostles out of their coasts made people inquisitive what evil they had done, and perhaps raised them more friends than conniving at them in their coasts would have done.
2. How the apostles abandoned and rejected the unbelieving Jews (Acts 13:51): They shook off the dust of their feet against them. When they went out of the city they used this ceremony in the sight of those that sat in the gate; or, when they went out of the borders of their country, in the sight of those that were sent to see the country rid of them. Hereby, (1.) They declared that they would have no more to do with them, would take nothing that was theirs; for they sought not theirs, but them. Dust they are, and let them keep their dust to themselves, it shall not cleave to them. (2.) They expressed their detestation of their infidelity, and that, though they were Jews by birth, yet, having rejected the gospel of Christ, they were in their eyes no better than heathen and profane. As Jews and Gentiles, if they believe, are equally acceptable to God and good men; so, if they do not, they are equally abominable. (3.) Thus they set them at defiance, and expressed their contempt of them and their malice, which they looked upon as impotent. It was as much as to say, “Do your worst, we do not fear you; we know whom we serve and whom we have trusted.” (4.) Thus they left a testimony behind them that they had had a fair offer made them of the grace of the gospel, which shall be proved against them in the day of judgment. This dust will prove that the preachers of the gospel had been among them, but were expelled by them. Thus Christ had ordered them to do, and for this reason, Matt. 10:14; Luke 9:5. When they left them, they came to Iconium, not so much for safety, as for work.
3. What frame they left the new converts in at Antioch (Acts 13:52): The disciples, when they saw with what courage and cheerfulness Paul and Barnabas not only bore the indignities that were done them, but went on with their work notwithstanding, they were in like manner inspirited. (1.) They were very cheerful. One would have expected that when Paul and Barnabas were expelled out of their coasts, and perhaps forbidden to return upon pain of death, the disciples would have been full of grief and full of fear, looking for no other than that, if the planters of Christianity go, the plantation would soon come to nothing; or that it would be their turn next to be banished the country, and to them it would be more grievous, for it was their own. But no; they were filled with joy in Christ, had such a satisfactory assurance of Christ’s carrying on and perfecting his own work in them and among them, and that either he would screen them from trouble or bear them up under it, that all their fears were swallowed up in their believing joys. (2.) They were courageous, wonderfully animated with a holy resolution to cleave to Christ, whatever difficulties they met with. This seems especially to be meant by their being filled with the Holy Ghost, for the same expression is used of Peter’s boldness (Acts 4:8), and Stephen’s (Acts 7:55), and Paul’s, Acts 13:9. The more we relish the comforts and encouragements we meet with in the power of godliness, and the fuller our hearts are of them, the better prepared we are to face the difficulties we meet with in the profession of godliness.