Warning: regular readers of this blog have to put up with my predilection for teaching the Bible through basketball metaphors.
And as of this moment, I’m way overdue.
This season, the NBA is abuzz with praise for second-year Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic, the rising star of the Dallas Mavericks. Luka won Rookie of the Year honors last season, and is poised to become the team’s natural leader, following in the footsteps of Dallas’ former basketball icon, Dirk Nowitzki.
All this at the ripe old age of 20.
But it should also be said that unlike most rookies, Luka had already been playing professionally in Europe before entering the NBA. He signed his first contract at the age of 13, and went on to become the youngest player to ever win EuroLeague MVP.
I’m not taking anything away from his obvious talent. I’m just saying that last year’s Rookie of the Year was less of a “rookie” than most.
So… what does this have to do with the apostle Paul?
Glad you asked.
In Acts 2, we read Peter’s first sermon, given in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 13, we read the first recorded sermon of Paul’s missionary ventures, given in the synagogue of a city called Pisidian Antioch. (There were several cities named “Antioch” in the ancient world, so they have to be distinguished by location. The more well-known Antioch of Acts 11 was Syrian Antioch, while the Antioch of Acts 13 was in or near the ancient region of Pisidia, in the Roman province of Galatia.)
Unlike Peter on Pentecost, however, Paul had years of preaching experience under his belt. He was far from a rookie. After his conversion, he preached in Damascus (Acts 9:20), then returned to Jerusalem, debating with the Hellenistic Jews there (Acts 9:28-29). Some believe that he was preaching the gospel in Cilicia long before Barnabas brought him onto the leadership team in Antioch. He and Barnabas preached in the synagogues of Salamis on Cyprus, and then witnessed to the provincial governor, Sergius Paulus.
As we’ve seen, it’s impossible to be certain of the exact identity of the governor of Cyprus. Nevertheless, history suggests that he may have had influential relatives in the area around Pisidian Antioch. The man was suitably impressed with Paul and Barnabas’ teaching (surely the miracle of the sorcerer Elymas’ divine punishment didn’t hurt!), and may have asked them to go there.
Thus, Paul and Barnabas left Cyprus and sailed north to the city of Perga, continuing overland to Pisidian Antioch. They went into the synagogue on the Sabbath; at the end of the service, the synagogue leaders politely asked them if they would like to give a word of exhortation to the people.
Little did they know.
Paul stood. He addressed himself both to the Jews and to the uncircumcised but God-fearing Gentiles in attendance. He reminded them of God’s unbroken sovereignty over the history of Israel. In the story Paul told, God was the primary actor: he chose Abraham and the patriarchs; multiplied their numbers in Egypt, rescued them from slavery, put up with their griping and rebellion in the wilderness, and drove out mighty nations before them. He gave them judges, then their first king in Saul, then King David (Acts 13:16-22).
And from the posterity of David, God brought forth a Savior, Jesus (Acts 13:23).
We will see more of this sermon later. For now, note that Luke (not Luka) presents Paul as a great orator, not a rookie preacher. This is a man commissioned by God to preach to Jews, Gentiles, and rulers (cf. Acts 9:15), a man who will become “all things to all people…for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22-23, NRSV).
Here, preaching in the synagogue to Diaspora Jews, Paul makes common cause with his audience by referring to “our ancestors” and retelling their shared history. And as we’ll see, it works. The people want to hear more about Jesus; they want him and Barnabas to come back the following Sabbath.
But when they come back, they will be persecuted and driven out of the city.
We’ll see why in upcoming posts.